Federal agents rescued 149 children and teenage victims of sex trafficking and arrested more than 150 pimps in a coordinated series of stings aimed at cracking down on underage prostitution across the country.
The sting was the FBI’s ninth such effort known as "Operation Cross Country," carried out in more than 135 cities in collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and local FBI child exploitation forces, CBS News reports.
“Human trafficking is a monstrous and devastating crime that steals lives and degrades our nation," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in an FBI statement, drawing attention to the bureau’s collaboration to crack down on underage prostitution.
“As a result of the FBI's outstanding coordination and exemplary efforts alongside state and local partners during Operation Cross Country, more children will sleep safely tonight, and more wrongdoers will face the judgment of our criminal justice system,” she added.
In Sacramento, Calif., local police and sheriffs rescued three minors and arrested three alleged pimps, with agents saying the most difficult challenge isn’t the rescue but ensuring that human trafficking victims receive outreach services and medical help, the Sacramento Bee reports.
“While the arrest of the offender has an immediate result, only recovering a child can offer him or her an opportunity to begin to accept services necessary to begin the healing process and restore a sense of normalcy,” Monica M. Miller, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento field office said in a statement.
About 100 FBI victim specialists were able to aid the child victims after the nationwide stings, the FBI told CBS. They provided services such as crisis intervention, food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
The youngest victim rescued in the sting was 12 years old, CBS reports, with officials from the NCMEC calling that concerning. In a video released by the FBI, they said that most human-trafficking victims are slightly older.
Young people who run away from home are often targeted by human traffickers, the agency said.
“Runaway juveniles are particularly vulnerable to being led into prostitution because they run away from possibly a bad family situation and then get pulled into drugs or a lifestyle that leads to prostitution,” Crystal Nosal, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria Police Department, which assisted in the effort, says in a video on the FBI website.
The sting focused on human trafficking in cities including Detroit; Atlanta; Cleveland; Denver; Knoxville, Tenn.; Alexandria, Va.; Jackson, Miss.; Los Angeles; Portland; Sacramento; and Seattle, according to the Associated Press and local reports.
In raw video footage of stings in Jackson and Alexandria released by the bureau, federal agents are shown conducting video surveillance and then raiding hotel rooms and arresting people suspected of human trafficking.
The sting operations are part of a larger national initiative launched in 2003, with officials saying the operation’s main focus is to aid victims of human trafficking.
“From an investigative standpoint, Operation Cross Country targets the individuals and criminal enterprises responsible for the commercial sex trafficking of children,” said a Bureau victim specialist who wasn't identified in the FBI’s statement. “But our main goal is to provide support and services for these young victims – to help stabilize them and get them moving forward in a positive direction.”