Operation Cross Country—a three-day nationwide enforcement action focusing on underage victims of prostitution—has concluded with the recovery of 105 sexually exploited children and the arrests of 150 pimps and other individuals.
The sweep took place in 76 cities and was carried out by the FBI in partnership with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) as part of the Bureau’s Innocence Lost National Initiative. It is the seventh and largest such enforcement action to date.
“Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America,” said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere and that the FBI remains committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and holding the criminals who profit from this exploitation accountable.”
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. Behind those numbers are the stories of real victims.
Alex was one such victim. At age 15, faced with a difficult family situation at home, she decided to leave and stay with a girlfriend and then an aunt. When that didn’t work out, she found herself on the street—with an abusive boyfriend who wanted to pimp her out.
“You learn quickly that the only people who are really willing to feed you, clothe you, and shelter you are your parents,” she said. “So I had to figure something out.” (See video.)
Alex was 16 years old and desperate. She turned to prostitution and later fell under the influence of a pimp and her family. “At first it was terrifying, and then you just kind of become numb to it,” she said. “You put on a whole different attitude—like a different person. It wasn’t me. I know that. Nothing about it was me.”
Two years later, Alex bravely contacted the FBI, and her cooperation helped us send two pimps to prison and facilitate the recovery of other underage victims. Today, with support from the Bureau’s Office for Victim Assistance, Alex is turning her life around. She earned her high school diploma, is living on her own, and has plans to attend college. She wants to become an advocate for young victims of sexual exploitation.
“What happened to me happened, and I can’t change it,” she said. “I can only change my future.”
Special Agent Kurt Ormberg, who helped recover Alex and put her pimp behind bars, explained that children who are most susceptible to sexual exploitation have a void in their lives. “That void might be related to family, food, or shelter, but it’s a void that needs to be filled, and pimps fill it.” And after they nurture their victims, he said, they sexually exploit them. “Too often,” Ormberg added, “these young victims don’t think they have anywhere else to turn.”
“I was very lucky to be able to walk away,” Alex said. “I never got hurt, so I’m really, really lucky. I’m one of the few that can say that.” Without the help of the FBI, she added, “I probably would have ended up dead.”
Forty-seven FBI divisions took part in Operation Cross Country VII, along with more than 3,900 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers and agents representing 230 separate agencies.
Operation Cross Country is part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative that was created in 2003 by the FBI in partnership with the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), to address the growing problem of domestic child sex trafficking in the United States.
The program brings state and federal law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and social service providers from around the country to NCMEC, where the groups are trained together.
“Operation Cross Country demonstrates just how many of America’s children are being sold for sex every day, many on the Internet,” said John Ryan, NCMEC CEO. “We are honored and proud to partner with the FBI, which has taken the lead in tackling this escalating problem.”