- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 1, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Images and videos of child sexual abuse don’t only exist in the dark corners of the internet. They are hiding in plain sight across New Mexico.

From January through Nov. 1, there were 977 investigations in the state into reports of adults creating, possessing or distributing images of child sex crimes, and committing other sex crimes against children, over the internet. That number, experts say, is more than double the number from last year. And while every viewing of those images is a crime, prosecutors say it also is a sign that a person might plan to - or already has - sexually abused a child.

“These are individuals that, generally speaking, are extremely dangerous, and a lot of times, there’s this misnomer that these are just images,” state Deputy Attorney General Clara Moran told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Moran and other prosecutors do not like the commonly used term “child pornography” because it likens images of abuse to the legal, somewhat regulated industry of adult pornographic content, she said. Moran makes it plain: Many of these images are of children being raped.

While some people tend to believe such images involve children in faraway places, almost 90% involve children in the U.S., including New Mexico, said Anthony Maez, special agent and commander of the state attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The task force has reviewed about 1,400 cyber-tips received from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, peer-to-peer networks and individuals. Of the five types of crimes investigated by the group, the number involving images of child sexual abuse is by far the largest.

In 2019, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force received 592 documented complaints about possession of images of child sexual abuse, 304 about distribution of such images and 63 about creation of images, according to data provided by Maez.

“The number of tips that we see coming in, the volume is very high,” he said, “and unfortunately there isn’t enough law enforcement officers around the state to work these types of tips.”

State law enforcement agencies have ratcheted up their battle against internet crimes against children. About 276 agents across 90 local, state, military and tribal agencies investigate these crimes. Together, they have received 76 documented complaints of child enticement, 21 complaints of a person traveling to meet a child with intentions of abuse, 52 complaints of adults directing obscenities to a minor and 14 complaints of sex trafficking of children, according to data collected by the task force.

Maez points to the ever-evolving world of social media and apps that make it easier to exploit children.

Each month, the task force receives about 110 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the national clearinghouse for all reports made to the cyber-tip line, as well as reports from social media companies, which monitor their sites for potential illegal activity.

Of those 110 reports in New Mexico, Maez said about 63 percent originated from a person who saw an image on Facebook and reported it or from the company’s detection software.

Facebook’s latest transparency report says the company removed 11.6 million child abuse images worldwide from its social network from July through September of this year. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, removed about 512,000 images.

“Each time it is shared is a revictimization of that child victim,” said Matt Baca, a spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. “It is important for people to recognize that the sharing and individual viewing is a reoffense.”

Concerns over the spread of images of child sexual abuse on the internet has prompted smaller police departments to become more aggressive. Roger Jimenez, interim chief of the Española Police Department, said his agency recently began working with the task force.

“It definitely does hit closer to home for some of the officers that actually live in a community where they’re investigating these specific crimes,” he said.

Task force members say the long road to success in prosecuting internet crimes against children is similar to other kinds of sensitive investigations: Extensive interviews and researching a suspect’s past are key before executing a search warrant.

You get one shot to find evidence in these types of cases, New Mexico State Police Agent Jessie Whittaker said, because once a suspect knows what investigators are looking for, they often will try to destroy or hide devices containing images - or any trace that they created or distributed them.

Whittaker said he seizes cellphones or other devices while executing search warrants and takes them to the FBI’s forensics laboratory in Albuquerque.

The internet crimes task force also operates a mobile forensics lab, as well as labs across the state, Maez said, to avoid a bottleneck of cases.

Investigators say they believe people who view graphic photos and videos of child sexual abuse could be - and are likely to be - sexually attracted to children and might physically abuse a child.

“If someone is sexually attracted to children, it is not something that goes away,” Moran said.

According to experts quoted in a New York Times investigation on the psychology of pedophiles, one study of 127 online offenders who had been arrested showed less than 5 percent admitted to having molested a child. During in-depth interviews and polygraph tests, however, another 53 percent admitted to having touched a child.

Moran said this holds true for New Mexico.

“Sometimes prosecutors can ask for a polygraph, and what we find is that these offenders oftentimes disclose … they have been hands-on abusers and just haven’t been caught or that they are planning to put hands on a child,” she said.

Prosecutors and investigators say a law passed this year by the Legislature makes it more difficult to prosecute crimes against children.

The law requires law enforcement to obtain warrants including the specific information they are seeking on electronic devices, as well as the specific person or account targeted. It also requires that any evidence collected under a search warrant that does not fall under the specifications of the warrant be destroyed within 30 days.

That timeline sometimes does not allow for adequate development of a case involving images of child sexual abuse, Moran said.

“It’s essential to these types of cases for law enforcement officers to be able to comb through all of the images,” she said. In some cases, there can be terabytes of information to sift through.

Whittaker said the tight timelines also can make it difficult to retain exculpatory evidence, which can help establish a person’s innocence if the suspect is arrested and his or her case goes to trial.

Privacy concerns and data breaches also have pushed social media platforms and apps to use end-to-end encryption, which makes conversations between a sender and recipient private and unable to be seen by a third party. In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to introduce the technology on Facebook Messenger.

“If Facebook decides to encrypt everything and not (see) who is doing what on the site or have that available, the tips will go down, but the exploitation is taking place out there,” Maez said.

Awareness of these crimes, though distasteful, is critical, Maez said. While the majority of investigations by the task force involve cases in which a child has been abused previously, Maez said the group also pursues local tips to stop such abuse from ever occurring.

Maez holds bimonthly training on investigatory techniques, such as how to mimic a person who is posting or responding to online ads for child exploitation, dark web surveillance and the use of cryptocurrency like bitcoin to purchase images of child sexual abuse.

“We are trying to cover every possible place where an individual may exploit a child,” he said.

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