ST. GEORGE – There are seemingly few things that would cause a simultaneous mix of horror, rage and revulsion as the idea of child-sex trafficking, it is rampant but there are people committed to bringing it into the light and seeing it eradicated. They are asking for your help.
It is estimated that nearly 2 million children across the globe are involved in sex trafficking, with 100,000 of those children right here in the United States. It’s a lucrative business. According to the FBI, sex trafficking is one of the largest and fastest growing criminal enterprises out there.
Human trafficking, which is also referred to as modern-day slavery, takes on other forms besides child-sex trafficking. Overall, it is estimated that 20 million people – and quite possible many more – worldwide are caught up in some form of modern slavery.
“It’s an enormous problem …. Billions of dollars go into selling people,” said Tim Ballard, founder and CEO of the nonprofit group Operation Underground Railroad, also known as OUR.
OUR was founded in 2013 to focus on finding, rescuing and seeing to the rehabilitation of children involved in sex trafficking.
The where and who of human trafficking
Ballard said human trafficking, particularly child-sex trafficking is typically so well hidden that it can be easily overlooked.
It’s hidden, it’s so hidden. Especially the part we focus on – the two million-plus children being trafficked. It’s such a hidden thing because it’s hideous to most of decent society. To find it, even law enforcement has to go digging.
Again, thinking about abusing a 9-year-old in that way – it’s so repulsive to people that it’s hard for a human being to think there’s another human being, lot alone millions of human beings, who want to do that. But the fact is, there are. The demand is, in fact, that great.
Reyes said he believes a part of what makes human trafficking so attractive is that it is a low-risk venture with a high-yield return. After all, a bag of narcotics can only be sold once. A child can be sold for sex many times over.
In contrast, the drug trade is dangerous due to the massive attention governments give in dealing with it. Human trafficking, by comparison, is under the radar.
The majority of people demanding sex with a child are Americans, Reyes said. Americans make up 80 percent of the market for the degrading, exploitative trash.
Child-sex trafficking occurs in every country and state, said Dutch Turley, director of rescue operations for OUR. He spoke at an event held at Dixie State University Friday highlighting OUR’s efforts with speakers encouraging attendees to get involved in whatever capacity they could.
“I know it’s a dark subject,” Turley said, adding that OUR hopes to shed light on the darkness of human trafficking.
As for people who think human trafficking mainly occurs in foreign countries and not in Utah, that simply isn’t the case, Reyes said.
“Utah has its share, and I want to emphasize that it exists here,” Reyes said. “It is alive and well in Utah, but we are also putting every current resource that we have available into fighting it. We hope that we can drive it from the state of Utah and drive it from the shores of our country and ultimately eradicate it worldwide.”
Reyes spoke at Friday night’s event in St. George in place of Ballard who had to leave for Washington, D.C., the night before.
Reyes told attendees that he became involved with OUR due to cases Utah had related to human trafficking. One that he said “woke him up” from 2014 involved accused drug trafficker and child rapist Victor Rax.
Rax is said to have sexually abused undocumented Latino boys and forced them into selling drugs. None of the boys had been abducted, Reyes said; human trafficking can occur right at home.
Facing over 60 charges filed against him on behalf of 16 victims, Rax committed suicide while in jail.
Reyes met with Ballard and took part in Operation Underground Railroad’s operation in Columbia later that year.
To date, OUR has rescued 529 people and led to the arrests of 182 suspects. Although, Ballard believes the number of children saved is higher, he said, because OUR’s work helps put away traffickers that would have otherwise preyed on more children.
Special advance showing of “The Abolitionists”
One of OUR’s 2014 operations is the subject of “The Abolitionists,” a movie Ballard said he hopes will help spread awareness of the reality of child-sex trafficking, a reality many people are unaware of.
The movie was produced by Garald Molen, of “Schindler’s List” fame. It follows Ballard and his team of volunteers into Columbia posing as tourists looking to have a sex party with kids. Many of the volunteers have military and law enforcement backgrounds. Ballard himself is a former CIA and Homeland Security agent.
Working with Colombian officials, Ballard’s group was able to bust a group of child-sex traffickers, liberating 123 victims and seeing 15 suspects taken into custody.
“The Abolitionists” will play Monday at 7 p.m. in select Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres:
- Southern region – Pineview Stadium in St. George, Stadium in Cedar City and Stadium in Mesquite, Nevada
- Northern region – Jordan Commons, Thanksgiving Point, The District, The Junction, Legacy Crossing, Valley Fair, Providence and Geneva
- Get tickets here
Photojournalist and former St. George News columnist Dallas Hyland participated in OUR’s Columbian operation. Read about his experience here.
How people can help
There are many ways people can get involved with OUR’s mission, one of the primary ways being to become aware of the reality of child-sex trafficking and then spread the word.
People can support Operation Underground Railroad by seeing “The Abolitionists” Monday. If screening of the film does well in Southern Utah, the group hopes it will be picked up by more theaters.
People can share stories and statistics about child-sex trafficking on social media. Bloggers can write about Operation Underground Railroad online. Others can organize events and fundraisers in support of OUR’s efforts.
Locally, OUR St. George Rescue is working to spread awareness about human trafficking in Washington County. One of the group’s members recently gave a presentation to the Washington City Council.
Donations can be made directly to Operation Underground Railroad through its website.
People who get educated about the subject and share what they know about human trafficking with others will help society as a whole be in a better potion to combat the heinous practice, Reyes said.
The attorney general also wants people to report suspected incidents of child-sex trafficking, no matter how small. He said he would rather investigate 50 dead-end leads than miss the one tip that could make the difference.
Report suspected human trafficking to the Utah Attorney General’s Office
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