SALT LAKE CITY — A national effort by the FBI and law enforcement across the country rescued 82 minors from sex trafficking over the weekend, including one in Utah.
The 17-year-old girl was brought to Utah from another state and was being cared for by the Division of Child and Family Services before being returned to her family, according to the FBI's Salt Lake City Division.
The three-day effort dubbed Operation Cross Country, now in its 10th year, played out Thursday through Saturday and involved 55 FBI field offices and 74 child exploitation task forces, FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said Tuesday.
For the first time, the operation extended overseas to include Canada, Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand.
In all, 239 people, including numerous "pimps," were arrested in the operation. In Utah, three adult women were arrested on warrants and six others were cited for prostitution.
Some of the women cited during the operation may have been involved in prostitution since they were juveniles, Barnhart said. However, mired in drug addiction, fear or trauma from a home situation they feel was even worse, those caught in sex trafficking often withhold information from law enforcement, he said.
"We get a lot of folks that we recover multiple times," Barnhart said. "Our effort is to try to save as many as possible."
All the women were offered services in the community that may help them, he said, praising the specialists who provided victim assistance as the operation played out across the country.
"Back in my investigative days, it was 'just the facts, ma'am.' We oftentimes could catch the bad people and put them in jail, but we didn't do enough to rebuild shattered lives," Barnhart said. "(Victim advocates) are the folks that, in a victim's lowest point in life, are there for them."
Barnhart noted that while one rescue in the state may sound low, the operation is a single "data point" in the FBI's efforts to investigate and outflank sex traffickers in Utah.
Each year brings new challenges. In the past year, investigators have encountered a new challenge in social media as traffickers have used online connections to warn each other of law enforcement efforts, Barnhart said, including the weekend's raids.
Over the past five years, the FBI has opened 23 sex trafficking cases in the state and has made 24 arrests, he said.
Barnhart also denounced the traffickers as "some of the lowest forms of human to walk the Earth." Many of them, he said, have left drug or gang crimes for more profitable human trafficking, realizing they can make more money from a single young woman than from any pound of heroin or kilo of cocaine.
The FBI also hopes through Operation Cross Country to better inform the public about trafficking, which Barnhart defined as involving a minor or fraud, force or coercion. He urged Utahns to get involved by supporting community or faith organizations and by reporting suspicious behavior.
"This could be your daughter. It could be your niece. It could be the girl next door," Barnhart said. "We see people from all socioeconomic states of life and all areas of the country. The problem is massive, and we'll take all the help we can get."
Operation Cross Country is part of the Innocence Lost Initiative, which since 2003 has been a part of the recovery of about 6,000 children. This is the fourth time the Salt Lake City field office has participated.