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The Game: Gangs, guns and prostitution in Portland

What began as a gang connection to prostitution has quickly and discreetly turned into gang-domination of Portland's sex-trafficking industry.
Tattoos show loyalty to gangs, pimps and 'The Game'

ID=16004268Part 1: Gangs take control of prostitution in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. -- You've heard about the shootings, the murders and the communities affected by gang violence in the Portland metro area, but what's funding it?

How are gangs making their money?

If you guessed drugs, you're wrong.

According to police, what began as a gang connection to prostitution has quickly and discreetly turned into gang-domination of Portland's sex-trafficking industry.

Today, police say nearly every pimp in the Portland-metro area is tied to a gang. The money they're making off teenage victims is pouring in from suburban communities such as Lake Oswego to Gresham in the millions, where suburban Johns don't have a clue that they're paying for guns used in gang violence.

"Gang members have come to realize there's a lot of money to be made in prostitution," said Officer Mike Gallagher, with the Portland Police Bureau's Prostitution Coordination Team.

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Those on the inside say gang-member pimps are using that money to fund lavish, violent lifestyles.

"It's how they buy guns, it's how they buy cars," said Sarah, a gang-affiliated prostitute who wanted to expose what's happening. KGW is concealing her true identity to protect her.

"It's an underground society," said Sarah, who doesn't have a pimp now, but knows from experience how they work.

"[Pimps] are smart and they're usually cute and charming," she said. "Women get raped beaten, and dragged [around]."

"Even if another pimp just talks to you and you don't put your head down, you're considered 'out of pocket.' You're not considered a person anymore, you're considered property." said Sarah.

'The Game'

In the gang world, Gallagher says sex trafficking is referred to as "The Game."

"It's not 'Pretty Woman,' like it is in the movies," he said. "It's pretty horrific."

Gallagher collects photographs of tattoos worn by sex-trafficking victims. Many tattoos feature the pimp's name and the words "Property of," "Success," and "Loyalty."

"It means loyalty to 'The Game,' loyalty to prostitution, loyalty to the pimp," said Gallagher.

Police say many young victims of prostitution are brainwashed, vulnerable and see their gang member pimps, as boyfriends.

"Every time [sex trafficking victims] look in the mirror, they see that tattoo, and it reminds them that they're property of the pimp they're working for," said Gallagher. "I know of pimps out there now who are 17, 18 years old, and victims as young as 12, 13 years old," said Gallagher.

Police say the connection between gangs and prostitution in Portland is new, destructive, and relatively unknown. Gallagher says nearly every convicted pimp he's dealt with recently, had a gang-tie.

"I didn't see that 15 years ago," said Gallagher. "Back then, gang members were still trading money and drugs on street corners."

But things changed.

"Drugs are getting expensive," said Sarah. "You have to make money to get money -- with prostitution, [pimps] don't have to spend anything."

According to police, pimps see their victims as cheap collateral. As for the Johns who pay them for sex, they're often married professionals, not armed or dangerous, and the last people who'd want to draw attention from police.

In short, they're the perfect marks, who don't realize or care where their money is really going.

"As long as [the John] got what he wanted and he's satisfied, what does he care if the money he just gave a girl goes to buy a gun that's connected to a homicide," said Sarah.

And police say that's exactly what's happening.

"I think the violence is going to pick up," said Gallagher, adding that sex trafficking isn't limited to activity on 82nd Avenue or the internet.

"It's not a Portland thing," he said. "It's in Lake Oswego, Tigard, Vancouver, Salem, Eugene, and gangs are involved in all of that," Gallagher said.

But now, their secret is out.

Part 2: Fueling and fighting gang gunfire

ID=16006410More money. More guns. More crime.

Police say it's the scenario they're facing on the streets, since many gang members left the drug trade to take over Portland's sex trafficking industry. They say gang-affiliated pimps are making millions of dollars off teenage victims and using that money to buy more guns.

On a recent Friday night, KGW rode along with the Portland Police Bureau's Gang Enforcement Team, to see their efforts to get guns off the street.

We watched as things went from calm to alarming, when officers found a gun outside an apartment complex near NE 162nd and Burnside, where several known gang-affiliates had gathered.

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"[The gun] is right over there on the truck tire," said Officer Charlie Asheim, to fellow officers.

"Pat everybody down, stop what you're doing and put your hands behind your head," ordered Asheim, as he called for backup.

On average, the Portland Police Bureau's Gang Enforcement Team seizes one gun per week, but police say there are many more guns out there, falling into the wrong hands. It's one reason why officers spend hours patrolling the streets every day, making contacts and never knowing exactly what they'll find.

On this occasion, Asheim just dropped by the apartment complex on a hunch.

"What's going on guys?" asked Asheim when he first arrived, addressing many in the group by name.

"Who do you guys know here?" he continued, as the men played cards on the back of a car.

For police, random walk-throughs are typical. The bureau even has a signed trespass agreement with several apartment complex including the one they stopped by.

That means officers have authority to arrest people who don't belong on property. Turned out, none of the men police talked to actually lived there.

"People who live in that complex want to feel safe," said Asheim. "They expect us to get out and contact people who make them feel unsafe and tonight, it was the right thing to do because there was a gun there," he said.

A loaded .38 revolver.

"To us in gang enforcement, getting guns off the street is our bread and butter," said Asheim.

Officers say they aren't surprised when they find guns. It's what they've come to expect in certain situations. To gang members, police say having a gun, means having power-- it's how many live and die.

"If someone else comes into this parking lot, maybe it's going to be a fist fight if nobody has a gun," said Asheim. "But if they have gun, they're a split second away from taking someone's life."

Police say when guns are on the street, they're a commodity and rarely thrown away. Instead, they're traded and sold, after being used in violent crime. Investigators say that makes tracing a gun's origin and history, difficult. Those caught with guns don't usually give that information up.

On this night, police charged gun owner with unlawful position of a firearm-- a misdemeanor, because he wasn't a felon. He's still awaiting trial.

In the meantime, there's one less gun on the street, one less gun to be shared and one less bullet police worry could hit an innocent victim.

"We could easily walk into that situation and [a gun] could be used against us or someone else," said Asheim.

Police say most guns they seize, never see the street again. Guns that aren't reported as stolen are melted down and destroyed.

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