(Reuters) - U.S. authorities have indicted two dozen gang members accused of operating a vast California-based human trafficking ring that sent women and underage girls across state lines for prostitution, in what prosecutors likened to modern-day slavery.
The gang members face charges of running a racketeering conspiracy, and a number of them are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in San Diego on Thursday, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano.
Authorities said they had arrested 17 of the accused gang members in San Diego, Arizona and New Jersey, and that another four people charged in the indictment that was unsealed on Wednesday, were already in custody on other charges. Another three have so far escaped arrest.
The San Diego-based sex trafficking operation came together as a dual enterprise of the Black MOB and Skanless gangs, and extended into 46 cities across 23 U.S. states, according to the federal grand jury indictment.
"The kind of sex trafficking described in this indictment is nothing less than modern-day slavery," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy for the Southern District of California in a statement. "Unfortunately, more gangs are expanding from traditional pursuits like drug dealing into this lucrative business."
Last month in Las Vegas, prosecutors said the gang took part in an event called a "Players Ball" in which one of the accused men, identified as Robert Banks III, posed with a so-called Pimp Cup and a Pimp Stick to signify his high status in the trade.
Those types of items are typically made of gold and decorated with jewels, making them worth thousands of dollars, prosecutors said. Among the items seized in the investigation by the San Diego Police Department and the FBI were two guns, marijuana plants and luxury cars.
Those involved in the scheme recruited women and girls from the streets in San Diego and used social media websites such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to lure others into prostitution with rap videos and promises of glamour, prosecutors said.
The men and women accused in the enterprise had roles ranging from transporting prostitutes to handling money, booking hotel rooms and placing advertisements for sex, prosecutors said. Some also worked to force women and girls into prostitution and dispense violence to maintain their loyalty, prosecutors said.
Racketeering, the charge of running a criminal enterprise that was brought against the mostly male gang members named in the indictment, includes the act of sex trafficking, Serano said.
Prosecutors said 49 women and 11 teenage girls were victimized by the sex trafficking scheme and have been offered resources to leave prostitution.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)