ICE HSI roots out child predators at home and abroad

ICE HSI roots out child predators at home and abroad


To protect the most vulnerable and root out predators has been a high priority of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) for more than two decades.

Throughout the years, ICE HSI child exploitation prevention efforts morphed from a small center in Fairfax, Virginia, into a worldwide initiative. The launch of HSI’s flagship initiative, Operation Predator, as well as key domestic and foreign partnerships, have been paramount to expanding both its reach and success.

The goal: To identify, investigate, and arrest child predators who possess, trade, or produce child sexual abuse material; travel overseas for sex with minors; and engage in the sex trafficking of children.

Rescuing and assisting in the recovery of these vulnerable victims is just as important.

“Innocent children who are sexually exploited physically or through disseminated child sexual abuse material may suffer irreparable trauma,” says Jack P. Staton, special agent in charge of ICE HSI El Paso. “Under our ongoing Operation Predator program, our HSI special agents continue to work jointly with our law enforcement partners to rescue victimized children, and aggressively target child predators for their heinous crimes.”

Several laws increase the probability that sexual predators who harm children will suffer severe consequences, including the Mann Act, the 1994 Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Act, the 2003 Protect Act, and the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Additionally, federal law bars U.S. residents from engaging in sexual or pornographic activities anywhere in the world with a child under 18.

Those convicted in the United States face significant penalties, including:

  • Up to 30 years in prison for possession, manufacture, or distribution of child sexual abuse material.
  • Up to 30 years in prison for traveling abroad to have sex with children or being a facilitator in these crimes.
  • Up to a life sentence for sex trafficking children for prostitution.
From snail mail to the darknet

From Snail Mail to the Darknet

Prior to the creation of ICE in 2003, legacy U.S. Customs special agents investigated the illegal distribution of child sexual abuse material, often sent by mail or purchased overseas.

However, the internet boom and other technological advances shifted the sharing and trading of child sexual abuse material to the web. The new reality pushed HSI to develop cutting-edge techniques to combat the sexual exploitation of children.

To aid in the fight, the ICE HSI Cyber Crimes Center (C3), Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) was born.

Located in Fairfax, Virginia, C3’s CEIU was established in 1997 to combat child exploitation, but quickly grew to support a wide range of cybercrimes investigations related to HSI’s vast statutory authority. CEIU receives the support of both the computer forensics and the cyber crimes sections of C3, as it relies on their methods to track down predators operating in areas not reachable through common investigative methods. Likewise, HSI established a national Victim Identification Program, combining the latest technology with traditional investigative techniques, to rescue child victims of sexual exploitation.

The unit further expanded its capabilities in 2013 thanks to the launch of a smartphone app – the first of its kind in U.S. federal law enforcement – designed to obtain the public's help with fugitive and unknown suspect child predators.

The Operation Predator app enables users to receive alerts about wanted predators, to share the information with friends via email and social media tools, and to provide information to HSI by calling or submitting an online tip. The app allows users to view news about arrests and prosecutions of child predators and additional resources about ICE and its global partners in the fight against child exploitation.

Today, with 200 U.S. offices, more than 70 offices overseas, and technology on its side, HSI can follow a child exploitation case – to rescue a victim or arrest a predator – wherever the investigation may lead.

Since the launch of Operation Predator in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 25,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child exploitation material, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children. In fiscal year 2019 alone, more than 3,700 child predators were arrested by HSI special agents and more than 1,000 victims were identified or rescued.


Domestic Partnerships

ICE HSI takes a victim-centered approach to its child exploitation investigations by working to identify victims, offenders, and possible locations based on information extracted from images and/or videos. It works in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and other federal, state, and local agencies to help solve cases and rescue sexually exploited children.

For example, HSI has special agents assigned to NCMEC, as it is HSI's largest source of public tips. With regional offices in California, Florida, New York and Texas, NCMEC is a nonprofit organization that concentrates on, and is authorized to collect, information from social media networks and other partner organizations to help find missing children, reduce child exploitation and prevent child victimization.

The information NCMEC gathers is not only disseminated to HSI, but also the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces throughout the United States, the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, the Secret Service, and other federal agencies who also have agents embedded. Leads are followed up in the field so agents can try to quickly rescue minor victims and arrest offenders responsible the sexual exploitation of children.

“Sometimes the referrals are emergencies – a call in the middle of the night and a child who is in imminent danger – so information is passed immediately to agents, whether they are in the United States or abroad, so they can rescue the child from immediate sexual or physical abuse.”
– Jaime Corona, CEIU Section Chief, ICE HSI Cyber Crimes Center (C3)

HSI’s C3 also houses and manages the Angel Watch Center (AWC) in accordance with International Megan’s Law. AWC is a robust HSI partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, National Targeting Center, and the U.S. Marshals Service to proactively identify and target child sex offenders who are traveling to foreign countries. This information is provided to foreign law enforcement authorities for appropriate action.

Furthermore, HSI is part of the ICAC Task Force program, a network of coordinated task forces representing more than 3,000 federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. These agencies are engaged in reactive, proactive and forensic investigations, and criminal prosecutions.

Created by the Department of Justice, ICAC task forces help state and local law enforcement agencies develop an effective response to cyber enticement and child sexual abuse material cases. This assistance encompasses forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services and community education.

HSI participates on all 61 ICAC task forces across the U.S.

International Partnerships

Through ICE attachés and other offices, HSI special agents stationed internationally work with foreign governments, INTERPOL, and other counterparts to enhance coordination and cooperation on crimes that cross borders.

Most notably, HSI is the U.S. representative to the INTERPOL working group that locates new child sexual abuse material on the internet and refers cases to the country that the abuse is believed to be occurring in for further investigation.

Additionally, HSI is a founding member of the Virtual Global Taskforce, joining law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private sector partners around the world to combat online child abuse and other forms of transnational sexual exploitation of minors.

While HSI child exploitation efforts are global, some of its greatest recent successes have been concentrated in South America – particularly Colombia and Brazil.

Attaché Spotlight: HSI Bogota

Attaché Spotlight: HSI Bogota

Since 2014, HSI Bogota has prioritized the investigation of child exploitation in Colombia, working with the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to develop the Specialized Child Exploitation Unit (SCEU) within the Colombian National Police (CNP) and conducting extensive training for the CNP and other Colombian law enforcement authorities.

“We also partner with NGOs such as OUR, which has been able to provide several child exploitation trainings for folks [at the CNP] as well”, emphasizes Marcos Gomez, HSI Bogota representative and special agent leading child exploitation efforts in Bogota.

However, delays in these types of investigations were commonplace until recently, as Colombia did not have a cyber forensics laboratory dedicated to analyzing electronic media.

But the harrowing kidnapping, sexual abuse, torture and murder of a seven-year-old indigenous girl in Bogota in December 2016 became a driving force that prompted the development and integration of a much-needed state-of-the-art forensic facility.

From 2016 to 2018, HSI Bogota secured funding to create and establish the Yuliana Andrea Samboni Child Exploitation/Cyber Forensics Laboratory, which opened January 26, 2018. Already known as South and Central America’s premier child exploitation forensics laboratory, it helps expedite cases and streamline investigations involving child sexual exploitation and the production of child exploitation material. One of the main goals is for the lab to serve as an example for the region in how to conduct child exploitation investigations and guarantee child predators are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

Personnel from the SCEU, along with HSI agents, have hosted training/outreach events in Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Cucuta and Bogota. Participants in these training/outreach events included judges, prosecutors and investigators. These events have provided a platform to elevate the capabilities of the Samboni lab while informing other authorities on the investigative methods utilized in child exploitation cases. 

During the opening ceremony of the child exploitation/cyber forensics laboratory in the capital of Colombia, ICE HSI attaché Luis Sierra said, “Today highlights the importance of child exploitation investigations not only to HSI Bogota, but all of our offices in over 50 countries around the globe.”

Colombia's Specialized Child Exploitation Unit (SCEU) by the numbers, as of January 2018
Colombia's Specialized Child Exploitation Unit (SCEU) by the numbers, as of January 2018
Attaché Spotlight: HSI Brasilia

Attaché Spotlight: HSI Brasilia

Much like they have in Colombia, trainings and targeted operations in collaboration with ICE HSI have yielded an increase in the numbers of child exploitation investigations and the arrest of several individuals by State Law Enforcement Agencies (SLEAs) throughout Brazil.

HSI Brasilia supports several child exploitation operations by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security Secretariat of Integrated Operations (SEOPI) under the auspices of Operation Protected Childhood, a collaborative effort with Brazilian law enforcement facilitating information sharing and training regarding investigative methodologies, including peer-to-peer tools, to further advance child exploitation investigations.

During fiscal years 2016, 2017 and 2018, HSI Brasilia provided training on the use of the Child Protection System (CPS) software to SLEAs throughout the country. Since then, SLEAs have conducted CPS-based investigationstargeting online child exploitation in their respective areas of responsibility.

  • October 20, 2017: Operation Luz na Infância I resulted in the arrest of 108 individuals and 157 search warrants executed;
  • May 17, 2018: Operation Luz na Infância II resulted in the arrest of 251 individuals and 579 search warrants executed in 24 separate Brazilian states;
  • November 22, 2018: Operation Luz na Infância III resulted in the arrest of 46 individuals and 110 search warrants executed.

On March 28, 2019, HSI Brasilia attaché reported the execution by SEOPI of another significant large-scale operation combating the online distribution of child sexual abuse material. Operaçao Luz na Infância IV (Light in Childhood) was the fourth iteration of a country-wide Brazilian operation, following the success of previous Luz na Infância operations.

The government of Brazil announced the arrest of 141 individuals, the rescue of four minor victims and the execution of 266 search warrants in all 26 Brazilian states, including the Federal District. HSI Brasilia supported the operation under Operation Protected Childhood.

Brazil’s Public Security and Justice Minister Sergio Moro reaffirmed the need for joint work. "We send a clear message: this type of crime cannot be tolerated. It is a serious crime that affects and harms what we most value in society, our children and teens.”

The coordinator of the Intelligence Laboratory of the Integrated Operations Secretariat, delegate Alessandro Barreto, issued a warning:

On September 4, 2019, HSI Brasilia and SEOPI coordinated Operation Luz na Infância V, which resulted in three minor victims rescued, 81 arrests, 75 search warrants executed, and 15 consensual encounter/interviews (“knock and talks”). The fifth iteration was part of an enforcement operation that included seven countries: United States, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama, and Paraguay.

As Operation Protective Childhood continues, further enforcement actions and arrests are expected in Brazil and throughout the South America region.

Additionally, HSI Brasilia and SEOPI recently expanded their child protection efforts by training law enforcement partners from neighboring countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Last Reviewed/Updated: 12/11/2019