WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) From selling drugs to selling girls, police say Wichita gangs are turning to human trafficking. It's a trend they started seeing within the past three years, likely motivated by money.
Detective Brent Huhman with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit combs through a website called "Spotlight" almost daily. The site is designed to help law enforcement track down human trafficking victims.
"This shows anyone who's potentially being trafficked on an escorting website," said Huhman.
Eyewitness news watched as Huhman scrolled through hundreds of ads in Wichita alone. Many girls are underage and some could be controlled by street gangs in the city.
Sgt. Jeff Swanson says gang members are getting in on human trafficking. For years, drugs have fueled street gangs. Swanson says sex trafficking comes with less risk and potentially more money.
"When you run into the police and you have cocaine, when the police see it they know it's cocaine," said Swanson. "If you have a human trafficking victim they might not recognize it as a human trafficking victim. So it's a lot easier to move around, it's a lot easier to sell and it's very difficult to investigate."
Wichita Police have arrested 16 known gang members in human trafficking investigations since 2014. Some cases are still under investigation, but we know at least four men, all known gang members, were convicted of sex crimes involving teenagers.
"You're dealing with people that have a mindset of making money. Whatever it takes to make money they do what they have to do," said David Gilkey, Program Director of Rise Up For Youth.
Gilkey spent years on the streets dealing drugs. Now, he helps young men and women avoid falling into that life. He agrees the risk involved in human trafficking is far less than drug dealing.
"I can't say if it's something new or if it's been around. When you're in that lifestyle of gangs and drugs it all goes with the territory," said Gilkey.
Gilkey says the main goal is to find the easiest way to make the most money.
"I felt that same way when I was out there selling drugs. I had that mindset of the streets, and when you have that mindset of the streets there are no rules," said Gilkey.
Sgt. Swanson says gang members may have the upper hand when it comes to luring girls into trafficking because of the intimidation factor. No matter who is behind the crime, Swanson says his job is the same.
"I'm all about putting bad people in jail, but I want to remove the child from that environment. Because those kids are going to end up dead," said Swanson.
Swanson says better reporting and technology have helped police identify more human trafficking victims in recent years. He says nearly all human trafficking investigations involve electronic devices and the internet.