EL PASO, Texas – Seventy minors, many lured from their homes by online acquaintances and some subjected to sexual exploitation, are now safe thanks to the work of West Texas law enforcement agencies.
A coalition of federal, state and local investigators rescued children as young as 10 from places like Midland, El Paso, Dallas, the state of Colorado and Juarez, Mexico. From late April to mid-May, the investigators followed leads from relatives and scoured the internet to locate minors reported as runaways.
This is the second time the agencies conduct a high-intensity sweep dubbed “Operation Lost Souls.” The previous one resulted in the return of 24 children home.
“HSI is committed to protecting our nation’s most precious resource, children, by investigating and bringing to justice those individuals who engage in the sexual exploitation of minors,” said Taekuk Cho, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. “Sadly, however, several of these children were ostensibly victims of physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.”
Some of the minors had fled difficult situations at home, others walked away from foster families. But many others fell prey to people they communicated with online and lured them to leave.
“You have individuals who due to the pandemic have been unable to go see their friends or travel. When you feel secluded at home, not able to go out and about, they meet people online and go meet with these individuals,” Cho said. “It could be a dating site, social media sites such as Tik Tok, Tinder, Snapchat […] They meet these individuals not knowing they are trying to bring harm to them.”
Runaways are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation because they depend on their host or adult friend for housing and sustenance, law enforcement officials said. Some adults take advantage of that vulnerability to obtain sex from the minor, sometimes by drugging them.
More than half a million children go missing in the United States every year and some are never heard from again, investigators said.
But just like sexual predators use the internet to find their victims, law enforcement agencies deploy analysts who can track them online, said Jorge Uribarri, deputy special agent in charge of HSI in El Paso.
“Part of our job is to track child exploitation websites. Our undercover officers often go there to find those who attempt to recruit children for sexual exploitation,” Uribarri said.
Federal and local officials are preparing to prosecute some of the adults hosting or holding the minors. However, that’s a process that takes time, sometimes because the children don’t want to divulge the full extent of their ordeal, Cho said.
He said law enforcement works with nonprofit agency partners to provide the children with medical and psychological assistance while conducting their investigations. “Our efforts focus on stabilization and healing of victims while making sure the perpetrators are held responsible for these heinous crimes,” Cho said.
He urged parents to be aware of who their children talk to online and immediately call 911 if an adult is trying to lure them.
One of the missing children was traced to Juarez; federal agents attached to diplomatic missions there found that minor and worked with the government of Mexico to bring her back to the U.S., officials said.