July 11, 1999
Gangs Turn to New Trade: Young ProstitutesBy KIT R. ROANE
Two years ago, Maria joined a Brooklyn gang whose members would beat and rob her for sport. She endured the abuse, her friends said, because she was desperate to belong.
So when gang members asked her to steal from the grandmother who was rearing her, Maria did not refuse. Nor did she resist their sexual advances after nights of drinking and smoking marijuana.
She felt loved, especially by one of the gang's leaders, an 18-year-old nicknamed Seven who wooed her with a smile of gold-capped teeth. Even when he asked her to sell her body on the streets, Maria did not refuse. She was 11.
Now 13, Maria is a crack addict who has been arrested twice this year on charges of prostitution and whose body is riddled by sexually transmitted diseases. She is in a juvenile detention center upstate.
''She was in seventh grade, working on a third-grade level, when they picked her up,'' Maria's grandmother, Linda, said of the first arrest. That time, the police brought Maria home and charged Seven with being her pimp.
''I told her the streets were no place for her,'' added Linda, 48, who spoke on the condition that her last name and Maria's not be used. ''She said, 'Once a trick, always a trick,' and walked away.''
In what crime experts say is becoming increasingly common here and in other large American cities, gang members once known for robberies and assaults are using girls like Maria to make money. They sell them for sex and use them to attract customers to their drug business.
Last October, more than 100 members of seven gangs operating in midtown Manhattan were arrested on charges that included using prostitutes to sell drugs. In Brooklyn and Queens, law enforcement officials are building cases against neighborhood street gangs suspected of the same thing.
''We know from research that girls are increasingly attracted to gangs, and that these girls are increasingly being put out commercially to help the survival of the gang,'' said Richard J. Estes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. ''We are finding these patterns all across the U.S.: young women joining gangs where their major contribution is sex.''
Many of these women are also involved in other aspects of gang life, including assaults and robberies, said Deanna Rodriguez, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. ''Twenty years ago, they might say, 'My boyfriend's in the gang, and I'm his girlfriend,' '' she said, adding that almost every local gang chapter now has female members. ''They do a multitude of things, but sex is certainly a way for females to make money.''
Women and girls account for 11 percent of the estimated 816,000 gang members in the United States, according to the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which only recently began compiling such statistics. Studies now being conducted by the office put the percentage much higher -- 20 percent to 46 percent -- in some cities.
Reliable data on young women involved in prostitution is hard to come by because many are picked up on other charges, like truancy and drug possession. Even so, New York City Police Department statistics show that 1,058 women between the ages of 16 and 20 were arrested last year on prostitution charges, compared with 832 in 1996. Last year 25 girls under 16 were arrested, compared with 5 in 1996.
Experts say many young runaway girls fall in with gangs because they come from areas where such groups have stature.
''They are attracted to the craziness of the gangs and the respect they get,'' said Frenchie Laguer, a caseworker with Frost'd (From Our Streets With Dignity), an outreach program for prostitutes. ''They are attracted to the things that aren't supposed to be obtainable to them, and here's this guy saying he'll do anything for you.''
One 18-year-old prostitute at a doughnut shop under the Queensboro Bridge, where Linda's granddaughter Maria sometimes worked, said girls were often lured into working for the gang with promises of wealth. ''They want the money, the independence,'' she said. ''The gangs give the girls protection and a place to stay when you're out here.''
While some gangs use prostitutes to bolster their drug business, others have turned away from drug sales in favor of prostitution, said Rick Curtis, a sociologist with John Jay College. ''The profits just aren't in drugs anymore, and the dealers are whining about not being able to make as much money,'' Mr. Curtis said. ''Prostitution is just as lucrative and less of a hassle.''
Mariela P. Stanton, the chief of the Queens District Attorney's anti-bias and youth gang bureau, said she worried that gang involvement in prostitution might make the trade more violent.
Prostitutes not affiliated with gangs say that has been true in East New York, Brooklyn, where Maria was found walking the streets for her Bloods gang. Prostitutes there and in Queens said gang members had harassed and threatened to shoot women who refused to pay them tribute.
''We're in big Blood territory, and these days they want a piece of the cut,'' said Sarah, 20, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. ''Gang members have pulled out guns and shot in the air at us and pushed some of the girls around.''
Maria was found working as a prostitute on the same street by police officers assigned to Operation Marleny, a new initiative established to find runaways working as prostitutes and topless dancers. It is named after Marleny Cruz, a 14-year-old runaway who was sexually abused and beaten to death in the Bronx in February 1998.
Within a week last January, the officers found five young runaway girls, including Maria, working the streets in Brooklyn. Maria bore little resemblance to her photographs, which dot her grandmother's apartment in East New York.
The smiling child who once posed before backdrops of balloons and stars had become a mirror image of her mother -- a woman already incarcerated on charges involving prostitution and drugs. Pointing to a photograph of Maria smiling in front of a flag, Linda said, ''That was before she started wearing all that makeup and junk on her face.''
Maria had been in her grandmother's care for several years because of her mother's repeated trips to jail. Linda had also been taking care of two other young relatives, and seeking a bigger apartment, she moved to a public housing project in East New York.
Almost immediately after the move, older girls in the same building began to pick on Maria, then 10, while their friends who hung out outside made sport of robbing her when she went to buy groceries. ''The gangs would jump her, beat her up,'' Linda said. ''Then they got her to start stealing from me.''
Maria soon joined the gang. School was the first thing to slip. She began spending days away from home, and when she would return, her grandmother began to fear it was only to steal more of the family's meager possessions. Although only 11, she started having sex with gang members, getting drunk and smoking marijuana, her friends and her grandmother said.
Then along came Seven and his plan to put her on the street. Maria was a veteran 12-year-old prostitute when officers found her on Pennsylvania Avenue in January. Prosecutors said Maria appeared to be about 18. They later persuaded her to file a complaint against Seven, who is free on bond awaiting trial on charges that include rape, sexual misconduct, sodomy and promoting prostitution.
After the arrest, Linda was hopeful that Maria would turn herself around. And Maria seemed to be improving while living in a foster care center. But in late February, she ran away, this time to the Bronx. Undercover narcotics officers found her on the street again and arrested her. The charge, Linda said, was prostitution.