A three-day nationwide sex-trafficking sting resulted in arrests of pimps and the rescue of several children forced into prostitution across the country.
Federal investigators said today that hundreds of children have been rescued as part of "Operation Cross Country" across 76 cities with the participation of 50 FBI divisions. The operation focused on underage victims of prostitution, FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller told CBS News.
The largest numbers of children rescued were in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans.
The operation was part of the Bureau's Innocence Lost National Initiative.
A total of 150 pimps were arrested across America in the sting. Three pimps were arrested and two juveniles were recovered in Los Angeles, and authorities in San Diego arrested six pimps and recovered five minors during the operation. Statewide, 28 pimps and others were arrested and 21 children rescued, NBC News reports. The victims, almost all girls, ranged in age from 13 to 17.
With the cooperation of local law enforcement, truck stops, casinos, hotels and websites that advertise dating or escort services were targeted.
Eimiller said the use of Craigslist, Backpage and other free Internet classified sites has changed the way investigators track down both child traffickers and their victims.
"It is challenging also because the nature of online advertising means that they can make these women available anywhere, and so it also leads to the extended problem of interstate trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution," Eimiller said.
Since its creation in 2003, the Innocence Lost National Initiative has resulted in the identification and recovery of more than 2,700 children who have been sexually exploited, according to the FBI.
"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across the country," Ron Hosko, assistant director of the bureau's criminal investigative division, said at today's press conference, the Washington Post reports.
For the past decade, the FBI has been working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. John Ryan, the head of the center, called the problem "an escalating threat against America's children."
According to the Post, the Justice Department estimates that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
UPDATE, 3:27 P.M. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, commended authorities on the operation, City News Service reports. "Their efforts again highlight the dire need to focus our attention on preventing child sex trafficking here in the United States, where over time this has become a growing concern for too many local communities,'' said Bass, who is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth.
"Of particular concern to me are the alarming statistics showing that far too many trafficking victims are either current or former foster youth," she added. "In my hometown of Los Angeles, over 60 percent of child victims of trafficking either are or were foster youth, and we know that pimps are now targeting foster youth group homes as hubs to recruit vulnerable girls.''