The girl was 12 when the gangsters told her the rule: They would sell her for sex to men outside the gang, but members of the Somali Outlaws or the Somali Mafia would use her for free.
For more than two years she was taken on “missions” to abandoned garages, men’s bathrooms, apartments and hotels, enduring hours with multiple men so gang members could get money, pot or booze. Though her mother confronted two of the men twice early on and warned them the girl wasn’t even 13, they continued to prostitute her.
Eventually some of the gang members took her on the road to new customers in Nashville, Tenn., while the man she called her “boyfriend” allegedly used a cell phone to send images of her engaging in sex acts with men in the car along the way.
The enterprise described in a federal indictment has shocked members of Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the U.S. And it suggests that gangs known in recent years for armed robberies, burglaries and even killings of fellow East Africans have evolved into more lucrative activity, and are taking their crimes from Minneapolis to other parts of the country.
“It’s clear the life of the gang in the community is getting much more complicated,” said Omar Jamal, an advocate for the Somali community in Minneapolis. “It’s one thing to go out and have a random action. It’s something quite new to the community to have an organized sex trafficking.”
Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s–refugees fleeing civil war in their homeland and finding welcome in a state with a strong tradition of helping newcomers. But as young Somalis entered the school system with little or no formal education or English skills, they were targeted by established gangs for being different.
So they formed their own groups.
“They were trying to find identity,” said Hassan Mohamud, the imam at Islamic Da’wah Center, a youth-oriented mosque and cultural center in St. Paul. “They do not belong to Somalis. They do not belong to Islam. They do not belong to America. So they found their own system. . . . They had good intention. At first the good intention was to help and support each other and protect. But they eventually changed that support system to harm.”
The federal indictment unsealed in November in Tennessee charges 29 people with crimes from sex trafficking to credit card fraud to witness intimidation. It said the accused were members or associates of three Somali gangs–often acting as one larger gang–bent on forcing girls into prostitution for their own profit.
The indictment outlines allegations involving four victims and hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card fraud. One girl was prostituted in Nashville and in Columbus, Ohio. Another was raped by multiple men in a Minnesota hotel room, the indictment said.
Jamal said that over the years, the Somali gangs realized they needed to generate a steady income. The crimes alleged in the indictment illustrate that at least some might have turned to sex trafficking and credit card fraud as a way to make money.
“It’s a gradual growth of becoming more active, becoming more serious,” Jamal said. “It speaks in volume of how the community has failed collectively to save the minors, especially the girls.”
Gang members started with street robberies, but realized the risk of getting hurt or arrested was too high compared to the profit potential, Brudenell [Jeanine Brudenell, a Minneapolis police officer who focuses on Somali gangs and crime] said. The street robberies stopped for a while after a fatal 2006 mugging–with Somalis at first mistakenly considered suspects–drew media attention. After that, the Somali gangs began committing more burglaries of businesses in an attempt to keep a lower profile, she said.
She described the Somali gangs as more loosely organized than other gangs. There’s no real leader, so if someone goes to prison, the group won’t stop its activity, she said. There’s also little evidence that people are “jumped in” to Somali gangs, she said. Instead, friends might just ask other friends to hang out and be in the gang.
There are seven Somali gangs in Minneapolis, and a total of about 200 documented Somali gang members and associates, she said–about 10 percent of the roughly 2,100 documented active gang members in the Minneapolis Police Department’s system. The gang members are a small fraction of the Somali population: The U.S. Census says roughly 25,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, while local advocates say the number is much higher.
According to police department data, there were 138 gang-associated crimes committed in 2008 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area just east of downtown Minneapolis where many Somali immigrants settled. The number of gang-associated crimes decreased to 100 in 2009, but went back up to 137 in 2010.
Brudenell said the crime ebbs and flows, often quieting down after major incidents. The data seems to back that up: After the killing of a Somali college student in Cedar-Riverside in September 2008, crime figures remained low for the next nine months.
Gang members often miss out on education, and some lack family support. “They don’t feel like they belong to this community.”