Targeting human trafficking, federal agents participated in a joint operation with local law enforcement that led to the arrest of 23 men alleged to have solicited sex from undercover officers along U.S. 1 in Jessup.

The sting brought agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, together with officers from local and state police departments. While local law enforcement goes after so-called johns to deter prostitution, their value to federal authorities is as a source of information for cases against human traffickers.

"This enforcement action was an effort to further HSI criminal investigations," said William Winter, the homeland security agency's special agent in Baltimore. "HSI together with our local and state law enforcement partners are committed to protecting Maryland communities and continue to identify and dismantle the criminal organizations involved in these illicit activities."

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the HSI, said that the agency requested the operation in the hopes of furthering its investigations of human trafficking. While the arrests were on state charges and the men are not implicated in human trafficking, she said they will be interviewed by federal investigators to glean information that may help crack a prostitution ring.

Jeanne Allert, chairwoman of the Maryland Rescue and Restore Coalition, a group that works with victims of trafficking, said such customers may be able to offer information that can help authorities understand how prostitutes are moved around the state and the country, which is important to investigators and organizations like hers.

"To know that there are patterns emerging can be very helpful for us reaching the victims," she said. "I'm a fan of any level of intelligence that we can get because it helps us look for those types of patterns."

The 23 men arrested are a diverse group. They range in age from 21 to 63 and are from Maryland, Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania. All were charged with solicitation, a misdemeanor that carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and a $500 fine. Female officers posed as prostitutes for the operation, which took place Sept. 20.

While the HSI is a part of the ICE, its agents build criminal cases that have an international connection rather than chasing immigration violations. It is the lead federal law enforcement agency charged with tackling human trafficking. In 2011, the agency indicted 444 people on trafficking charges and convicted 271 nationwide.

Court filings in a Maryland case show how the HSI works with local police to take on prostitution gangs.

The case stemmed from the murder of a man in Annapolis, initially investigated by local police. A woman who was also shot but survived her injuries told police that she was a prostitute, and an investigation revealed that the shooting was linked to a rivalry between different prostitution gangs, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Federal agents worked with Annapolis police and other local departments to build a trafficking case. In November 2010 German de Jesus Ventura, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, and Kevin Garcia Fuertes, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, were indicted on prostitution charges.

Prosecutors said that Ventura has been running brothels in Annapolis and around Maryland with Fuertes' help since 2008.

Allert said federal efforts to tackle the trafficking are especially important because Maryland's prostitution laws are fairly weak. Shared Hope International gave Maryland's prostitution laws a grade of F in a 2011 review of state initiatives to tackle child prostitution.

In a statement, Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said the stings show that the area "will not tolerate prostitution."

Going after the johns themselves also has a useful deterrent effect, Allert said.

"The word gets out that this is a place that you're going to get caught," she said. "Overall it raises awareness of the prevalence of the crime and that is helpful."

But Melinda Chateauvert, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who teaches a class on sex work, said federal efforts to link prostitution and human trafficking can be misplaced. Police go after prostitution cases because it is what they know, she said, but most people trafficked into the United States are working in other industries.

Aggressively cracking down on prostitution can leave prostitutes at greater risk and scare them from seeking government help, she added.

iduncan@baltsun.com