IN AN UNREMARKABLE hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with POLICE or FBI. The woman--or is she a girl?--will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody.
Welcome to Operation Cross Country, the U.S. government's huge, intrusive, and utterly ineffective effort to fight child sex trafficking.
Variations on the scene above play out again and again in sensationalized montages of footage from the stings, which the FBI has been proudly posting to YouTube since Operation Cross Country launched in 2008. The vignettes are unsettling. In one scene, someone can be heard crying in the background as the camera pans past her stuff--Skittles, electric toothbrush, makeup--and settles on cops counting stacks of money. Other clips follow officers tailing people in tight dresses and stiletto heels or scouring printouts of escort ads from hotel beds. Shot after shot show authorities handcuffing young people, mostly women and girls, and parading them down dim hallways, thick gloved hands gripping skinny arms on either side, or pushing them up against cop cars, the camera lingering on cuffed wrists clasped tightly over baggy jeans or long, bare legs.
The latest iteration of the initiative--Operation Cross Country X--took place across 103 U.S. cities from October 13 to 16. According to the FBI, it involved the efforts of 74 federally led Human Trafficking Task Forces, comprised of officers from 55 FBI field offices and more than 400 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. These included city and suburban police departments, county sheriff's offices, state police and investigative bureaus, juvenile detention departments, drug enforcement units, and an impressive array of federal entities: Homeland Security Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Customs and Border Protection, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the State Department, myriad U.S. Attorney's Offices, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. They were aided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and local nonprofits that had recently received federal grants.
According to an FBI press release, this mighty group conducted "sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers." The focus: "recovering underage victims of prostitution," or, as FBI Director James Comey put it, offering sexually exploited children a "lifeline" from a "virtual prison."
Overall, the operation identified 82 "children" engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers--mostly 16- and 17-year-olds--and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats.
In the end, only five men stand accused of federal crimes--with only two accused of crimes against actual minors. None of these suspects was part of anything even remotely resembling an organized criminal enterprise.
In the four months following Operation Cross Country X, U.S. prosecutors announced federal indictments against a Missouri man accused of driving an 18-year-old sex worker across state lines and a pair of cousins whose initially consensual pimping of three adult women (including one of the defendants' girlfriends) had turned abusive.
Two others were brought up on federal charges for sex trafficking of children, though both were cases of what might be called statutory sex trafficking, with no force, fraud, or coercion alleged by any parties. In one, a Kansas man is accused of earning "at least $100" for driving a 17-year-old girl to three prostitution appointments, which she arranged. In the other, a Texas man is accused of facilitating the prostitution of a 15-year-old whose fake ID said she was age 19. Police say the girl, a frequent runaway from state protective services, obtained the false identification before meeting her "trafficker," who claims he didn't know her real age.
Altogether, these numbers suggest a strikingly lackluster outcome for a federal crusade to save children from "modern slavery" (as so many in the Justice Department routinely call it) and to bring their perpetrators to justice, particularly when you consider the manpower and money mobilized, the breadth of the effort, and the supposed magnitude of the underage sex trafficking problem.
VIEWED FROM ANOTHER perspective, however, the latest Operation Cross Country was a blockbuster success. As a coordinated nationwide vice sting aimed at rounding up sex workers and their customers, there's no denying the results.
In Utah and Montana, 17 law enforcement units (including Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service) joined together for three days to arrest or cite seven women for prostitution, arrest one man for violating a protective order against one of these women, arrest three women on outstanding warrants, and identify one teenager engaging in prostitution. In Mississippi, the FBI's Jackson office partnered with five local agencies and the state Bureau of Investigation, Department of Corrections, and Attorney General's Office to arrest five people for pimping, 22 people for prostitution, and one person for narcotics possession; no juveniles were identified. North Carolina's efforts involved 18 agencies in three counties, yielding the identification of one minor and the arrest of one person on a gun charge.
"St. Louis has the largest, most robust Task Force in the country," Daniel Netemeyer, the FBI's St. Louis crimes-against-children SWAT coordinator, says in an email. But this iteration of Operation Cross Country, he admits, "did not generate any arrests or recoveries." In Phoenix, the FBI "recovered one minor and arrested 11 adults on unrelated charges," says bureau spokeswoman Jill McCabe.
Oregon authorities conducted operations in Portland, Eugene, and Salem, where they made a big deal about raiding a strip club under suspicion of harboring underage prostitution. No juveniles were identified and no one was arrested from the raid. Ultimately, one minor was recovered in Portland and 20 adults were arrested for prostitution.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, an effort spanning six counties and 29 agencies yielded just 14 people identified as "pimps/associates," three people identified as adult trafficking victims, and six minors. Authorities also arrested 135 people for prostitution and 79 for solicitation. In addition, 63 "johns" were texted by a police "cyber patrol" when they responded to an online "escort" ad, and $10,000 in cash and 11 guns were seized.
Virtually everywhere, adult sex worker arrests vastly outpaced all other types of arrests, and far exceeded actual sex trafficking finds. FBI video from this year's operation includes footage of a command center where federal agents watch real-time updates from police departments around the country, keeping a running tally of minors identified and adults arrested. On the single night in October shown in the highlight reel, 28 juveniles--nearly 90 percent of whom were 16 or 17, plus two 15-year-olds and one 13-year-old--were identified. Seventy-eight people identified as "pimps" or their associates were arrested. And 329 adults were arrested for prostitution.
Since 2010, the FBI has stopped publicizing the numbers of sex workers arrested or total number of arrests. But communicating with field office representatives and scouring local news stories provided some idea of the magnitude. Tallying these figures reveals...