WASHINGTON -- A nationwide campaign targeting child prostitution rescued 105 teenagers and swept some 150 alleged pimps off the streets of cities from Miami to Sacramento, FBI officials announced Monday.
Four of the pimps are based in Miami. No child recoveries took place in South Florida, but three children were recovered in Tampa.
Ranging in age from 13 to 17, the juveniles had been trafficked through social media and online classified ad services, as well as through conventional street trolling. They are only a small part of what officials say is the much larger national problem of child prostitution.
“We are trying to take this crime out of the shadows, and put a spotlight on it,” Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said at a news conference.
The 72-hour sweep that hit 76 cities was the seventh round of a campaign begun in 2003, under the name Operation Cross Country. State, local and federal investigators joined in the latest operation. It could produce federal and, in some cases, state charges against the adults.
The alleged pimps could face an assortment of trafficking and other charges. Some pimps arrested in past versions of Operation Cross Country are now serving life sentences or are slated to be in prison for as long as 50 years.
The rescued juveniles, meanwhile, face a hard road of recovery from what officials say can be a common history of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Nearly all of the teen prostitutes rescued during the latest campaign are female.
They are all also painfully young: One teen prostitute rescued in Sacramento is 14, an FBI spokesperson said, while another arrested in Fresno is 15.
“This is a particularly vulnerable population,” said Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, adding that “traffickers are preying on youth with low self-esteem and minimal support.”
Many of the teenagers caught up in the sex trade come from broken homes, officials say. Hosko said the pimps may recruit their prey relatively gently, using compliments and rewards, but then will use violence and hard drugs to keep the juveniles in line.
Customers, in turn, are often found at big-time sporting events like the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, Hosko said, or they may be found through online advertising on Backpage or other sites. Unlike Craigslist, the other big popular classified ad website, Backpage still includes a listing for “escorts.”
“It is a venue that we look at very closely,” Hosko said, adding that “we will continue to look at Backpage and other [places] where pimps gather.”
The Backpage website includes a statement denouncing “human trafficking,” as well as contact information for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A TechCrunch article last year reported that Backpage officials screen for potentially troublesome keywords in submitted ads, and company officials report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children those sex ads suspected of dealing with a minor.
“If you’ve seen a missing child, or a child that is being victimized, please take action and make a report,” the Backpage website states.
Since Operation Cross Country began a decade ago, the FBI and its partners have recovered more than 2,700 children from the streets. The investigations and subsequent 1,350 convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including 10 life terms, and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets, FBI officials said.
In the South Florida area, 40 FBI personnel and more than 120 law enforcement officers assisted in the sweep.
The FBI’s Miami Child Exploitation teamed with 11 law enforcement agencies including the Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale Police Departments and the Broward and Palm Beach Sheriff’s Offices.
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Miami Herald reporter Lance Dixon contributed to this story.