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Ms. Lloyd speaks from experience: Sexually abused as a child in England, she ended up in Germany and at 17 was working in a strip club, where she met an American she thought loved her but who “pimped me out.” She said he beat her to keep her working and when she finally escaped, she was “broken emotionally and physically” before putting her life back together.

The Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project, which advocates stronger trafficking laws and provides help to victims, has said trafficking for sex and forced labor generates billions of dollars in profits by victimizing millions of people globally. It said the average age of entry into the sex trafficking industry in the U.S. is between 12 and 14 years old.

With an estimated annual revenue of $32 billion, or about $87 million a day, law enforcement authorities, government agencies and others say human trafficking is tied with arms dealing as the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise, behind only drugs. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the lead agency in trafficking investigations, has estimated that 800,000 people are trafficked into sex and forced-labor situations throughout the world every year.

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in Maryland said the sex trafficking of minors is a top priority of his office, but bringing offenders to justice has become more difficult in recent years. He said the traffickers’ use of the Internet has made it harder to locate their victims, meaning that many of the girls and young women are no longer on the street or at truck stops where law enforcement can see them.

Mr. Rosenstein helped create the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force in 2007, which — working with state, federal and local law enforcement authorities, along with private agencies — seeks to rescue trafficking victims and prosecute offenders.

Since its creation, the task force has sent many traffickers to prison, including Lloyd Mack Royal III, 29, of Gaithersburg, who received a 37-year sentence in July for using what prosecutors said was “physical violence, drugs, guns and lies” to force three girls younger than 18 into prostitution. A federal judge also ordered that after his release, Royal must register as a sex offender.

‘Kiss his pinky ring’

According to court records, Royal forced the girls to engage in sex; threatened to harm them and their families; hit the girls and held one of them at gunpoint; gave them cocaine, PCP, marijuana and alcohol before forcing them to have sex with customers; and, to assert his authority, forced them to “kiss his pinky ring.” The records show he drove the girls to hotels in Gaithersburg and the District to engage in sex.

Royal also gave the girls drugs before forcing them to engage in sex with him to test their “sexual aptitude,” according to the records.

Last month, Derwin S. Smith, 42, of Glen Burnie, Md., pleaded guilty in a task force case to transporting a 12-year-old D.C. girl to Atlantic City, N.J., to work as a prostitute. She was rescued by the task force after she called a relative.

Maryland task force members Amanda Walker-Rodriguez and Rodney Hill, Baltimore County prosecutors, said in an FBI law enforcement bulletin in March that 300,000 American children are at risk of becoming victims of sex traffickers. They said the children often are forced to travel far from home and their lives revolve around “violence, forced drug use and constant threats.” They called sex trafficking in the U.S. a “problem of epidemic proportion.”

“These women and young girls are sold to traffickers, locked up in rooms or brothels for weeks or months, drugged, terrorized, and raped repeatedly,” they said. “The captives are so afraid and intimidated that they rarely speak out against their traffickers, even when faced with an opportunity to escape.”

For many law enforcement officers, the crime can be deeply personal.

“When I heard what happened, I cried,” said Sgt. Chris Burchell, a 28-year veteran of the Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office when he learned that a 13-year-old girl had been kidnapped, raped and forced to work as a prostitute in a San Antonio crack house. He has since founded a nonprofit group called Texas Anti-Trafficking in Persons, which builds rapid-response coalitions across the state.

In the San Antonio case, Juan Moreno, 45, was convicted in December and sentenced to four life terms. Prosecutors said he charged crack customers $25 to rape the teenage girl, who had come into the house with a friend looking for drugs and was held for more than a week.

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