Nationally, 82 children were rescued from the sex trade in Operation Cross Country, a two-day initiative which focused on rescuing underage victims of prostitution.
In Mississippi, there were 28 arrests in the operation, which took place Thursday and Friday, though no child victims were recovered. Last year, authorities were able to get two children off the streets.
“I think that may be a win. The individuals that we did catch, it doesn’t mean they never participated in said activity. Just because we didn’t catch them doing it this time doesn’t mean they don’t participate in it,” said Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance. “It’s just a low-life individual who would try to live off a child being prostituted.”
The operation, spearheaded by the FBI, also involved the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the Mississippi attorney general’s office, the Mississippi Department of Corrections, JPD, the Ridgeland, Madison and Southaven police departments and that Madison County Sheriff’s Department. Operation Cross Country is part of the FBI’s Innocence Lost Initiative, which began in 2003. Teams work all year to recover minor trafficking victims. Since the inception of the program, there have been more than 6,100 child identifications and locations.
Fifty-five FBI field offices and 71 state and local task forces took part in the operation in 106 cities across America. In addition, there were several dozen operations across Canada and approximately 10 operations across Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.
While the names and ages of those arrested were not immediately made available, Jackson FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Luis Quesada said 22 of the suspects were charged with prostitution, five were alleged pimps and one was arrested on a narcotics charge.
“Certainly, being able to rescue children that have been lured or forced — because really when you look at it it’s about the same thing — into this lifestyle, it’s one of the most noble things that law enforcement officers can do and we’re certainly serious about our efforts to hold individuals like this accountable,” Vance said.
Southaven police Lt. Mark Little said his department does periodic stings in order to keep constant pressure on the sex traders but that the operation was a success for them.
“I know there are traveling women that do this and go from big city to big city. Some of them come to Jackson for a weekend and maybe travel to Memphis for the weekend,” he said. “But we usually pull from the Memphis market.”
Eight of the arrests were made in Jackson and eight in Ridgeland. The other 12 were in Southaven, FBI spokesman Brett Carr said. The FBI can press federal charges on the trafficking cases while the prostitution charges are local, Quesada said.
Special Agent Cynthia Bobe said the Office of Victim Assistance handles followup with the victims who are recovered.
“Operation Cross Country aims to shine a spotlight into the darkest corners of our society that seeks to prey on the most vulnerable of our population,” said FBI Director James Comey. “As part of this effort, we are not only looking to root out those who engage in the trafficking of minors, but, through our Office of Victim Assistance, we offer a lifeline to minors to help them escape from a virtual prison no person ever deserves.”
Human trafficking of adults is also a problem, Quesada said. It’s unclear whether any of the 22 arrested on prostitution charges were victims.
“If we were to get a lead in one of these cases and someone said, ‘I’m being forced to do this,’ then we’ll push through that investigation without question,” he said.