EDINBURG — A local task force aimed at curbing child exploitation got a new partner this week: the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez met with members of the Rio Grande Valley Child Exploitation Task Force on Wednesday, including Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, and said he had “no hesitation” to become the latest agency to partner with the group.
Formed in January 2016 by Homeland Security Investigations, the task force is comprised of members of the U.S. Marshals Service; the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District; the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office; the Brownsville, Harlingen and Brownsville ISD police departments; and the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators from these agencies work together to track IP addresses that have downloaded child pornography, execute search warrants and conduct forensic analysis on seized electronics. They also carry out undercover investigations, posing as children online to catch predators on social media websites, online chat rooms and dating sites.
“We generate our own leads and tips,” said Eddie Hurtado, an HSI supervisory special agent who heads the task force.
Since the task force started, its partners have arrested almost 50 people on child exploitation charges, such as child pornography or online solicitation of a minor, Hurtado said. In doing so, they’ve identified more than 60 victims of child exploitation.
And because members include state and federal agencies, the task force is about to simultaneously prosecute people at both the state and federal level.
“In partnering with this task force … we’ll have access to a lot of the resources that are available through municipal agencies, but are more available through the federal agencies,” Rodriguez said. He cited the example of forensic analysis technology to analyze phone or computer dumps.
“That really helps us a whole lot when prosecuting pornography or sexual assault cases more efficiently,” he added.
Although the task force has been most active thus far in Cameron County, where it originated, it has already identified individuals in Hidalgo County who may be exploiting children.
Sexual exploitation of children is not unique to the Rio Grande Valley, said Hurtado, as it is an issue on the rise nationwide as children are increasingly exposed to computers, cellphones and the internet at younger ages.
But given the number of “issues associated with the border,” such as migrant and drug smuggling, “law enforcement agencies are very much inundated with other types of investigations involving the border,” Hurtado said, hence the need for a task force dedicated exclusively to child exploitation cases.
The task force will be reaching out to the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and the McAllen Police Department, Hurtado said, as it works to expand its investigative and enforcement reach in Hidalgo County.