(CNN) — When Adriana walks into a room, people take notice. Her neon pink dress and pearls could not even come close to her electric persona.
“Before we begin. I want to know — what do you want from me?” Adriana asked before our interview.
We explained we wanted to hear her story if she wanted to share it.
Minutes later, Adriana giggled so disarmingly that she seemed to turn into a different person. It turns out she may have been trying to do just that.
After an hour of talking, she explained that she often had to pretend to be someone else in order to live the life she’d been living.
A clear sign of that life is tattooed in big bold letters across her chest.
“This right here,” she said pointing to her tattoo. “I call it my war wound. I got it when I was 14 years old, and he was one of my pimps,” she said.
Adriana’s trafficker had persuaded her to have his name tattooed across her chest.
“It lets other pimps know that this is their property,” said Vice Sgt. Ron Fisher of the Los Angeles Police Department in Van Nuys. Fisher has seen untold numbers of them as his unit works the streets and the Internet, trying to find underage girls being trafficked.
Police and anti-trafficking advocates are seeing those brands on girls more and more in recent years.
“The first time I became aware of this was probably five years ago. It’s just another way to control them [the girls], and let other pimps know that, ‘Hey, this individual belongs to me,'” LAPD Capt. Lillian Carranza said. The branding shows up all over the girls’ bodies.
An old-fashioned looking moneybag tattooed on the arm. “F— You, Pay Me” tattooed on a girl’s neck. Large initials tattooed on a girl’s face. The initials “ATM” tattooed near a girl’s crotch. A trafficker’s name tattooed across a girl’s thighs. A bar code tattooed across a girl’s wrist, like an item in a grocery store. The practice is not new. It used to be done by slave owners using brands on slaves to show ownership. Now it’s back in a different form, but for the same horrible purpose.
Child advocate Lois Lee explained the girls don’t see it that way, at least not at first. Lee should know; for 30 years she has been running an organization called Children of the Night that houses, educates, and tries to give girls a chance at a different life.
“They see it differently. They belong to somebody. It’s important to them. Someone has claimed me. Now I belong to a group.” Lee said that is how the girls often feel about the brands when they first come in her door.
Adriana was no exception.
“I was proud to have it,” Adriana said. “It says I’m for you. I will never leave you. If I mark up my body for you, risk my life for you. I’ll do anything for you.”
And indeed she did, almost.
The sex trafficker’s trap
Adriana said she’s been through it all. “Whether it’s a gun to your head, a knife to your belly, whether it’s you being raped or robbed or whatever it is. … Eventually you get used to it.”
Used to being up 24 hours. Used to talking people out of hurting you. Used to a new “family” and new “bosses.” Adriana, who is now 17, said she has had four pimps.
Her “new life” started at 13. Adriana said she was rebelling and decided to run away from home, where her father was raising her. Her mother wasn’t part of the equation, and Adriana decided she’d go out on her own. She said she may have been young, but she was no fool, and at the very least she knew she needed money.
One night, she said, she went to a party just down the street from her house. That’s where home life turned into street life.
She met a guy who said all the right things, promising her big money, fancy cars and a lavish lifestyle. Then, she said, he introduced her to some girls who were decked out in nice clothes, their hair and nails done. Their lives seemed golden.
“I thought they were awesome. I thought they were beautiful. I loved their bright clothes. I loved everything about it,” she said.
And with that, 13-year-old Adriana says she bought into the “dream” that was being sold to her: Sell sex; get amazing rewards. It’s all fun and games.
She was hooked.
“I can only speak for myself. You’re not thinking about consequences. You’re not thinking about killers and rapists. You’re thinking, ‘I can make this much money? I can get all this stuff? I don’t have to go to school. I don’t have to listen to anyone,'” she said, except of course she did have to obey someone.
Adriana doesn’t want to be seen as a victim. She said it was her choice.
But by all standards she was indeed trafficked: not old enough to consent to sex and exploited by men she refers to as pimps but law enforcement now refers to as child sex-traffickers.
It didn’t take long for her to learn the lingo: being “chopped” meant a beating — something the trafficker would do if you didn’t bring in enough money. A “wifey” is another girl controlled by the same pimp. “Ho-partners” are controlled by other pimps.
“It’s a life within a life,” Adriana said.
Other trafficked girls we spoke with who did not want to be named said the pimps are asking girls to do all manner of things nowadays: Carjacking. Holding their traffickers’ guns. Robbing the men who come to buy sex. Holding drugs. You name it. The game has changed. Lee said she believes that is partly due to an unintended consequence of sex-trafficking laws that increased penalties on sex-traffickers. Traffickers can get 20 plus years in jail charged with all manner of things both federally and locally from kidnapping to racketeering.
There are fewer children being trafficked now, Lee said. There have been nearly 40,000 people identified as likely victims of human trafficking in the United States since 2007, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
But now, Lee said, gangs are taking over the game. The infamous criminal gangs known for running drugs and guns started pushing the pimps out and taking over the prostitution rings, getting girls to make their money and take the rap when they get arrested. Now that the laws are more stringent against human trafficking, the gangs use the girls for other crimes.
“They are more violent. And because gangs control the girls, they know they serve less time using them for other types of crimes,” Lee said.
Lee said she sees a way to fix that: “There should be a law that anyone who uses a child in any kind of crime suffers the same penalties as if they use them for sex-trafficking.”
Leaving the life
For Adriana, leaving the life isn’t as simple as it sounds.
She is whip smart and studying for her high school diploma. In so many ways, Adriana appears self-assured. She insisted on showing her face and using her name because she doesn’t want other girls to feel ashamed of what they have been through. She can also see a way out of the life, but she still can’t seem to shake it completely.
“I don’t think you can ever leave the life because it is a mental thing. It stays with you,” Adriana said, while in the same breath casually mentioning the dangers.
“If you stay in the life, that’s it for you. Either you are going to commit suicide. You’re gonna be strung out on drugs or you are gonna be dead. Someone is going to kill you.”
She said she has another thing that could help her move on to another life; she is not hooked on drugs like so many of the other girls.
Traffickers often encourage the girls to take drugs to help them stay awake and work more and to give them a habit they have to work for.
Instead, Adriana uses her mind to create a safe place.
“I have another persona and her name is Tootsie. She is very outgoing, very bubbly, she’s like everyone’s dream,” Adriana said, explaining that she has about six different personalities she draws from to survive.
Meantime, she said the girls working around her think she is the bravest among them, with her upbeat attitude.
“You have no idea how I am breaking inside,” she said. “Every time I pull a piece off, I put a piece back together and another piece of me falls off.”
CNN’s Traci Tamura contributed to this report.
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