Two hundred and fifty-five suspected child predators were arrested and 61 victims of child sexual exploitation were identified during a five-week operation announced Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its Internet Crimes Against Children task forces across the United States and its territories.
"Operation iGuardian," which ran May 28 to June 30, was described by ICE as a "surge operation" aimed at identifying and rescuing victims of online sexual exploitation, and arresting their abusers as well as others who own, trade and produce images of child pornography.
"Protecting our youth in the digital age requires all of us to be on the lookout for child predators abusing and extorting victims online," ICE Director John Morton said. "Children and parents need to understand that not everyone online is who they say they are.
"Child abusers prowl social media looking for opportunities to force young people into sexual exploitation through guile, deceit, and extortion," he said. "We want children to know that it's wrong for any adult to solicit or pressure them for sex and that the law is on their side."
According to investigators, a "disturbing trend" is emerging in which child predators are increasingly using the Internet to entice children to produce and share sexually explicit material online. During Operation iGuardian, ICE agents said they encountered various child predators chatting online with minors about sexual topics, sending them obscene images, encouraging them to produce nude or sexual photos and videos, and attempting to meet them in person to engage in sexual activity.
In some cases, they said, child predators are also sexually extorting, or "sextorting," the minors into producing additional and increasingly graphic images and videos.
"Thanks to the essential support of our federal partners and the dedicated efforts of our task force members, Maryland's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has had a significant impact on our fight against the Internet exploitation of children," said Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus L. Brown.
"Since 2000, Maryland's task force has been responsible for 526 arrests of men and women who were attempting to victimize our most vulnerable citizens — our children," he said. "I applaud the dedicated members of the 61 task forces across our nation, who daily work together in cyberspace tracking down those who prey on our children."
Twenty-four of the 61 victims identified during the Operation iGuardian were engaging online with strangers who sexually exploited them. Their ages ranged from 7 to 17, the majority aged 13 to 15 years old.
Of the 61 victims identified, ICE said four were under the age of 3; five were ages 4 to 6; 13 were ages 7 to 9; 10 were ages 10 to 12; 23 were ages 13 to 15; and six were ages 16 to 17. Forty-two were girls and 19 were boys.
Of the 255 child predators arrested during Operation iGuardian, ICE said 20 were charged with online sexual enticement of a minor, two of which escalated to sextortion of multiple victims. The other 235 were charged with child pornography production, possession and distribution of child pornography; traveling with the intent to have sex with a minor; and various other offenses, including rape and molestation. Of the 255 arrested, 251 were men and 4 were women.
One of those arrested was Eduardo Arturo Romero Barrios, a Mexican national, 33, taken into custody on June 26 by the Mexican Attorney General's Office with the assistance of the Mexican Federal Police in Monterrey, Mexico.
He was accused of extorting minors to provide more sexually explicit material by threatening to expose the images he had acquired from them throughout the Internet. ICE identified two victims, boys ages 11 and 13 in Arkansas, and are pursuing leads into at least three other children: a 10-year old Kentucky girl, and two others in Australia and the Ukraine.
In fiscal 2013 to date, a total of 1,674 child predators have been arrested by ICE on criminal charges related to the online sexual exploitation of children. In 2012, 1,655 child predators were arrested; 1,335 in 2011; and 912 in 2010. Since 2003, ICE has initiated more than 29,000 cases and arrested more than 10,000 persons for these types of crimes.