An international operation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement aimed at child pornography and sexual abuse has resulted in the arrest of 245 suspects, officials announced Thursday. All but 23 of the suspects were apprehended in the United States.
The agency said that during the course of Operation Sunflower, law enforcement officers identified 123 victims of child exploitation and removed 44 of those children from their alleged abusers with whom they were living. The other cases involved victims who were exploited by people outside their homes or children who were harmed years ago and are now adults.
Several of the children were shockingly young. Five were under age 3. Nine were between the ages of 4 and 6. Of the 123 victims, 110 lived in the United States in 19 different states. ICE officials did not identify the six other countries where victims were identified or where some of the arrests were made, citing the need to work discreetly with international law enforcement partners.
According to ICE, some of those arrested during Operation Sunflower were registered sex offenders.
Operation Sunflower was conducted in November and December, but efforts are continuing on other cases. During a news conference, ICE Director John Morton said the agency was calling on the public to provide tips and mentioned several open investigations. One of those cases involves the sexual molestation of an unidentified girl thought to be around 13.
Investigators believe the abuse took place about 11 years ago, but the pornographic images were widely circulated. ICE has posted pictures of an unidentified woman and man suspected of abusing the girl on its website. The woman has some distinctive tattoos that investigators hope will lead to tips about her identity.
Based on a forensic analysis of the pornographic images in that case, investigators think the abuse occurred in the Los Angeles or San Fernando Valley area of California. Although the girl may now be an adult, ICE officials want to identify and prosecute the suspects and prevent them from harming new victims.
"Forensic analysis technology has become critical in the fight against child exploitation," Morton said. "We are coming across these images on the Internet. They are being produced in one country but shared literally around the world, often in real time."
Morton said ICE works with other law enforcement agencies and with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to look for clues in the pictures of abuse to identify where the acts occurred and track down the victims and perpetrators.
The name Operation Sunflower was chosen to commemorate a case from 2011 in which Danish law enforcement officials shared images and chat board information about a 16-year-old boy who allegedly planned to rape an 11-year-old girl. One image taken from a moving car showed a road sign with a sunflower on it. ICE's Homeland Security Investigations determined that the road sign was unique to Kansas. Agents were then able to find the exact stretch of road where the picture was taken and to locate the girl.