Agents find 70 missing minors, some were abused
Online predators spurred several children to run away from home; Undercover officers went online to track them
EL PASO, TX (border report) – Seventy minors, many lured from their homes by online dating and some sexually exploited, are now safe thanks to the work of law enforcement in West Texas.
A coalition of federal, state and local investigators rescued children as young as 10 from places like Midland, El Paso, Dallas, Colorado State and Juarez, Mexico. From late April to mid-May, investigators followed leads from relatives and scoured the Internet to locate minors who had been reported as runaways.
This is the second time the agencies have conducted a high-intensity sweep dubbed Operation Lost Souls. The previous one resulted in the return home of 24 children.
“HSI is committed to protecting our nation’s most valuable resource, children, by investigating and bringing to justice those involved in the sexual exploitation of minors,” said Taekuk Cho, Deputy Special Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. “Unfortunately, however, several of these children were allegedly victims of physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.”
Some of the minors had fled difficult situations at home, others left foster families. But many others preyed on people they communicated with online, luring them to leave.
“You have individuals who have been unable to visit their friends or travel due to the pandemic. When you’re feeling secluded at home and not able to be out and about, you meet people online and hang out with those people,” Cho said. “It could be a dating site, social media sites like Tik Tok, Tinder, Snapchat […] You meet these individuals without knowing they are trying to harm them.”
Runaways are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation because they depend on their host or adult friend for room and board, law enforcement officials said. Some adults take advantage of this vulnerability to get sex with the minor, sometimes by drugging him.
More than half a million children go missing in the United States each year, and some are never heard from again, investigators said.
But just like sex offenders use the Internet to find their victims, law enforcement agencies use analysts who can track them online, said Jorge Uribarri, HSI’s assistant special counsel in El Paso.
“Part of our work is to track down child exploitation websites. Our undercover officers often go there to find those trying to recruit children for sexual exploitation,” Uribarri said.
Federal and local officials are preparing to prosecute some of the adults who take in or detain the minors. However, this is a process that takes time, sometimes because the children did not want to reveal the full extent of their ordeal, Cho said.
He said law enforcement is working with nonprofit agency partners to provide medical and psychological support to the children while they conduct their investigations. “Our efforts are focused on stabilizing and healing victims while ensuring perpetrators are held accountable for these heinous crimes,” Cho said.
He urged parents to be aware of who their children are talking to online and to call 911 immediately if an adult tries to bait them.
One of the missing children was traced to Juarez; Federal agents from diplomatic missions there found these minors and worked with the Mexican government to bring them back to the United States, officials said.
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