People fighting to end the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children around the world face daunting challenges, in part because getting a prostitute is as easy as "ordering a pizza," a San Diego County Sheriff's deputy said.
Various groups gathered in San Diego on Friday for the final day of a two-day conference on human trafficking.
The issue is of particular interest right now because law enforcement officials recently uncovered several sex trafficking cases in North County, including a gang-run prostitution operation involving dozens of girls based in Oceanside.
One of the problems local law enforcement face in uncovering and prosecuting sex trafficking incidents is the reluctance of the victims to step forward.
In other cases around the world, human trafficking laws are either inadequate or unenforced, advocates said.
"We all have the same problems," said Marisa Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a National City-based nonprofit organization that provides services to the victims of human trafficking, which organized the conference.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department heads a regional anti-human trafficking task force dedicated to fighting the problem.
Sgt. Jason King of Ramona, who heads the task force, said law enforcement has had some success.
Since the task force started nearly five years ago, it has identified nearly 400 victims, many of them young girls, King said.
But there are some disturbing trends that law enforcement has noted in the county, including the increasing involvement of street gangs in the sex trade.
The pimps recruit girls over the Internet through social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, then advertise them on other sites, such as Craigslist, King said.
This has made the problem nearly invisible and more difficult to detect, he said.
Getting a prostitute is as easy as "ordering a pizza," King said.
The problem is global, advocates said.
In some countries, the laws are weak or inadequate.
For example, in Costa Rica, human trafficking is against the law, but there are loopholes. The people who actually take the victims from one place to another are not covered by the law and go unpunished.
In other countries, such as Peru, it is illegal for bus drivers and others to transport victims, said Luis Carrera, a Peruvian judge who spoke at the conference.
Bus drivers are hired by human traffickers to take victims from deep in Peru to coastal cities, where they are used as prostitutes for tourists or exported to other countries as indentured servants, Carrera said.
Corrupt police officers look the other way, Carrera said.
"It's sad to say, but corruption is a terrible problem," he said.
Much of the sex trafficking that occurs in San Diego County is "domestic" ---- women and girls are brought from other parts of the state or the country to be used as prostitutes, said Sgt. Bill Wood, who heads the San Diego Police Department's vice unit.
Local authorities are developing closer working relationships with nonprofits, such as the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition to help victims.
"These are our children," Wood said. "These are members of our community."