December 12, 2014 / 3:01 AM / 4 years ago

San Diego-area gang trafficked girls as young as 12, officials say

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Federal agents and police on Thursday arrested 14 suspected members of a San Diego-area gang charged in connection with an interstate prostitution ring that involved underage girls, officials said.

The arrests targeted the so-called Tycoons, whose members are affiliated with other gangs, including the West Coast Crips, according to a 64-page indictment charging 22 people in the case, including seven defendants who were already in jail on other charges.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigators, FBI agents and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department detectives early on Thursday performed raids in Southern California, Arizona and Texas that netted 14 arrests, the San Diego-based U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

One person authorities were seeking to take into custody remained at large.

The Tycoons’ main business is recruiting and running prostitutes, and one of the girls it trafficked was only 12 years old, according to the indictment.

Members of the group used the Internet and social media to set up meetings in Arizona, Nevada, Kansas and Texas for the purpose of sex trafficking, the complaint alleges.

In a number of misspelled Facebook posts and rap songs on YouTube, the Tycoons bragged about the money they are said to have raked off of their prostitutes. The indictment indicates that some gang members manipulated or beat and threatened young women and girls to keep them under control.

Many of them were recruited in the San Diego suburbs of Lemon Grove and Spring Valley - and it was community members who first reported that something appeared wrong, federal prosecutors said.

“This investigation pulls back the curtain on a growing threat of sexual exploitation that is happening in plain sight,” Joe Garcia, interim Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, said in a statement.

All 22 people criminally charged in the indictment face a single count of racketeering conspiracy, in a scheme that authorities say began in 2008 - four years before the federal investigation began.

The 19 men and three women, aged from 19 to 30, face a maximum sentence of life in prison if they are convicted.

According to federal court records, none are currently represented by an attorney. Many of them will have their first court appearances on Friday.

Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric Walsh

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