A major law enforcement operation to locate and assist victims of human trafficking and related crimes resulted in the location of more than 200 victims during the first two weeks of August.
Operation Cross Country is a coordinated operation among the FBI, other federal agencies, state and local police, and social services agencies across the country to find and assist victims of human trafficking, particularly child victims.
While this public operation draws attention to the issue of trafficking, the FBI and its partners work to investigate and stop trafficking every day.
“The initiative really just takes a concentrated period of time where we’re just focused on the problem of child sex trafficking,” said Section Chief Jose Perez, who oversees violent crime investigations in the FBI. “What we do is we sit down with our local partners and our task forces and identify certain areas where we know sex trafficking is prevalent, and we’ll dedicate resources and efforts to identify and remove victims from those areas.”
The FBI’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Forces across the country worked to locate victims. About 200 federal, state, and local agencies partnered with the FBI on Operation Cross Country. They encountered both child victims of sex trafficking and adults who were being trafficked against their will. The goal is to gather intelligence, build criminal cases against traffickers, and offer victims assistance.
That’s why victim specialists are embedded in operations. They serve as a liaison between the victims and FBI agents. They also help victims find services to rebuild their lives.
While the FBI cannot provide these services on its own, victim specialists partner with community organizations and social services agencies to help victims who are escaping a trafficker. They may need counseling, medical services, housing, or job placement.
FBI Atlanta's operation, for example, located 19 missing children and resulted in the arrest of four traffickers.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, teams from 14 law enforcement agencies worked on a three-day operation. Their work included locating sex offenders who had failed to register, tracking predators who approach children online, and looking for a runaway teenager at high risk for being trafficked.
The result was three arrests: one of an unregistered sex offender (which will become a federal case) and two state arrests.
Two federal cases were opened on suspects who may have been involved with child sexual abuse material production or enticement violations. Enticement involves using the internet to coerce a child (or someone connected to the child) to manufacture sexually explicit material of a child.
This year’s Operation Cross Country expanded to investigate sex offenders who may be eligible for federal charges and people trying to connect with children online to sexually abuse them. It’s a hybrid model that has expanded the traditional role of Operation Cross Country, said Sam, a special agent who leads the Chattanooga office’s crimes against children investigations.
“With the advent of social media, access to mobile devices and technology ... they’re out there in the neighborhoods not being monitored,” Sam said. “And we don’t know if they’re going to have access to these communication devices to continue to exploit children online or have inappropriate physical contact with children.”
“We’ll dedicate resources and efforts to identify and remove victims from those areas.”
- Jose Perez, section chief, Criminal Investigative Division
Law enforcement in the Chattanooga area continue to look for the runaway 17-year-old, who may be at high risk for trafficking. Investigators looked at the missing girl’s public social media profiles and talked with relatives to develop intelligence on where she might be.
Given the girl’s history of trauma and family difficulty, law enforcement wants to offer her services if she is in danger of being trafficked, said Megan, the FBI Chattanooga victim specialist.
"We are going to follow those leads and see if we can find her and hopefully get her to a safe place and get her some resources ... I’m hopeful that there’s still time for some good services for her,” Megan said.
Det. Sgt. Steve Hope from the Red Bank Police Department was one of the FBI partners who participated in Chattanooga’s Operation Cross Country. He said as a small police department partnering with the FBI is a valuable opportunity to help investigate child predators, working with agencies that can bring additional resources to trafficking and child predator cases.
“It’s amazing the rush to know you can get these people before they hurt any more children. An agency my size, we don’t have the manpower to do that, but to be part of this task force ... the FBI has brought me in as one of their own,” he said.