Fact Check

Did Snopes.com Ignore a Huge Child Trafficking Bust in Arizona?

Disreputable web sites conflated a homeless camp in Arizona with a carefully orchestrated multi-agency sting on the other side of the country.

Published June 11, 2018

 (ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock)
Image courtesy of ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock
Snopes.com ignored reports of a large child trafficking ring bust in Arizona.

On 7 June 2018, Neon Nettle — a web site that frequently weaves nonsensical allegations into its stories — pushed out a disingenuous article maintaining that we had "ignored" a huge child trafficking bust:

Snopes has 'debunked' recent allegations of a child trafficking camp made by veterans even though it has been reported that the FBI has rescued 60 children as part of a massive pedophile ring bust.

The fact-checking site said that the story about the discovery of an Arizona child trafficking camp was completely "false" with all references to it on social media hidden.

The sting saw 150 child traffickers snared along with approximately 160 children rescued, some as young as 3 years old.

"They are crimes of special concern to the FBI and to law enforcement generally," [FBI special agent Matt] Alcoke said. "Because the victims are so vulnerable as children and because the offenders could be from just about any walk of life, from a gang member all the way up to someone who is highly successful and wealthy."

This passage reproduced an accurate quote from a real FBI agent speaking about a legitimate trafficking bust — but that bust was part of an FBI sting operation which took place in Atlanta, 1,700 miles away from the site of the debunked "child trafficking camp" in Tucson. Neon Nettle deliberately and misleadingly conflated these two stories to make is seem as if we were disclaiming a successful child trafficking raid in Georgia rather than debunking a false report of child trafficking in Arizona.

The FBI sting in Atlanta, code-named Operation Safe Summer, was specific to the state of Georgia and had nothing to do with the false report of a "child trafficking bunker" allegedly discovered by a group in Arizona:

NORTH FULTON COUNTY, GA. — A sting on the sex-trafficking trade in metro Atlanta netted dozens of arrests and the rescue of dozens of children forced into sexual servitude, the FBI announced this week.

Operation Safe Summer was a collaborative effort between the FBI's Atlanta field office and 38 law enforcement agencies in six metro counties, assistant Special Agent in Charge Matt Alcoke told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik.

The Neon Nettle story was apparently sourced from fellow conspiracy theorists The Free Thought Project, who engaged in similar deceptive headlining:

As Snopes 'Debunks' Child Trafficking Camp, 160 Kids as Young as 3 Rescued in Georgia

After Snopes called allegations of child trafficking made by a veterans group a 'conspiracy theory', 160 children, as young as 3-years-old, were rescued from traffickers in Georgia.

Free Thought Project insinuated, in an impressive combination of logical fallacies, that because we (and others) debunked the false "pedophilia bunker" in Arizona story, we must not believe child trafficking exists anywhere in the world at all:

Snopes — whether deliberately or not — is actively engaging in censorship of content that could actually help children by engaging others and fostering discussion. Instead of allowing the discussion to continue, Snopes deliberately shut down the conversation, insuring that the very important topic of child trafficking is forced into the memory hole and never heard of again.

As the above case illustrates, child trafficking is a horrifying reality. While Pizzagate scenarios may not be real, there are far worse incidents taking place across the country.

Child trafficking is, indeed, a horrifying reality, which is why we choose to cover it responsibly rather than making the job of law enforcement and advocacy groups immeasurably more difficult by irresponsibly propagating false information about child trafficking (as sites such as Neon Nettle and the Free Thought Project do).

For example, the "veterans' group" that stumbled across the abandoned homeless camp on private property in Tucson decided that the presence of child's toys at one end of the camp and pornographic magazines elsewhere was obvious evidence of child sex trafficking, rather than ordinary detritus left behind at a temporary site where those migrating from one region to another chose to stop for a while and perhaps have a moment or two alone to tend to some rather common needs.

That group also decided (again, without any evidence) that straps tied around trees were "restraints" for holding children in bondage, rather than for some other more prosaic use, such as tying up tarps to provide shade from the relentless Arizona sun. When local and federal authorities investigated the site and found nothing but an abandoned homeless encampment, the same "veteran's group" immediately accused law enforcement of orchestrating a massive cover-up.

The Polaris Project provides information on recognizing genuine signs of human trafficking and responsibly reporting it. We recommend them as a resource, rather than clickbait-driven, irresponsible purveyors of misinformation.


Agorist, Matt.    "As Snopes 'Debunks' Child Trafficking Camp, 160 Kids as Young as 3 Rescued in Georgia."     The Free Thought Project.    7 June 2018.

Newton, Daniel.    "160 Children Rescued From Child Trafficking Camp 'Debunked' by Snopes."     Neon Nettle.    8 June 2018.

"Recognize the Signs."    Polaris Project.

Brooke Binkowski is a former editor for Snopes.