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NM unit targets predators worldwide

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

As many as 80 people have been arrested in New Mexico in a little over a year thanks to a special detail based here that aims to protect children from sexual exploitation.

The sheer number of arrests tied to the efforts of the Sexual Predator and Exploitation Enforcement Detail, which formed more than a year ago, has prompted Texas state police to reach out to federal agents here in hopes of modeling it, said Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Albuquerque.

The detail, known as SPEED, focuses on becoming a “predator to the predator” instead of just monitoring potential criminals’ activity over the Internet, such as through peer-to-peer networks, Abar said.

For example, SPEED agents set up dates on online chat rooms between an agent posing as a New Mexico child and would-be predators from all over the country and internationally. SPEED in New Mexico has arrested potential child molesters from Mexico, Canada, Australia, India and the United Kingdom, in addition to dozens of arrests of suspects from elsewhere in the United States, according to HSI.

The detail is composed of county and city law enforcement officers, federal agents and investigators with the Attorney General’s Office, and Abar touted the effort as an example of what can be done when local and federal law enforcement agencies work well together.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in numbers because we’re doing what has never been done before,” Abar said. “… We have all the agencies bringing all the authorities together. … We’re the predator to the predator.”

Abar couldn’t divulge much about specific tactics used to target potential child molesters to avoid tipping off the predators they seek to arrest. He did say, however, that at least 16 children have been “saved” as a direct result of the detail’s investigations and follow-up interviews.

Abar urged parents to pay attention to their kids’ activities and to not be wary of reporting suspicious activity to local authorities. He said some predators contact kids through their gaming consoles and other less-traditional Internet hubs.

Also, SPEED was instrumental in the apprehension of ex-Albuquerque Police Department officer Nelson Begay, who was arrested Wednesday on federal child pornography charges, Abar said. Begay resigned as an officer Tuesday night.

In total, six APD officers and two AG’s Office investigators work alongside HSI agents and deputies with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office as part of the detail. As many as 10 people work on the detail at any given time, and as many as 30 investigators from the various agencies can be called in for a big operation, Abar said.

Also, Abar said another of SPEED’s strengths is the follow-up investigation conducted by local agencies after the arrests. Such follow-ups can identify potential victims in an offender’s home or elsewhere, he said.

The detail is part of a larger operation run by the AG’s Office called the New Mexico Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Federal grants fund the task force, which investigates sexual exploitation of children, in addition to training and educating law enforcement. Internet crimes against children include child solicitation, child pornography and child trafficking.

The task force, in part due to SPEED’s efforts, has seen twice as many investigations into Internet crimes against children since 2008. The task force also got an increase in federal grant money this year, from $274,000 to almost $300,000, thanks to its success in pursuing child sexual abuse, said the task force’s commander, Anthony Maez.

“(SPEED) has brought a noticeable increase,” Maez said. “They’re working together as a team.”

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