A nationwide effort referred to as “Operation Cross Country” saw the FBI Denver Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force join hands with various state, local and federal agencies.

Their collective mission led to the recovery of 27 victims of sex trafficking. The tally included eight minors and 19 adults, with 14 other children identified but still awaiting rescue.

Five accused traffickers now find themselves cornered by the law, while eight more are under intense scrutiny. The effort saw participation from over 40 agencies and organizations from Colorado. The Denver-based task force represents just one of the 89 similar forces spread across the U.S.

The task force prides itself on its multidisciplinary, intelligence-driven approach that emphasizes a trauma-informed, victim-centered methodology.

Specialists meticulously assess each trafficking victim, ensuring they receive tailored services. These victims also gain access to a wide array of “community, state, and federal resources.”

Mark Michalek, FBI Denver Special Agent, shed light on a common misconception about trafficking.

“This isn’t a kidnap off the streets scenario that you might see in a movie. We see traffickers identifying vulnerable minors and exploiting them through different methods of psychological or physical control.” Michalek said.

Traffickers are prone to prey on addiction, substance abuse and mental health vulnerabilities to ensnare young victims. Lieutenant Aaron Rebeterano from the Denver Police Department’s Strategic Investigations Bureau painted a grim picture of the trafficking landscape.

“Many of them are addicted to illicit narcotics, and this is an angle that the traffickers can use to subject them to exploitation. This begins the grooming process for the traffickers. Traffickers often offer these juveniles and these teens drugs in lieu of sex. The traffickers will then try to hold onto the victims and then offer them to other individuals … for sexual acts,” Rebeterano said.

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“The traffickers often find that providing drugs, food and shelter is an acceptable means to manipulate victims. Many of the traffickers utilize their victims’ addictions, lack of resources [and] physical and emotional abuse to maintain control.”

The Denver Gazette highlighted that victims of trafficking often grapple with disabilities or identify as members of the LGBTQ community. Traffickers, on the other hand, come from varied backgrounds. Some are entrenched in gangs, while others dabble as low-tier drug dealers. Their operations span from residential brothels to massage parlors.

Among the victims was a 16-year-old girl, a pawn in her father’s desperate bid for drugs. Another victim, missing from her foster family, was discovered in a hotel room, sharing space with a known trafficker. These children found their way back to their guardians and received essential services.

Michalek emphasized the grim reality of child sex trafficking.

“Child sex trafficking exists here, in our community. Our Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force collaborates with local, state, and federal partners — as well as community partners and service providers — to proactively combat this heartbreaking crime. Our multidisciplinary team and intelligence-driven approach have consistently succeeded in recovering children victimized by traffickers. Our relentless pursuit of child sex traffickers and our commitment to ensuring victims find safety and receive the services they need remains unwavering.” Michalek added.

The FBI’s dedication to this cause remains evident. With 1,600 pending human trafficking investigations and the initiation of 668 new cases in 2022, their commitment stands firm. Michalek concluded with a sobering observation: “I think the takeaway is that it’s here. They are hiding in plain sight.”

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