WASHINGTON, DC — In a major crackdown on child prostitution, the FBI announced Monday that 150 arrests have been made in Operation Cross Country, and 105 children have been rescued nationwide.
Overall, the roundup took place in 76 cities, including St. Louis, and involved 230 law enforcement units, according to authorities. The ages of the children involved ranged from 13 to 17.
According to the FBI, three juveniles were rescued in St. Louis. Two 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old. But, no arrests were made in the St. Louis crimes.
Authorities said the operation, which took investigators to race tracks and truck stops, also targeted the use of social media sites for child prostitution activity.
“Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America,” said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere and that the FBI remains committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and holding the criminals who profit from this exploitation accountable.”
He said at a news conference that a prime environment for child prostitution is major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, where authorities had “multiple recovery of children” in the past.
The operation was the largest sweep to date in the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, according to Hosko.
It included 28 searches with 129 seizures of cash, drugs, vehicles and firearms, he said, and those arrested face a variety of charges, including pimping.
The ages of children rescued in this, the seventh iteration of Operation Cross Country ranged from 13 to 17, Hosko said.
He credited the increased success of the latest operation in part to an expansion of the probe to websites such as www.backpage.com, which he called a forum “where pimps and exploiters gather.”
“It appears as though we were 30% to 40% more successful in identifying both victims and pimps in this operation,” Hosko said.
A goal of the Innocence Lost initiative is to identify children lured or forced into prostitution and remove them from risk, Hosko said. The circumstances of the situation, often involving young girls from broken homes, make finding them especially difficult, he explained.
“Commonly some of these children have stepped away from their families,” he said, adding that “there is no one to call and report ‘my daughter is missing.'”
Another major problem is the culture of abuse, both physical and emotional, as well as drug use prevalent in child prostitution.
“We have victims whose new normal is abuse and is drug-infected, then the expectation of somebody who cares about them may last for 30 minutes or an hour before the abuse starts again,” Hosko said. “So that makes our job more difficult.”
Video transcript from the FBI:
It’s happening here. I can tell you right now there’s a hotel right down the street where it happens. I’ve seen women walk—I think part of it’s a highway—There’s women walking…So it happens everywhere… It could be your neighbors next door.
Every year, thousands of children and teens are victimized by sex traffickers.
My name is Alexandria and I’m 21.
Alex, a victim of child sex trafficking, was recovered by the FBI and helped put her pimps behind bars.
So I got very lucky to be able to walk away with it with no arrest, no kidnapping, nothing… I never got hurt, so I’m lucky, really really lucky. I’m one of the few that can say that.
At age 16, facing problems at home, Alex found herself on the street.
It didn’t appeal, it was more of desperation…you can’t feed yourself, you know, you learn quickly but the only people who are willing to really feed you, clothe you, shelter you, are your parents. So, I had to figure something out…
At first it was terrifying…and then you just kind of become numb to it. Not like an alter ego but just like a different person, you put on a whole different attitude… I felt empty. You are at the bottom of the bottom. And you have nobody to go to for help or for a hug. There’s nobody…
Many victims of child sex trafficking believe there is nowhere to turn for help.
I called everybody, I need help, I called my family, I called all my friends, I called everybody I knew and nobody picked up.
Eventually, Alex called the FBI. The FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force arrested Alex’s pimps, whose multiple victims included underage girls.
If I could say one thing… from my experience and what I know, and I think it was kind of my saving grace, is…they can take everything from you; your voice, your freedom, they can take your fight and will, your everything. But you cannot ever let them take your heart; you have to always keep fighting.
Bad things happen, worse things than what have happened to us, all over the world, and people seem to keep going through it and living on and living life. The important thing is to try and turn every negative into a positive and make something good out of it.
They don’t have you anymore, they can’t hurt you, and you have a power now to wipe them out. The strongest thing that we have isn’t in our fists or—it’s our words, it’s what we say, it’s what we do. So, fight.
The FBI Office for Victim Assistance helped Alex get the resources she needed.
I try to not let it run my everyday—it brings me down. Sometimes I’ll think about everything and I’ll cry… but it happened and I can’t change it. I can only change my future. That’s it. They had my past, but they don’t have my future.
CNN’s Virginia Nicolaidis and Bill Mears contributed to this report
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