Operation Cross Country, the FBI’s annual law enforcement action focused on recovering underage victims of prostitution and drawing the public’s attention to the problem of sex trafficking at home and abroad, has concluded with the recovery of 82 sexually exploited juveniles and the arrests of 239 pimps and other individuals.
Now in its 10th iteration, Operation Cross Country has expanded to become an international enforcement action, with Canada, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand joining the FBI and its local, state, and federal law enforcement partners—along with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)—during the coordinated three-day operation that ended October 16.
“Operation Cross Country aims to shine a spotlight into the darkest corners of our society that seeks to prey on the most vulnerable of our population,” said FBI Director Comey, announcing the results of the operation during a press conference today in San Diego at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual gathering. “We are not only looking to root out those who engage in the trafficking of minors, but through our Office for Victim Assistance, we offer a lifeline to minors to help them escape from a virtual prison no person ever deserves.”
This year’s Operation Cross Country—the largest to date—involved 55 FBI field offices and 74 FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Forces throughout the country composed of more than 400 law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers. The youngest recovered U.S. victim was 13 years old.
All of the recovered U.S. minors were offered services by victim specialists who are part of the FBI’s Office for Victim Assistance. More than 100 victim specialists provided on-scene services that included crisis intervention as well as resources for basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention.
Among the 82 juveniles recovered in the U.S. were two sisters in Milwaukee, ages 16 and 17, who told authorities that their mother was their pimp. The girls said their mother also rented out their brother’s room to a man who was a registered sex offender.
Working with the FBI’s legal attaché offices, international law enforcement partners conducted their own operations. In Thailand, authorities arrested an American citizen—a registered sex offender—after he coerced five Filipino girls, ages 14 to 16, to take sexually explicit photos of themselves and send them to him online. In the Philippines, two boys, ages 11 and 5, and a 2-year-old girl were recovered when five adults were arrested for operating a web-streaming service where individuals online paid for access to livestreamed child sexual abuse, as well as access to the children for the purposes of illegal sexual acts.
The Thai case was initiated through a cyber tip to the Royal Thai Police from NCMEC, the U.S. non-profit organization that serves as a resource center and information clearinghouse to help missing and exploited children. NCMEC’s work with overseas law enforcement agencies illustrates one example of the international partnerships that have formed to fight child sexual exploitation.
NCMEC’s director, John Clark, noted that the exploitation of children is a serious problem in the U.S as well as abroad. “This is something that’s happening in communities all across the country,” he said. “We need moms and dads and teachers and neighbors and everybody working hand in hand to try to identify where this situation is happening so that we can bring the right resources to bear to fight child sex trafficking.”
Operation Cross Country is part of the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which began in 2003. Since its creation, the program has resulted in the identification and recovery of more than 6,000 children from child sex trafficking, and prosecutors have obtained 30 life sentences in cases against traffickers and their associates.
The fight against underage trafficking is largely coordinated through the Child Exploitation Task Forces, which are staffed by state, local, tribal, and federal law enforcement personnel who work to identify and prosecute individuals and criminal enterprises who sexually exploit children. That work is ongoing.
One of the goals of Operation Cross Country is to raise public awareness about the seriousness of child sexual exploitation and how it takes strong partnerships to protect young people from being trafficked, which Comey called a “scourge that spans all our borders.”
This is a depressing day in law enforcement,” Comey said, announcing the number of juveniles who had been rescued, “because this is the world we live in and the work we have to do.” But it is also a proud day for law enforcement, he added, “because there are people who spend every day worrying about how to rescue these children. They are true heroes.”