After the shocking arrest of 17 of their peers Monday, the Somali community of Minnesota is struggling to grasp the bust of a human trafficking sex ring that spanned three states.
Federal and local law enforcement officials are continuing their investigation into a multi-state prostitution ring that involved members of the Minnesota Somali community. The investigation sheds light on the presence of gangs in the society.
Dahir Jabreel, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said the Somali community is surprised and saddened by the news but is also angered by the slow response by authorities.
"People are trying really hard to make a living, to create self-employment," Jabreel said. "If we let this crime continue for a year, five years, ten years, then it becomes something that is widespread in the community, and then we start indicting people. That’s not helpful.
"If we had taken steps earlier, then we could have saved a lot of girls and a lot of families from this victimization," he said.
A federal court Monday unsealed an indictment against 29 people ranging from 19 to 38 years old who authorities said were involved in trafficking of minors for sex, stealing cars, participating in credit card fraud and other charges in a 24-count indictment.
Authorities conducted raids in Minnesota and Tennessee on Monday, leading to the arrests of 26 people, including 17 in Minnesota. Three more people listed in the indictment are still at large, St. Paul police chief Tom Smith said Monday evening.
The Somali gangs in Minneapolis and St. Paul coerced four girls, including one as young as 12 years old, into engaging in sex acts with multiple people in three states, according to the indictment. The girls were all from Minnesota.
"Human traffickers abuse innocent people, undermine our public safety and often use their illicit proceeds to fund sophisticated criminal organizations," said John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The sex trafficking ring had been in operation since January 2000, according to the indictment. Three Minneapolis-based gangs — the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia and the Lady Outlaws — were allegedly working together.
"We knew [sex trafficking] was happening in the Somali community," said Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis organization that helps women involved in prostitution. "It’s just a matter of time before the issue comes to focus in the community."
Of all the girls who have come for help through her organization, Somali girls are often the youngest, Carter said.
Carter points to an overall trend of younger girls being involved in prostitution. "I’ve never seen that happen before," she said.
"These girls are trying to find their way, to find out who they are," Carter said. "They’re easy prey because they don’t understand."
Many Somali youth travel to America either by themselves or with a single parent, Jabreel said. He pointed to the vulnerability young, low-income immigrants face when confronted with a proposal to participate in crimes for money or honor.
There are two extremes to follow for some Somali men, Jabreel said. One side is radicalism, as shown in the Somali men who traveled back to Somalia to fight in the country’s civil war. The opposite side is rebelling against their religion and family by participating in organized crime like the sex ring.
"They want to be part of the ‘cool,’" Jabreel said. "They are vulnerable themselves to join the gangs, especially because of their family backgrounds, their language barriers and the color of their skin."
Three of the 29 people arrested were women who participated in persuading young girls into sex trafficking, according to the indictment. One of the women, Hamdi Ali Osman, also known as "Boss Lady," is alleged to have offered one of the victims food and shelter for engaging in sex acts.
The girls most vulnerable to sex trafficking are runaways, Jabreel said. The first victim was found after police recognized her as a known runaway after she and several gang members were pulled over in Nashville, Tenn.
Jabreel believes the four girls are not the only victims of sex trafficking by these gangs.
For the Somali community, the issue of prostitution is taboo, just like in any other culture, he said. People are not comfortable getting help, so girls involved with sex trafficking have remained largely mute until now, he said.
Some members of the Somali community see the victims as the ones to blame, but this is a belief that will have to change to make any advances in the fight against sex trafficking and gangs, Jabreel said.
The next step for these girls is a lifelong recovery process, Carter said. Carter will work alongside Jabreel and the Somali Justice Advocacy Center to find the four girls and help lead them in the right direction.
Jabreel advocates better resources to educate the Somali community and to create a safety net for young adults who are influenced by gang related activities.
"I think this is a situation where communities of Minnesota should sympathize with this new community that is under assault in various ways," Jabreel said. "These are our parents, they are our friends, they work with you, and they need help."
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.