WASHINGTON - Hundreds of people have been arrested and 21 children rescued in what the FBI is calling a five-day roundup of networks of pimps who force children into prostitution.
The Justice Department says it targeted 16 cities as part of its "Operation
In Boston, a weekend sting by the field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation netted 14 on prostitution charges and removed one child from trafficking, said Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI office.
"The FBI isn't investigating prostitutes and pimps - we're investigating children," Marcinkiewicz said.
Eight people were arrested last Thursday in Braintree, five were arrested in Boston Friday, and one person was arrested Saturday.
The FBI worked with the State Police and police from Boston, Braintree, Quincy, the Norfolk County Sheriff's Department, and the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council.
Many of the children forced into prostitution are either runaways or what authorities call "thrown-aways," whose families have shunned them.
Officials say they are preyed upon by organized networks of pimps who lure them in with shelter or drugs, and then beat, starve, or otherwise abuse them until the children agree to work the streets.
"We together have no higher calling than to protect our children and to safeguard their innocence," Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI director, said yesterday. "Yet the sex-trafficking of children remains one of the most violent and unforgivable crimes in this country."
Nationwide, authorities arrested 345 people - including 290 adult prostitutes - during the operation that ended this week.
Since 2003, 308 pimps and prostitutes have been convicted in state and federal courts of forcing youngsters into prostitution, and 433 child victims have been rescued, Mueller said.
Targeted in last week's sting were Atlanta; Boston; Dallas; Detroit; Houston; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Miami; Montgomery County, Md.; Oakland, Calif.; Phoenix; Reno; Sacramento; Tampa; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington.
The problem of child prostitution has taken on a new urgency in recent years with the growth of online networks where pimps advertise the youngsters to clients. The FBI generally investigates child prostitution cases that cross state lines.
The cases are not easy to convict.
In April 2006, for example, charges against a Nevada man resulted in a hung jury after his 14-year-old victim refused to testify against him.
Months later, however, a second jury found Juan Rico Doss of Reno guilty of forcing two girls - ages 14 and 16 - to sell sex in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland.
A University of Pennsylvania study estimates nearly 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses - "most of them runaways or thrown-aways," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"These kids are victims. This is 21st-century slavery," Allen said. "They lack the ability to walk away."
Globe correspondent Matt Collette contributed to this report.