Miami's Sex Trade: 13 Shocking Secrets From Inside the $235 Million Industry

Did you know that pimps in Miami are competitive about their style of shoes but are more than willing to cooperate to avoid prosecution? Or that brothels here can often be a family business? Or that the overall sex trade income has declined since 2003?

The Urban Institute has released a landmark study of the underground commercial sex economy of eight American cities, including Miami. Researchers spoke to law enforcement officials, pimps, and sex workers to sketch out the dynamics of the sex trade in each city. Here are some surprising findings about Miami.

The overall economic impact of the sex trade has fallen.

Miami's sex trade was estimated to be a $302 million-a-year industry in 2003, but it fell to $235 million in 2007. Though the sex trade is still bigger than both the drug ($95.7 million) and gun trade ($118), Miami's sex trade has also shrunk below that of Atlanta's.

Pimps are making less money a week.

According to the study, a pimp in Miami would take in about $21,929 in cash each week before 2005, but post-2005 numbers show the average is down to $17,741. Pimps in Atlanta ($32,833 a week), Denver ($31,200), and Seattle ($18,000) make more.

Pimps in Miami are surprisingly friendly to one another.

Here's an interview with a local law enforcement officer:

They party together, go to the beach together, go to the club together, and have the girls outside when they go inside, have the girls come inside... I don't know if it's so much a network as a social network. It's a social network, but they definitely communicate, there's communication between all the pimps. But it's kind of contrary to the traditional belief of where a pimp is against another pimp and he's by himself. It's more of a wolf-pack mentality now where they all hang together. It's almost like if they're all making money, it's fine, but as long as we're making it... They're competitive, but they're more competitive about 'my ring is bigger than your ring, and my girl brought me this, and I didn't have to do anything for this, my clothes, my sneakers, is better than what you've got.' That's how they're competitive.

Pimps also share information and are well informed.

From the same law enforcement officer:

We've had one pimp that sat in jail, he read his whole case, and when we went to debrief him, he's like, "Yeah, on that day I saw you guys, and I didn't really do that on that day," and he was telling us that he saw us, what kind of car we were in, stuff like that. We have pimps talking to other pimps -- it's not an organized network, it's a social network...

We've had pimps look up the attorneys to know if they are going to take the plea or not, if they had a high winning rate... Happened on the last one, he was like, "Oh no, this guy has a 98 percent winning rate. I'm going to go ahead and take the plea." They actually look up, when their girls get arrested, they see what their bond is, see what they're charged with. They're very savvy.

Pimps and prostitutes from other cities converge on Miami during the Super Bowl and NBA Finals.

Pimps from other cities reported they traveled to Miami or sent girls this way when the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2010 and over the past couple of years when the Heat has been in the NBA Finals.

Pimps are careful to avoid charges of transporting prostitutes across state lines.

From an interview with a pimp:

I didn't take them to work in other cities because it was crossing state lines. To keep from interstate crossing state lines for practices of prostitution, we'd go from Georgia to Florida and stop the car at the state line and let them walk across the state line so we didn't transport them. The girls would travel for the Super Bowl in Miami. Two or three of my best girls go there and work in the club, [but they go by themselves].

Miami's sex trade operates mostly independently of the gun and drug trades.

Unlike in other cities studied, those working in Miami's sex industry tend not to have many connections to the underground gun and drug trades. In fact, many pimps are former drug dealers who decided to get out of the drug game because they see pimping as potentially more lucrative and less risky.

However, Mexican cartels might be involved in the trafficking of women from Central America, and some gangs have become involved in the trade.

Erotic massage parlors have changed from offering Latinas to Asian women in the past few years.

According to law enforcement, the massage parlors have changed over time in the nationalities of the owners and employees. Whereas a few years ago, the massage parlors advertised Hispanic women, many are now operated by Chinese nationals advertising Chinese women.

Authorities believe those running the parlors have direct ties to China.

Brothels are operated by families and target migrant workers.

Brothels mostly pop up in the southern part of the county and tend to be independently operated by men, women, and families, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.

Law enforcement reported that Miami brothels are primarily operated by Hispanic or Latino men and women. Women have been found to be both voluntarily involved in prostitution and sex-trafficked in brothels, with minors also sex-trafficked in brothels. Women and girls are typically from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Law enforcement stated that women working in brothels are now working voluntarily but had been smuggled to the United States when they were minors and then forced into the underground commercial sex trade to pay off their smuggling debts.

Most of the customers are migrant workers, and services can be bought in increments of time as little as ten minutes.

Some Miami Beach nightclubs might be important hubs of the sex trade, but law enforcement isn't quite sure how.

From an interview with a law enforcement agent:

The other thing we do have is in the beach, certain clubs on Miami Beach with Eastern European clientele, and there are women being sent in there from the escort services or whatever, they are going in there specifically for the purpose of picking up dates for prostitution. Now whether that's organized or not, we haven't had one of those because that's a word of mouth situation unless you get an informant telling you who's doing what ... I think there's something to it but we haven't gotten into it yet. Unless you get somebody who is in that circle, in that club, who knows how it's working. But I'm sure even with some of the juveniles that we're getting, they are also hitting the clubs on Miami Beach. They just go from club to club looking for dates. Usually their pimp is close by. Sorta kinda doing the street walking mode, except that they're going inside the club and trying to come out with a date.

The report states this phenomenon might be unique to Miami.

Streetwalking is almost a thing of the past.

Most organized sex trade occurs through the internet, clubs, brothels, and massage parlors now. Very few people sell themselves on the street, and those who do tend to be drug addicts who operate independently and charge as little as $10 to $15.

Many streetwalkers are now online.

Websites such as Craigslist, Backpage, and Eros advertise commercial sex in Miami and were noted by law enforcement as more expensive than brothels or street-based commercial sex, but less expensive than escort services. Police officials reported that on average, prices in Miami range from $150 to $300 on these sites and are similar whether the individual advertised is a minor or an adult. Minors and adults advertised on these sites are both US citizens and foreign nationals. Law enforcement reported sex trafficked US citizen minors are now advertised online whereas five years ago, they would be out on the street.

Internet-based escort agencies are the hub of high-class prostitution.

Internet-based escort services can cost as much as $600 to $1,000 per hour. Police tend to see many women from Eastern Europe being advertised on the internet. Some might be the victims of sex trafficking. The internet trade might also be the most linked to traditional organized crime, though an agent said, "We only just started scratching the surface."

Read the full report at urban.org.

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