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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton speaks as John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, left, listens during a news conference in Washington on Thursday.
In just over a month, more than 120 sexually exploited children -- one just 19 days old -- were identified in an international operation that found them depicted in child pornography on the Internet, U.S. officials said Thursday.
In Operation Sunflower, led by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigation unit from Nov. 1 to Dec. 7, 123 victims of child sexual exploitation were identified, ICE Director John Morton said at a press conference in Washington.
Of that group, 44 children had been living with their abusers, and 79 children were exploited by people outside of their home or were victimized as children and are now adults. Seventy female and 53 male victims rescued; 110 of the victims were identified in 19 U.S. states and the rest were identified in six foreign countries.
“Results [of the operation] were significant but grim, a sad reminder to us all that child online exploitation is a real part of our lives and absolutely demands our full attention,” Morton said. “The rescues highlight the depth and global nature of this problem.”
In the investigation, HSI and partner law enforcement agencies arrested 245 people. Among them were a first-grade teacher from Chula Vista, Calif., and an airline pilot, NBCSanDiego.com reported.
“As satisfying as the arrests have been, today is a day of mixed emotions because this operation is ultimately a tale of the perverse, pervasive and violent exploitation of children, very young children to satisfy a very dark pleasure of twisted adults,” Morton said.
Of the victims identified during Operation Sunflower, five were under the age of 3, and one of those was just 19 days old. Thirty others were below the age of 10, officials said.
“The age of the victim has always been a problem. The Internet has just allowed a much greater immediacy to the abuse, and we’re seeing numerous instances of life child abuse that has been streamed over the Internet,” Morton said.
From the results of Operation Sunflower, named after ICE’s first successful case under the new Victim Identification Program, Morton said a few trends emerged.
Most notably, younger children were more often abused and more women were directly involved in carrying out the abuse, he said.
Additionally, the victims of child sexual exploitation increasingly have an international nexus, said John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“The problem of child exploitation is hardly confined to the United States,” Ryan said Thursday. “The Internet has made this problem such that almost every case we touch and investigate has a very strong overseas component.”
"We know that there's more work to be done," Ryan said. "Anyone could know these victims, not knowing that they're being harmed. They could be your neighbors' children, your child's classmate, or even your own child."
Morton said the only answer to child exploitation is "a relentless fight."
"Whenever our investigations reveal the production and distribution of new child pornography online, we will do everything we can to rescue the victim and prosecute the abuser, even if takes us years or around the world to do it," he said.
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