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Dozens of missing children were recovered by federal agents in a sweeping California sex-trafficking bust this month, officials announced on Friday.
In total, 33 underage victims were rescued from the suspected trafficking operation, the FBI said in a statement. The investigation, dubbed Operation “Lost Angels,” was launched by federal investigators on Jan. 11.
Many of the rescued victims had previously been sexually exploited and were considered missing prior to their discovery. Eight victims were actively being trafficked at the time of the bust. One child was allegedly the victim of a parental kidnapping.
An accused human trafficker — now the target of a swath of new investigations — was taken into custody, as well. The unidentified suspect is being charged at the state level, a spokesperson for the FBI said.
“The FBI considers human trafficking modern day slavery and the minors engaged in commercial sex trafficking are considered victims,” Kristi K. Johnson, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said. “While this operation surged resources over a limited period of time with great success, the FBI and our partners investigate child sex trafficking every day of the year and around the clock.”
Several minor victims were also arrested on a variety of probation violations including robbery and other petty crimes. Two of the victims reportedly needed to be rescued “multiple times.”
The FBI said it’s not “uncommon for victims who are rescued to return to commercial sex trafficking either voluntarily or by force, fraud, or coercion.”
“This harmful cycle highlights the challenges victims face and those faced by law enforcement when attempting to keep victims from returning to an abusive situation. Victims may not self-identify as being trafficked or may not even realize they’re being trafficked.”
More than two dozen local, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies assisted the FBI in the multi-day joint investigation.
“Collaboration with our law enforcement partners is key to ending the vicious cycle of modern day slavery,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
January marks National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In the past decade, federal authorities said sex and labor trafficking has steadily skyrocketed throughout the U.S.
The FBI said it opened 664 human trafficking investigations across the country in 2020, netting a total of 473 arrests of suspected traffickers. As of November, there were more than 1,800 open human trafficking cases nationwide.
“Human trafficking is a pervasive and insidious crime that threatens the safety of our young people, who are the future of our communities,” Michel Moore, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, added.
Media attention related to the California trafficking case reportedly triggered dozens of new tips from the public regarding other suspecting trafficking schemes, according to the FBI.
“The publicity generated a lot of tips to our office and in addition to having initiated investigations we are also following up on,” Laura Eimiller, a public affairs specialist for the FBI, told Oxygen.com on Monday.
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