Three children in Sonoma County were rescued from prostitution over the last five days during a national effort that the FBI said led to the recovery of 105 juveniles in 76 cities.
Declaring child prostitution a "persistent threat" in America, the FBI announced the coordinated sweep dubbed Operation Cross Country resulted in the arrest of 159 alleged pimps.
A dozen children were rescued in the Bay Area, giving the region the distinction of having the highest number of child prostitutes found during the week's operation, San Francisco FBI Special Agent in Charge David Johnson said. Bay Area officers arrested 21 alleged pimps, including four in Sonoma County.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office as well as Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park police participated in the national effort, which was organized by the FBI's <WC1>decade-long Innocence Lost National Initiative<WC>.
The Bay Area accounted for 11 percent of child prostitutes rescued and nearly 12 percent of the total number of alleged pimps arrested nationwide.
San Francisco FBI spokesman Peter Lee said that the Sonoma County teams focused on hotel operations with officers posing as potential customers. Websites offering erotic services provided a key tool for finding juvenile prostitutes.
<NO1><WC1><NO><WC>FBI officials <WC1>said <WC>the agency<WC1> had been monitoring Backpage.com and other websites as a prominent online marketplace for sex for sale. Backpage.com said that it was "very, very pleased" by the raids and that if the website were shut down to the advertisements, the ads would be pushed to sites that wouldn't cooperate with law enforcement.
The young people in the roundup, almost all of them girls, ranged in age from 13 to 17.
<WC>In addition to the Bay Area, other areas with a high number of rescued children included the Detroit<WC1><WC>,<WC1> Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. The operation was conducted under the FBI's decade-long Innocence Lost National Initiative. The latest rescues and arrests were the largest such enforcement action to date.
"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across the country," Ron Hosko, assistant director of the bureau's criminal investigative division, told a news conference. "We're trying to put this spotlight on pimps and those who would exploit."
In Operation Cross Country, federal, state and local authorities cooperated in an intelligence effort aimed at identifying pimps and their young victims.
The FBI said the campaign has resulted in rescuing 2,700 children since 2003. The investigations and convictions of 1,350 individuals have led to life imprisonment for 10 pimps and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets.
In their efforts to identify child victims, investigators seek help wherever they can find it — in some cases from adult prostitutes, Hosko said. He said almost all the victims in sweeps like the one over the weekend are girls and that the profiles of the victims cut across racial lines and boundaries of wealth.
Social media are a common denominator in many of the rescues.
"We are seeing it more and more, kids being put out on the street and being trafficked because of the Internet," said Detective Angela Irizarry of the Hayward Police Department not far from San Francisco. "Many of these kids come from runaway or group homes and they feel like this is the only for them to survive on the street."
She said her department identified three girls, ages 15, 16 and 17 and a woman seen dropping off two of the girls was arrested as a pimp. One of the girls was a runaway, another had been missing from a group home for several months and a third ran away off and on from her family's home, Irizarry said. The detective said she had not had a chance to speak with the girls and does not know how long they had been involved in prostitution, but that one of them "is denying any involvement of the individuals we had arrested for pimping. That is typical. Usually these girls don't immediately give up their pimps."
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