The FBI has rescued more than 45 suspected teenage prostitutes, some as young as 13, in a nationwide sweep to remove kids from the illegal sex trade and punish their accused pimps.
Over a three-night initiative called Operation Cross Country, federal agents working with local law enforcement also arrested more than 50 alleged pimps, according to preliminary bureau data.
The teenage prostitutes found in the investigation ranged in age from 13 to 17.
Historically, federal authorities rarely play a role in anti-prostitution crackdowns, but the FBI is becoming more involved as it tries to rescue children caught up in the business.
"The goal is to recover kids. We consider them the child victims of prostitution," said FBI Deputy Assistant Director Daniel Roberts.
"Unfortunately, the vast majority of these kids are what they term ‘throwaway kids,’ with no family support, no friends. They’re kids that nobody wants, they’re loners. Many are runaways," Roberts said.
Most of the children are put into the custody of local child protection agencies.
Agents in cities from Miami to Chicago to Anchorage, Alaska took part in the operation.
The federal effort is also designed to hit pimps with much tougher prison sentences than they would likely get in state criminal courts.
Government prosecutors look to bring racketeering charges or conspiracy charges that can result in decades of jail time.
"Some of these networks of pimps and their organizations are very sophisticated, they’re interstate," said Roberts, requiring wiretaps and undercover sting operations to bring charges.
The weekend’s roundup marked the third such Operation Cross Country, and is part of a broader federal program launched in 2003 to crack down on the sexual exploitation of children.