Federal agents last week arrested two pimps and rescued a North Charleston teenager as part of a national crackdown on child sex trafficking.
Investigators targeted 106 cities nationwide, including Columbia and North Charleston, and recovered 168 children who had been subjected to prostitution, according to the FBI. Agents arrested a total of 281 pimps on state and federal charges in the initiative, known as Operation Cross Country, the agency said through a written release.
"Targeting and harming America's children through commercial sex trafficking is a heinous crime, with serious consequences," said FBI Director James B. Comey in the release. "Every child deserves to be safe and sound. Through targeted measures like Operation Cross Country, we can end the cycle of victimization."
The week-long effort involved the FBI, local law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the release said. SLED and North Charleston Police were among the agencies involved at a local level.
Investigators focused on high-risk areas, including truck stops, casinos and dating sites that provide escort services.
In the case of the North Charleston teenager, agents are working with the girl because she wants help, said Michael Stansbury, FBI program coordinator of the Violent Crimes Against Children program.
Stansbury said what is typically seen in South Carolina are teens between 14 and 16 years of age, who are lured by the prospect of easy money as a gateway to independence.
The men who victimize teenaged girls tend to target troubled youth, Stansbury said. By the time law enforcement becomes involved, the teens usually want out of the lifestyle. Stansbury warned parents to be aware of where their children are and who they are with.
"It's just being convinced by an older person that it's a quick, easy way to make money to get out on their own," Stansbury said. "People have found that they can do it quite easily and make some decent money at it, especially the young guys; they know they can get the girls."
South Carolina's Attorney General Alan Wilson recently announced his office would take an aggressive approach toward fighting human trafficking in the state.
Wilson added places like Charleston, which are full of tourists and lots of out-of-towners, are hotspots for human trafficking. A North Charleston man was sentenced in May to four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges in connection to a sex trafficking case.
The Polaris Project, a national organization that fights global human trafficking, ranked South Carolina as No. 6 of the "Dirty Dozen" in 2011, for having weak laws on the issue. Since then, the state has passed sweeping reforms to the law, knocking the Palmetto State off the list.
"There is no place for child prostitution, and its companion crime of human trafficking, in our state. Everyone in South Carolina needs to be aware that this illegal activity is real, and it could be happening in your community," said Wilson in the release, following the sting. "State and federal authorities are delivering a powerful message with these arrests: if you are committing these crimes, we are coming for you."
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.