By Clayton Sandell
When the sun goes down on the streets of Denver things are just heating up. With guns drawn police swoop in on a man they suspect is a pimp after he drops two young women, ages 19 and 20, for trysts.
Hidden among the nation’s leafy suburban streets is an epidemic of sex trafficking, authorities say, especially of underage girls and boys lured into the life by pimps.
The arrest in Denver was one of 107 suspected pimps busted in a three-day weekend sweep in 57 cities. In all, 79 underage children were rescued, more than ever before in a nationwide sweep.
ABC News gained exclusive access inside Operation Cross Country, journeying deep inside a hidden world of cat and mouse between law enforcement and those who traffic young women.
“A pimp is everybody and anybody. White, black, Hispanic, purple, green, doesn’t matter. Man, woman, old, young,” Sgt. Dan Steele of the Denver Police Department said.
Steele runs a new Denver task force that teams local cops with the FBI. They call themselves the “Pimp Hunters.” Their mission is to put a dent in the growing number of women and underage kids forced into the sex trade, an estimated 100,000 children.
Cops say the average age of a girl entering this life is 12. Once on the streets, experts say one-third of girls are approached by a pimp within 48 hours.
“People have a tendency to believe that this is foreign countries and it’s all about people being brought in from Indonesia, which happens, but it’s also our kids, our neighborhoods, our children,” Steele said.
Austin, 20, a former teen prostitute, was rescued by the “Pimp Hunters” two years ago. Austin grew up in the well-to-do suburb of Highlands Ranch.
“I lived a pretty life, I went to some of the best schools,” she said. “I never, like, wanted for anything.”
Despite her privileged upbringing, Austin’s teen years turned ugly. She got hooked on drugs and alcohol and was in and out of jail. At her most vulnerable, she was taken in by a man offering help. He was a pimp, she was 17.
“He came in and was like, ‘I will take care of you. I know you just lost your job, we will fix that, we can be business partners,'” Austin said. “[When he said business partners], I thought he was going to help me get a job, not what he actually did.”
Austin said she was able to get through the calls by shutting down inside.
“I blacked it out, like it wasn’t even happening,” she said. “This isn’t really life, you disassociate from it, just not thinking about it.”
Pimps succeed, experts say, by luring women and girls who are emotionally vulnerable and easily manipulated. The task force is trying to offer a way out.
Austin was only able to escape prostitution after her pimp was arrested by Denver police. He was convicted and sent to prison. Today, Austin says she’s sober, planning on going to college and is engaged.
“What a terrible feeling that is to feel like at 14, 15, 16, 17, that your life is over. That no one wants to see you like you want to be seen. Now my life is totally different,” she said, starting to cry.
“I never would have seen myself getting out of the situation and on top of that going on and being successful in the way that I am.”
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