Jorge Guzman looked at the photograph of the Asian girl with concern and revulsion. The child looked about 8 years old. Her arms were tied together, and so were her legs, and a man was having sex with her.
"There are some things in this world that are not meant to be seen," Guzman said. "This was one of them."
Guzman makes his living looking at photographs like this, trolling the gutter of child pornography in cyberspace. He heads a computer forensics team of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, based in downtown Long Beach, who track creators and consumers of child pornography trafficked internationally on the Internet.
Working in a cramped lab with sophisticated electronic equipment and computers seized from suspected pedophiles, agents look for evidence by dissecting a computer's hard drive like a medical examiner performing an autopsy.
Guzman has seen hundreds of images of children used by adults for sexual gratification, but this one stunned him like no other. Seeing a prepubescent girl having sex with a grown man was bothersome enough. It was the smile on her face that haunted him.
There was no way she could have been enjoying the degradation, he said. Did she realize she was being used to satisfy someone's sick fantasy? Was she told to smile? Was it a nervous smile?
He will never know.
Since launching Operation Predator in July 2003, which established Guzman's team and about two dozen others across the country, ICE agents have arrested more than 9,000 people suspected of accessing child porn, including 2,000 in California.
Guzman's team has played a role in hundreds of cases nationwide, and dozens more are under investigation. The team also assists local law enforcement.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Anne Gannon in Santa Ana said evidence gathered by the forensics team was so damning that few cases went to trial. Every one of the 20 child exploitation cases she has prosecuted has resulted in guilty pleas, she said.
"Their use of technology and cooperation with local law enforcement agencies has been hugely successful in identifying and jailing persons who are the greatest threat of exploiting children," Gannon said.
Before computers and the Internet, most child pornography was collected from photos and magazines smuggled into the country. Customs agents worked at the major postal distribution stations screening suspicious mail from countries known to produce kiddie porn.
Today, computers make child pornography available on demand, mostly from distributors in Eastern Europe and Asia, Guzman said.
Although computers make it easier for pedophiles to satisfy their sexual fantasies, they also make it easier for investigators to identify and prosecute them.
"If you think you're not going to be discovered, you're wrong," Guzman said. "The minute you make a couple of keystrokes, you have an Internet address, and you've left a trail for us to follow."
ICE agents have also begun collecting evidence from cellphones and iPods, Guzman said.
Jennifer Corbet, a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, said forensics investigators help establish suspects' intent, making it impossible for them to claim they accidentally accessed a child porn site.
"They can show it was the suspect who typed in 'child porn' [to a search engine] or downloaded pictures to a file labeled 'Young Boys,' " Corbet said.
ICE investigations are not limited to cases in the U.S., Guzman said. ICE has agents in 46 U.S. attache offices abroad working with law enforcement in those countries to identify child pornographers, he said.
Americans who create child pornography in foreign countries are also violating U.S. laws. Recent changes in child protection laws also allow the prosecution in U.S. courts of Americans who leave the country to have sex with children.
Almost all of the predators targeted by ICE are men, but investigators are seeing more images of women molesting children, agents said.
ICE Agent David A. Melvin has been tracking creators and consumers of child pornography through the hard drives from their computers since the inception of the team. In 2005 he performed 195 forensics examinations, some involving multiple hard drives from a single computer.
The job can be gut-wrenching, he said, especially when looking at the faces of nameless victims, some of them babies, whose photographs are powerful evidence against an accused maker or consumer of the porn. Few victims are ever identified.
"I've been physically ill," Melvin said. "You come upon certain images that are so disgusting and upsetting you have to walk away to compose yourself."
Melvin's job is to prove that a suspect has downloaded the illegal files to his computer.
He begins an examination by taking out a hard drive and screening its contents for evidence.
Taking care not to damage or contaminate the hard drive, Melvin uses forensic software to make a duplicate of the hard drive's contents, from which the evidence is extracted.
Melvin says looking at child porn is "a sick fantasy" pursued by people who know it is wrong but cannot make themselves stop.
His job is to stop them. "Every child out there deserves the love and protection that my children have at home. That's why I do this."
Still, it is impossible to become immunized to the debasing images of children that an investigator like him sees on an almost daily basis.
"You have to have a valve. You've got to be able to talk about it in order to deal with it," Melvin said. "Sometimes I go home and tell my wife I saw the worst thing I ever saw."