During a human trafficking investigation in California, called “Operation Lost Angels,” the FBI recovered 33 missing children, eight of whom had been sexually exploited, the agency said.
For the operation, which began Jan. 11, the FBI worked with more than two dozen law enforcement and non-governmental partners “to identify, locate, and recover missing children, particularly those who have been or were suspected of being sexually exploited and/or trafficked.”
Of the underage victims recovered, eight were being sexually exploited at the time of recovery, the agency said in a statement, as part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“Two were recovered multiple times during the operation while on the ‘track,’ a common term used to describe a known location for commercial sex trafficking. It is not uncommon for victims who are rescued to return to commercial sex trafficking either voluntarily or by force, fraud, or coercion,” it said.
“The FBI considers human trafficking modern day slavery and the minors engaged in commercial sex trafficking are considered victims,” said Assistant FBI Director Kristi K. Johnson.
In the 2020 Report on U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons, the State Department warned about “the increasing number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers due to the instability, isolation, and lack of access to critical services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The effects of COVID-19, as with other catastrophic events, are disproportionately impacting communities suffering from systemic or generational inequality – the same communities traffickers often prey upon,” the report said.
The FBI also revealed that its caseload for trafficking-related crimes, for both sex and labor, had increased significantly in the past several years. Last year, the agency started 664 human trafficking investigations across the country, arresting 473 people. As of last November, there were more than 1,800 pending trafficking investigations, including those involving minors exploited through commercial sex trafficking, the FBI said.
The Tallahassee Police Department, Florida, announced last November that more than 170 people were charged as part of a two-year investigation uncovering a sex trafficking network in the state.
“Operation Stolen Innocence,” a secretive probe into the commercial trafficking of a teenaged girl, began in November 2018 when police investigators saw images of a child being posted on a website advertising sex for money.
Last October, the U.S. Marshals rescued 27 missing children in Virginia as part of nationwide operations to save exploited children. The Department of Justice announced at the time that the five-day law enforcement effort, called “Operation Find Our Children,” took place throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.