One-third of the teenage girls recently rescued during the FBI's annual nationwide crackdown on pimps who prostitute juveniles were found in the Puget Sound area.
The three-day Operation Cross Country V concluded Sunday with the recovery of 69 prostituted children in 40 cities around the country.
Law enforcement agencies also arrested 99 suspected pimps and more than 600 other adults allegedly involved in human trafficking or child prostitution.
Most of the juveniles who had been victimized were scooped up from the streets of Western Washington.
“We’re leading the nation for the third year in a row in the recovery of child prostitutes,” said Steven Dean, assistant special agent in charge in Seattle’s field office.
In King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, police and agents rescued 23 prostituted girls and took nine pimps into custody. Also arrested locally were 26 adult prostitutes.
Dean said the fact the Puget Sound region has the highest rescue rate of prostituted juveniles does not mean that there is a bigger problem here. Rather, it speaks to the dedication of local agencies in monitoring sexual exploitation, he said.
“We’re attacking it,” Dean said. “If you dig a little deeper, you tend to find more.”
Sixteen of the juveniles were recovered from King County and seven from Pierce and Snohomish counties.
Lakewood police Lt. Chris Lawler said undercover officers worked with the local Innocence Lost Task Force on Friday for the operation. Officers posed as customers and contacted women via the Internet, Lawler said.
Nine women and one teenage girl were arrested in Lakewood on prostitution-related charges.
In Tacoma, police last week arrested eight suspects in coordination with the Innocence Lost Task Force.
The FBI is working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify the juveniles. Dean declined to say where the children were taken, but did say they were not left with their pimps or on the streets.
Child prostitutes often are recruited by loose-knit groups that seek out kids who might be involved in drugs or runaways looking for a “responsible adult” to help them, said FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry.
“There are groups of people out there preying on naive kids who don’t have a good sense of the way of the world,” Henry said. “Sometimes there’s a threat of force, threats of violence. A lot these kids operate out of a sense of fear.”
Since 2003, when the FBI and the Justice Department launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative, about 1,250 child prostitutes have been located and removed from prostitution.
Staff writer Stacey Mulick and The Associated Press contributed to this report.