A massive nationwide sweep last weekend by the FBI and local law enforcement rescued 105 victims from child prostitution rings and resulted in the arrests of 150 pimps and associates, all as part of the FBI's ongoing Operation Cross Country to combat child sex trafficking. Since the operation began 10 years ago, more than 2,700 child victims have been rescued in the U.S. Sadly, these figures represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Trafficking in child prostitutes is something many Americans associate with other countries, say, in Asia or Eastern Europe, and they would be surprised to learn that it is also a large and growing problem here. It is part of the worldwide scourge of human trafficking, which includes child and adult forced prostitution as well as forced labor. Countries differ in whether sex or forced-labor trafficking predominates, but there is no question that it is modern-day slavery, and it occurs in virtually every country in the world. Children account for 27% of the victims.
Because of its clandestine nature and the spotty or nonexistent data collection efforts of many governments, hard statistics on the victims are lacking, especially for non-Western countries. Informed estimates are what experts rely on. In the U.S., Ernie Allen of the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children (NCMEC) estimates that about 100,000 10-17-year olds are in prostitution, with more than double that number at risk of sexual exploitation. Much of the child prostitution here is home-grown, drawing its victims from the thousands of runaway, homeless, and throwaway kids out on the streets, but there are a significant number of foreign victims here too. According to the State Department, most of the international victims here came from Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Central America.
Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that there are 2 million children in the commercial sex trade out of an estimated 20.9 million victims of all types of human trafficking. Sex trafficking is a huge business too, ranked by the FBI as the fastest-growing area of organized crime and the third-largest type of organized crime in the world. The UN puts its total market value over $32 billion. It is more lucrative than drug dealing, without the risk or funds needed to reinvest in inventory; a child can be put to work over and over and bring in large amounts of cash. The Justice Department estimates that in the U.S., one child can earn $1,000 on a weekend night.
Catching child sex traffickers is very difficult, as the kids are no longer doing business out on the streets, and it is all conducted behind closed doors facilitated by the internet and the widespread use of smartphones. Customers can "shop" online from the safety of their homes, often lured by ads in online classified sites. The internet also helps organized rings coordinate their activities and move the kid around as profits and demand dictate. It is a form of cybercrime, and authorities need to have a great deal of technical expertise to track these online transactions — expertise in particularly short supply in developing countries.
In the U.S., the primary national effort to assist local law enforcement is the Innocence Lost National Initiative, a cooperative effort between the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the NCMEC established in 2003. It is under this program that last weekend's raids were carried out. Other efforts to fight child prostitution include targeting classified ad sites such as Craigslist, where pimps would often advertise. Bowing to pressure by the states' attorneys general, Cragslist shut down its adult ads in 2008; now the focus is on getting Backpage to do the same. In fact, despite our own child prostitution problem, the U.S. leads the world in combatting human trafficking, and through the State Department, pressures other governments to do better. Based on annual data, the State Department ranks governments worldwide in tiers of 1 to 3 (1 being in full compliance with minimum standards) and issues an annual report.
To illustrate the uphill battle we face in fighting this crime, consider two examples. The 2012 report indicates that in the US, a tier 1 country, convictions were obtained in 105 cases of sex trafficking (adults and children). By contrast, Thailand, a country notorious for child prostitution and currently ranked tier 2, convicted only 10 people in four trafficking cases. Even the successes of the U.S. seem paltry compared to the estimated victims, but as the report shows, it's much worse elsewhere.