Human Rights Advocates Warn Street in National City a Hotbed of Sex Trafficking

Driving along Interstate 5 in National City, you can see the Rodeway Inn, clearly visible as it sits a few hundred feet from that  busy freeway. “Make yourself at home in one of their 40 guestrooms,” reads the online ad for the inn.  

What is not said is the motel is a “well-known destination for prostitution and trafficking,” claim law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking advocate Marisa Ugarte of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. The location near I-5 “allows truckers and pimps easy access in and out” of the area, says Ugarte.

Jose Tellez, the National City Police Chief, a 32-year veteran of the force, says the area is frequented by traffickers and pimps. 

“That entire area of Roosevelt Avenue has been problematic” for years, he said and added that “the way it is set up, the proximity to the freeway, the proximity to the base, the proximity to San Diego city proper, makes it very convenient for people to engage in this behavior.”

The Rodeway Inn is located along the 600 block of Roosevelt Avenue near other motels. It is not unusual to see a line of tractor trailers parked along the curb across the street, night and day. Law enforcement officials and Ugarte say it is also not uncommon to see women and teens working the area in a “two-block radius” around the motel. 

In December, the motel was in the news after woman was stabbed with a pair of scissors and set on fire. A 27-year-old Texas man was arrested several days later on attempted murder, arson and pimping charges.

Manish Patel is the owner of the motel, operating as Luv-Kush Enterprises. He denies his motel caters to the sex trade. He said he “cooperates with the police,” and even “offers a room for sting operations,” if asked. Patel acknowledges there is an “ongoing issue” with prostitution but says his hands are tied. 

“I can’t deny entrance to someone who comes up to the window, that’s discrimination,” he says. If the police would offer him a list of men or women not to rent a room to, the motel owner says he would use it.  Patel insists he wants to “keep my property clean.”

Chief Tellez says he’s spoken to Patel as well as other motel owners in the area about the problem. Nevertheless, sex trafficking and prostitution are active in the city as demonstrated by a recent sting operation run by the National City Police Department and the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force. Thirty men were arrested for soliciting prostitution after they apparently responded to Internet advertisements.

Social media has made it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor the trade, it’s more hidden, the National City police department points out. Says Chief Tellez, “What you see on the streets, the prostitutes on the streets is about 25% of the problem versus what’s happening on the Internet.”

The street is close to 32nd Street Naval Station. Ugarte questions why the Navy hasn’t made the motel off-limits to their personnel. 

That’s the question we put to Brian O’Rourke, spokesperson for the Navy’s regional command. After checking with the district command, he told us there have been no reports of sailors using the Rodeway Inn to purchase women for sex.

He explained there were a number of off-limit locations in the San Diego region, from motels to strip clubs, even certain parking lots. But to have a location declared off-limits, he said, requires some proof of conditions that “adversely affect the health, safety, welfare and morale” of the troops. Until the Navy has proof, it can do nothing, he said.  

Chief Tellez says military personnel have not generally been a problem, pointing out that the recent sting by his department and the Human Trafficking Task Force netted only two Navy personnel out of the 30 arrested.

Ugarte says she “doesn’t understand why National City officials don’t shut down this type of motel.” The city has a national reputation as a “hot spot for trafficking and the sex trade,” Ugarte says, yet she and law enforcement sources say attempts to clean up the area have stalled for years.

Tellez points out in the years when the activity was more visible on the street, “we took several actions to minimize that,” but the rise of online activity has made it more difficult to locate pimps and prostitutes.

“So we don’t believe it’s just that area on Roosevelt where this is happening,” he said. “You can set up shop in any reputable hotel across this county, and it will be days, months, weeks before someone knows what’s actually happening, and then after that they move.”

National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis says she is “aware of what is happening” and is “making efforts to improve” the situation, but added that “trafficking and prostitution are not unique to National City”. 

The mayor, who is in the third year of her term, says the city has begun a series of measures, starting with removing trees and foliage along Roosevelt Avenue that provided cover for sex sales. In addition, they’ve begun a process to ban parking for the tractor trailers that line the road.

Sotelo-Solis has been “talking to the Port (District) about having the big rigs moved to port property. “If they are picking up merchandise at the port, they should be parking over there,” she said.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist. August has reported on sex and labor trafficking for twenty years and is a board member of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition.