Peabody Award-winning Portuguese journalist Mariana van Zeller spends her new eight-part National Geographic documentary series, Trafficked, infiltrating gangs of fentanyl peddlers, gunrunners, and tiger smugglers. But the hardest group to penetrate, she tells Los Angeles, was the pimps of Los Angeles.
“We contacted over one hundred pimps, and less than a handful were willing to sit down with us and talk,” van Zeller says. “We had to postpone the shoot several times.”
On the series’ fifth episode (airing December 23), Van Zeller quickly discovers that L.A.’s pimps, although wary of journalists, are actually hiding in plain sight. On Instagram, she finds pimps luring women with photos of sports cars, diamonds, and stacks of cash, and using a system of coded hashtags, such as “304,” which spells “hoe” upside-down.
For many, the term “sex trafficking” conjures images of foreign women being smuggled into the U.S. and forced to work as sex slaves. But far more often, as in the high-profile case of multimillionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, the crime involves American men exploiting American women. According to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, California is “one of the largest sites of human trafficking in the United States.” Of the 10,949 human trafficking cases reported in the U.S. in 2018, 1,656 cases were in California, 1,226 of which were sex trafficking cases.
Los Angeles is a hotbed, van Zeller says, “because it’s a big city, a city of dreams and hopes. I think a lot of people come here after those dreams, and get involved in this world.” She also reports from Oakland, another sex trafficking hotspot, in the episode.
In the episode, when her Instagram messages to pimps go ignored, van Zeller reaches out to a retired L.A. pimp named Mickey Royal who self-published a memoir in 2018 called The Pimp Game. He meets with her at a dingy South Central hotel, then they drive together down Figueroa Street. Mickey tells her there’s a 95-block stretch of the street that’s been L.A.’s main drag for prostitution since the 1960s. Sure enough, van Zeller spots women on the sidewalks in bikinis, high heels, and skimpy dresses, shivering in the cold, with their pimps usually parked nearby, monitoring.
Van Zeller, a Silver Lake resident, tells the cameras, “I’ve lived in Los Angeles over ten years and I know Figueroa, but I’ve never seen any of this until tonight.”
After a few months, with Mickey’s help and her team’s persistence, van Zeller finally manages to arrange meetings with a few working L.A. pimps. She says she always tries to approach criminals with an open mind, but it was difficult for this story.
“Having reported so much on sex trafficking and spent time with the victims and heard their horrific stories of these pimps and these traffickers….I knew I was going to have a really hard time empathizing with them just because of the nature of the crime,” van Zeller says.
The pimps she talks to oversee anywhere from four to nine women, make up to $30,000 a week, and keep all but a small cut of their prostitutes’ profits. On the show, they admit to targeting young women who have low self-esteem, or feel unattractive, then woo them with compliments, invitations to a club’s VIP section, or promises of riches. As for the customers—known as Johns—they come in every race, age, and marital status. “There’s no real profile of a John,” a police officer tells van Zeller.
Pimping crosses into sex trafficking when women are induced into selling their bodies through “force, fraud, or coercion,” according to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. It carries stiff penalties, which could be why almost all of the pimps van Zeller interviews scoff at the label, careful to insist that women “choose” to work for them.
“But is it a choice?” van Zeller counters.
Through van Zeller’s interviews with working L.A. prostitutes, viewers come to see their choices are limited. Some are ensnared in the life after experiencing sexual abuse. Van Zeller interviews one woman named Honey, who says she was raped by a pimp at 12. He then convinced her it was natural to sell her body and put her to work with a crew of prostitutes, all under 15 years old. Experts estimate up to 70 percent of young women who become prostitutes have spent time in foster care, making them easier targets for manipulation by pimps, who tell them, “I’m the only one who loves you.”
One pimp—nicknamed Jackknife—outright boasts about how he controls women, recounting how he sliced the bottom of a prostitute’s foot with a razor to send a message about running away to his other girls. He insists other pimps do far worse: “Killing bitches…kidnapping bitches.”
Though horrified by Jackknife’s brutality, van Zeller then digs into his past. He grew up in a tough L.A. neighborhood, she discovers, where the only men he saw supporting their families were the pimps. “We growing up in a certain area where we ain’t got no resources, we ain’t got nothing….there ain’t no jobs around, you got a whole community that’s not getting hired,” says Jackknife.
Van Zeller tells Los Angeles she was surprised by the feeling that came over her when she spoke to him: “I was able for a second to understand.”
Through Jackknife’s story, van Zeller hopes audiences will also understand what drives a person to become a pimp and that understanding can help combat the problem. But amid COVID-19, she admits, the problem of sex trafficking—and trafficking in general—has become worse than ever. “Whenever there’s an economic downturn and whenever people lose their jobs, they have to figure out a way to make money and bring back food for their families,” she says.
And social distancing isn’t turning the Johns off sex. “I don’t think they care,” van Zeller says.