A. Garcia / SFVS

Residence along Vanowen Street that police say functioned as a brothel.

While children and families were enjoying themselves at the Van Nuys Recreation Center, a different “activity” was taking place across the street in a two-story house.

Day and night, on a busy Vanowen Street, men were looking for women and transgender women to provide sex for money.

It was the same senerio at three other locations in the northeast San Fernando Valley that were part of a ring of brothels in apartments and houses in Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Sun Valley.

Behind this operation that authorities said was making “around $1 million a year” were Ramon Alberto Armendarez, a transgender woman who goes by the name of “Amy Paula Interiano,” and Edom Lucas Perez, said Lt. Marc Evans, head of the Human Trafficking Task Force in the Valley.

“We hadn’t seen this before,” said Evans of the operation run by the pair, who were arrested on charges of pimping.

Evans said “the business” even advertised for a secretary online. When the applicant showed up “they tried to lure her into prostituting,” the lieutenant said.

Armendarez and Perez disappeared after posting bail following their arrests. They are still wanted by police.

“They had the financial resources to post bail and go on the run. They resumed operations in Texas, Miami and Mexico. It’s possible they’ll come back to the area,” Evans said.

Arrests and Rescues

The breakup of this particular operation and others in the Valley comes from the investigations and arrests made by the Human Trafficking Task Force. Since October 2015, it has concentrated its enforcement at the corridors that run along Sepulveda and Lankershim boulevards.

This week Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez, and LAPD Operations Valley Bureau Commanding Officer Bob Green, announced that more than 200 pimps and “Johns” were arrested as a result of the task force.

Martinez — who represents the 6th district, encompassing Van Nuys, Sun Valley and North Hollywood — secured $1 million last year to launch the task force. It has led to hundreds of arrests and rescues of the victims of human trafficking. She recently secured another $1 million allocation to keep the task force going.

Four people have been arrested by the task force for human trafficking. Twenty-one others were arrested for pimping and pandering, and 177 “Johns” (people who purchase sex) have also been nabbed.

But the most rewarding part, authorities noted, was rescuing 11 victims including a 14-year-old who was prostituting herself along Sepulveda Boulevard in July.

“The girls I saw (prostituting themselves) when I was growing up were older,” Martinez said. Now, the council member said, the age group is getting younger.

“We need to tackle the issue by being able to address who the ‘Johns’ are and arrest them, and identify who these sexual predators are — these pimps who think it’s easy to traffic little kids in and out of our city,” she said. “It is absolutely unacceptable to have 13-year-old girls trafficked for money.”

These women and girls, however, were not arrested. Instead, Martinez said, they were referred to groups like Journey Out and CAST, that “help survivors get out of this world of cruelty.”

“Prostitution is not a victimless crime; that can’t be further from the truth,” added Green. “These pimps are stealing their (girls’) innocence, their self-esteem and their future.”

Green went on to say that prostitution affects the entire community by bringing drugs, attacks and other problems into neighborhoods. He said that the first 17 arrests for pimping and pandering by the task force were of men convicted for a combined 96 felonies including murder, robbery, rape, assault and gun violence.

“These are not just folks [pimping] women on the street, these are violent criminals victimizing all of our neighborhoods,” Green said.

He added that the efforts of the task force have led to an 11 percent reduction in crime along the Sepulveda Boulevard corridor in the past year.

Gang Involvement and Social Media

Deon “Deshon” Jones, came here from Las Vegas and was arrested for propositioning an undercover officer.

According to Evans, Jones contacted many of the girls he used in prostitution through social media, a new medium that has opened new ways for pimps to find victims too often scared to seek help.

Then there’s Joan Guarnica and Lawrence Knight, both self-described “shot callers” for the Valerio Street gang, two of the people arrested on charges of pandering.

“I worked gangs for many years, and I deal with harder core gang members in this realm than I ever did working gangs,” Evans said.

Gang involvement in prostitution is not surprising. It’s easier and safer to traffic women and girls than drugs. And the financial rewards are much greater.

“This is big money,” Evans said. “Each girl can pull in between $500 and $1,000 a night and it’s all cash free. These guys don’t file tax returns.”

And if one girl has been at the location for many months, they can simply move her to another area.

The victims can come from broken, abusive homes or the foster care system, which can make them easy prey for people who initially offer help, but end up forcing victims on the streets and using them as sexual commodities over and over.

“It’s easy for the public to look at a girl out on the street and think she’s a willing participant when behind the scenes there might be violence or abuse that is used against these girls to compel them to engage in prostitution,” Evans said

Residents Speak Out

Eduardo Gonzalez has lived along the Sepulveda Boulevard corridor for more than 19 years. He said he sees “a lot of drugs at the parks, violence and girls prostituting themselves.”

Gonzalez said he hasn’t seen a big difference yet. He recalled an incident where what looked to be a 13-year-old girl approached him at around 3:30 a.m. and asked if he wanted “a date.”

“That was very sad,” he said.

Chris Martinez, another resident who has lived in the area more than 20 years, said she has seen the difference.

“Before there were [some] patrols. Now there’s more,” she said. But Christina Martinez often finds condoms on the streets when she takes her kids to school, and has also discovered men and women engaging in sexual acts inside cars in front of her home.

“It breaks my heart when you see these young girls (walking the streets),” she said.

Cindy Sower, a business owner and member of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council, also praised the work of the task force.

“I got involved after one of my customers said he didn’t want to come in because of the hookers outside, and my son asked me what a hooker was,” Sower recalled.

She said her area along Lankershim Boulevard, between San Fernando Road and the Interstate 5 Freeway, has seen a difference since the task force was launched.

“It’s really made an impact,  Sower said.

To report crimes related to prostitution and human trafficking, call (818) 644-8105 or email 647TIPS@lapd.lacity.org