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Sex-Trafficking Sting Covers 76 Cities


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

One of the FBI's largest child prostitution sting operations came to a close this past week. A hundred and five children were rescued, 150 pimps arrested across the country. Last night on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we heard about how sex trafficking has changed in the age of the Internet. In a moment, we'll hear from a former victim who has rebuilt her life. But first, more on that sting operation.

We spoke with Ron Hosko. He's the assistant director of the FBI's criminal division. And I asked him how old these victims tend to be.

RON HOSKO: I think our most populous range goes from roughly 13 to 16 to 17. And we've gone in our engagements as low as the age of nine. And so, we see the range of activity where the abuse is horrendous, where it's less so but it can be psychological as well, where these girls don't have a meaningful family structure or structure in existence that is healthy.

MARTIN: What happens to these young girls who you rescue?

HOSKO: The FBI created in the last 10 or so years the Office of Victim Assistance. And we have what we call victim specialists in each of our field offices and they come out with us on these operations. And their effort is directed at getting community services around these victims so that we can get them out of this life of abuse.

MARTIN: So we're talking foster care? I mean...

HOSKO: Foster care, group homes, you know, short-term shelters.

MARTIN: But from what I've read are those places completely safe? Or are those places where girls can be victimized, recruited into prostitution?

HOSKO: Sure, I think we can easily find examples where bad people will come in and try to recruit within those locations. So our hope and our expectation is, and our work is directed at finding, those places that are safe and they are secure. But that is not always the case. In the current fiscal environment that we're in, where community services are being diminished, where law-enforcement services are being diminished across the country, it's just harder and harder to do.

MARTIN: How has the Internet and specifically social networking - Facebook, Instagram - how has that changed child sex trafficking?

HOSKO: And we have seen examples recently in Northern Virginia. We saw a group who were recruiting across Facebook, you know, with simple complements to young girls telling them they were pretty - would you like to make some money? And the recruitment started just that innocuously but was effective. And they were effective in pulling in multiple victims, tried many, many more from some of the most affluent neighborhoods in our country, in Fairfax County, Virginia.

MARTIN: I understand websites like BackPage.com, which is an online marketplace similar to Craigslist, are used to essentially buy and sell children. There's a movement afoot in Congress to shut some of these websites down. Is that a good idea? I mean, I also gathered that there's a benefit to law enforcement in some way.

HOSKO: Right, I do think if we were to shut down or if someone was to shut down BackPage, the risk is always that the exploiters will find another modality. And they'll run into another dark quarter of our world and we will have to chase them into that - first find out what that dark corner is. And we will certainly run in there after them and shine the light in there.

MARTIN: It sounds like most of the effort is focused on supply - getting the children out of these situations, getting the pimps off the streets. Is there any focus on shutting down demand?

HOSKO: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the FBI's role - we're finite. We have finite resources and by and large...

MARTIN: But is there something you raise the flag on and say, Hey, we may not have the resources to do this but, you know, you can only keep chasing the mouse into a dark corner for so long?

HOSKO: That's right. And we try to do that and we think that we are trying to do the right thing and bring attention to this problem. And so that really points back to the importance of communities to find it in their budgets, to find it in their heart as they look at some engagement on the street; not to just think, well, look at that girl selling herself 'cause that girl could be a minor.

MARTIN: Well, it's a difficult conversation. It's a difficult topic but an important one.

Ron Hosko is assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigations Division. Thank you so much.

My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.