JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 16-year-old was rescued and 27 adult prostitutes were arrested as part of the FBI's Operation Cross Country X, which was conducted Oct. 13-15 in Jacksonville and Pensacola.
Three pimps and their associates were also arrested, the FBI's Jacksonville division announced Tuesday.
The teen recovered in the local operation was in Pensacola.
Operation Cross Country is an annual nationwide effort to combat underage human trafficking. This
year's was the 10th and largest version of the FBI-led initiative, which was conducted in 106 cities across the U.S. and, for the first time, in several countries around the world. Those countries include Canada, Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Altogether, 82 sexually exploited juveniles were recovered and 239 pimps and other individuals were arrested, including 30 in Jacksonville. Of the 82 juveniles recovered, 36 were children, including a 2-year-old girl.
“Operation Cross Country aims to shine a spotlight into the darkest corners of our society that seeks to prey on the most vulnerable of our population,” FBI Director James Comey said in a news release. “As part of this effort, we are not only looking to root out those who engage in the trafficking of minors, but, through our Office of Victim Assistance, we offer a lifeline to minors to help them escape a from a virtual prison no person ever deserves.”
Among the 82 juveniles recovered in the U.S. were two sisters in Milwaukee, ages 16 and 17, who told authorities that their mother was their pimp. The girls said their mother also rented out their brother’s room to a man who was a registered sex offender.
Comey said the numbers are depressing “because this is the world we live in and the work we have to do,” but that it was also a proud day for law enforcement, “because there are people who spend every day worrying about how to rescue these children. They are true heroes.”
This year’s Operation Cross Country -- the largest to date -- involved 55 FBI field offices and 74 FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Forces throughout the country composed of more than 400 law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes and their customers. The youngest recovered U.S. victim was 13 years old.
The FBI Jacksonville Division's operation included the cooperation of multiple state and local law
enforcement partnering agencies, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Jacksonville
Sheriff’s Office,the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, the Pensacola Police Department, the Gulf Breeze Police
Department, the Panama City Police Department and the Panama City Beach Police Department.
"Child sex trafficking is a heinous crime that affects people of all races and ethnicities," said Carlton Peeples, assistant special agent in charge of FBI Jacksonville's criminal division. "It takes place in communities of all sizes. Traffickers operate anywhere they can make a profit exploiting children. Victims endure physical neglect, sexual assault, suffer from malnutrition, unaddressed medical problems and mental health issues."
Minors recovered during an arrest are connected with state protective services and victim assistance. Depending on the level of need, a law enforcement officer and, if available, an FBI victim specialist will accompany the survivor to obtain those services.
Any adult arrested on state charges will be processed by state and local law enforcement partners assisting in Operation Cross Country.
One of the goals of Operation Cross Country is to raise public awareness about the seriousness of child sexual exploitation and how it takes strong partnerships to protect young people from being trafficked, which Comey called a “scourge that spans all our borders.”
Operation Cross Country is part of the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which began in 2003. Since its creation, the program has resulted in the identification and recovery of more than 6,000 children from child sex trafficking, and prosecutors have obtained 30 life sentences in cases against traffickers and their associates.
Peeples said that even if the annual operation saves just one child, it is a success.
"Child victims often don't report exploitation out of fear," Peeoples said. "In 2016, the FBI had more than 504 investigations related to sex trafficking, and currently there are more than 1,000 pending investigations. Operation Cross Country helps spotlight these problems and sends a message that we remain vigilant to take down those who prey on our communities -- the most innocent population."
Peeples said many criminals find children on social media -- a reminder to parents to keep an eye on their child’s internet activity.
"Every platform is a recruiting event for them," Peeples said. "It's almost like fishing. You're looking to get a bite, no matter what platform you're using. Once you get that bite, you're going to utilize your influence. It’s probably an older adult to victimize these children, so any platform they can get their hands on to look to exploit a minor, they're going to do so."
FBI officials said that they don’t crack down on underage human trafficking only during the annual operation, but year round. If they get a tip about a child involved in trafficking, they will work to rescue that child as soon as possible.
For more information on Operation Cross Country X and the Innocence Lost initiative, visit www.fbi.gov.