An operation into the exchange of child sexual abuse material via mobile applications has led to 38 arrests in 18 countries across Latin America and Europe. Four of the six individuals arrested in Colombia were subjects of the International Criminal Police Organization’s so-called Blue Notices to gather information on a specific person’s location and activities. The six Colombian nationals arrested are between 25 and 30 years in age, have families and are considered to be of economic “good standing”.

During Operation Tantalio, coordinated between the Spanish National Police, Interpol and Europol, police across 18 countries in Central and South America and Europe targeted individuals who were using the popular instant messaging application WhatsApp to exchange sexual images and videos of children aged from three months and eight years.

The investigations began mid-2016 when the Spanish National Police identified dozens of WhatsApp message-sharing groups which were circulating sexually explicit images of children and traced the mobile phone numbers used in order to identify the individuals involved, as well as those suspected of producing the abuse material. Interpol has been actively investigating the so-called “dark web” that links users to sites through the Tor “onion-routing” system. Many networks and sites in the “dark web” cannot be found using popular search engines such as Google.

“The importance of international cooperation in identifying victims and perpetrators and uncovering links between investigations in different countries is critical. Colombia encourages the use of Interpol’s tools, especially its International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database, to combat the sexual exploitation of children,” said Jorge Mora Cortés, head of Interpol’s Central Bureau in Colombia.

The only global platform of its kind, ICSE enables specialist officers to use sophisticated image and video comparison software to make connections between victims, abusers and locations by analysing digital, visual and audio content of photographs and videos.

According to the Spanish National Police more than 360,000 files were intercepted and examined by Europol and Interpol.

“Criminals will continue to exploit new technologies to share videos and images of child abuse around the world at the push of a button. But actions like Operation Tantalio send a strong message: police worldwide remain united in their efforts to identify, locate and bring you to justice for engaging in or benefiting from these heinous crimes,” said Bjorn Sellstrom, operations coordinator of Interpol’s Crimes Against Children division. “Whether these materials are being shared in person, by computer or using mobile devices and applications, the fact remains that at the root of this crime, a vulnerable child is being abused,” said Sellstrom.

During the operation, more than 300 devices including computers, mobile phones, tablets and hard drives were seized for digital forensic analysis.

“These offenders are pushing the boundaries of modern technologies to try to avoid being caught by law enforcement,” said the director of Europol Rob Wainwright. “This case is an excellent example of global law enforcement cooperation, led by the Spanish National Police. We need to continue to combine our joint resources and skills to tackle this threat to our children and bring these offenders to justice.”

In addition, Interpol will support ongoing investigations by providing assistance in extracting and analysing digital evidence from seized mobile phones and other devices in order to identify the victims depicted in this material.

Earlier this year, the ICSE database identified the 10,000th victim with an average of five child victims being identified every day.

The countries involved in Operation Tantalio are Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal and Spain.