WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seventy-nine teenagers held against their will and forced into prostitution were rescued at hotels, truck stops and storefronts in a three-day sweep of sex-trafficking rings across the United States, law enforcement officials said on Monday.
The FBI said 104 alleged pimps were arrested during sting operations in 57 U.S. cities including Atlanta, Sacramento, and Toledo, Ohio. The operation lasted between Thursday and Saturday and involved state and local authorities as well as the FBI.
The teenagers, aged from 13 to 17 years old, were being held in custody until they could be placed with child welfare organizations. They were all U.S. citizens and included 77 girls and two boys, the FBI said.
One of the minors recovered in the sweep reported being involved in prostitution from the age of 11, according to Kevin Perkins, acting executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.
He said the cases were not "one-off" incidents, but evidence of "criminal enterprises" that lure minors in, often through social media, hold them against their will through threats to them or their families, and then traffic them through different U.S. cities.
Child prostitution is "a problem that happens in all kinds of American cities and it happens to American kids," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"People in this country believe it is only a problem that happens somewhere else," he said.
He estimated that at least 100,000 minors were victims of child prostitution and trafficking each year but said assessments were hampered due to under-reporting and other data complications.
The crackdown last week is part of a broader initiative launched in 2003 to combat child-sex trafficking, resulting in five other sweeps since 2008.
To date about 2,200 children have been rescued in the program, the FBI said, adding that its figures do not take into account children recovered by other state and local investigations.
Reporting By Lily Kuo; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Brunnstrom