JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A nationwide sweep called Operation Cross Country IX recovered 149 sexually exploited children, the youngest of whom was 12, including one from the Jacksonville area, and led to the arrests of more than 150 pimps and other individuals.
The FBI partnered with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the operation, which was conducted in 135 cities.
In Jacksonville, FBI officials announced 25 arrests and one juvenile recovery as part of the takedown, which was a joint effort with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Clay County Sheriff's Office, Nassau County Sheriff's Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The vast majority of the children recovered in this operation were girls. The FBI says three were boys and three were transgendered. Most of the children have been given resources for basic needs like food clothing and shelter. Now the FBI is working with different police and private agencies to get additional support for the children.
Kristin Keen runs a group called Rethreaded that works to combat the sex trade. She hopes this operation brings awareness to what officials are calling a rampant, ongoing problem.
"This is an amazing step forward for our country. I think it'll raise awareness. I'm super proud of our law enforcement and the steps they're taking to combat this. I know our next step is to take care of all these survivors, make sure they have everything they need," Keen said. "I think sometimes people are in denial that it happens because it's such a horrible crime. I think people have a hard time believing it happened in their own neighborhood, in their own city."
More than 500 law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes and their customers.
The names of the people arrested were not immediately released.
"Human trafficking is a monstrous and devastating crime that steals lives and degrades our nation," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. "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."
Multiple groups around the Jacksonville area are continually fighting against the child sex trade including project SOS, which works with parents and children to make healthy choices.
Dr. Pam Mullarkey Robbins said the children who wind up in the sex trade typically have very minimal interaction with their parents.
"They usually go after children who do not have parents involved in their lives. They may not have a dad either and it's usually a male that starts this. Sometimes they'll pretend they're in love and buy her gifts and so forth and say I'm out of money, and would you mind doing something for one night because I'm out of money and I can't pay my bills. It's all manipulation and control," Robbins said.
Since its creation in 2003, the Innocence Lost program, a joint effort between the FBI, Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has resulted in the identification and recovery of approximately 4,800 sexually exploited children.
Prosecutors have obtained more than 2,000 convictions of pimps and others associated with these trafficking crimes, including at least 15 cases that have resulted in life sentences.