US authorities have arrested 255 suspected child predators and rescued 61 children in a five-week sweep that spanned nine countries and was known as “Operation iGuardian”.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency led the international operation to capture online sexual abusers and those who possess, produce or sell child pornography. The agency told reporters that sex abusers are using a method known as “sextortion”, in which they blackmail children into sending pornographic images of themselves to the abusers.
"In many instances, the abusers take advantage of a sexual image the child divulges in a chat room or over a text to force the child to continue to produce darker and more pornographic images on threat of broader disclosures of the images over the Internet," ICE Director John Morton said at a news conference.
Between May 28 and June 20, the agency made 244 arrests in the US and 11 in Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. Four of the suspects were women and the other 251 were men. Sixty of those arrests were made in the state of Florida.
ICE also identified 61 child victims of sexual exploitation in the US, Canada, Indonesia and the Netherlands. Of these, 22 were 9 years old or younger, and four were under the age of 3. Forty-two of the victims are girls and 19 are boys.
Morton told reporters that 17 of the child predators were in positions of trust. Nine were teachers and three were clergy members. One man served as a missionary with the New Tribes Mission in Sanford, Fl., and another was a federal employee at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Fl.
Another suspect was a 25-year-old Puerto Rican high school cheerleading coach who had been blackmailing a 17-year-old girl through the Internet.
ICE suspects that there are at least 80 additional victims that may have been targeted.
“The sad truth is, there are many more child victims of sexual exploitation out there who have not yet been rescued and are still suffering,” John Ryan, chief executive of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told Reuters.
Of those who have been arrested, 20 have been charged with online sexual enticement of a minor, and 235 have been charged with possession, production or distribution of child porn, traveling with the intent to have sex with a minor, rape, or other related offenses.
“We are in the midst of a very, very serious fight against child abusers and pornographers,” Morton said. “These 255 arrests are an important blow in the fight, but we need everyone’s help.”
The agency has warned the public that child abusers continue to prowl social media sites to coerce minors into sending pornographic images through “guile, deceit and extortion.” This year, ICE has already arrested 1,674 child predators – a rate that is far surpassing previous years. The agency arrested 1,655 child predators in 2012, 1,335 in 2011, and 912 in 2010.