The FBI has arrested 12 Americans for their alleged participation in a sophisticated international child pornography ring that distributed more than 400,000 images and videos of child sexual abuse.
Authorities said they began infiltrating the group — whose members allegedly used encryption to communicate with each other and pass images back and forth undetected — in August 2006.
The 34-count indictment, unsealed Friday in Pensacola, Fla., describes conversations among the men accused of trading the pornography, which involved some victims as young as 5 years old. At least one defendant described the children in some of the images as being "heavily drugged."
One of the defendants went so far as to thank the other members of the group, according to the indictment.
"My thanks to you and all the others that, together, make this the greatest group of pedos to gather in one place," James Freeman, who authorities say went by the screen name "Mystikal," wrote, according to the indictment. "I'm honored just to be a part of it."
An FBI official told ABC News that the group maintained strict secrecy, using sophisticated technology.
The group used several layers of encryption, background checks and other security measures, according to the Associated Press. FBI executive assistant director J. Stephen Tidwell told the AP in an interview that the ring was run like a business, with the lewd images used as currency, instead of cash.
"This is beyond a quantum exponential leap for us to see folks that have gone to this much trouble to produce this kind of volume of horrific exploitation of children," Tidwell said.
Authorities have identified and rescued 20 of the children who were exploited, Tidwell told the AP. "But with 400,000 [images]," he said, "we're going to be at this for years, trying to find the victims."
Because of the use of encryption, Justice Department officials were able to charge alleged members of the group with obstruction of justice, in addition to child pornography charges. The suspects face at least 20 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
Australian investigators first discovered and infiltrated the ring in January 2006, Australian officials told ABC News.