ST. GEORGE — Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.
While the dark industry of international sex trafficking is fairly well known, many people remain unaware that sex trafficking isn’t just an international problem. It’s happening in neighborhoods and communities, both large and small, throughout the United States.
In an effort to shine a light on the issue, human trafficking was the topic of discussion Monday at a luncheon held in St. George by the American Association of University Women, the nation’s leading voice in promoting equity and education for women and girls.
Although human trafficking is often a hidden crime and accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, researchers estimate there are more than 25 million enslaved human beings worldwide.
Of those, adult women make up the largest percentage of sex trafficking victims, followed by female children. The exact size of these industries can only be estimated, but their impact cannot be denied.
Many of these victims suffer exploitation, abduction, incarceration, physical and psychological torture, rape, forced prostitution, slavery or involuntary servitude and compelling victims to commit sex acts for the purpose of creating pornography.
Research shows that Americans are the largest producers and consumers of child pornography in the world, and American kids are the main victims.
Not only is human sex trafficking slavery, it is also big business.
It is the third most lucrative crime in the world, generating an estimated $32 billion per year, according Tevya Ware, the guest speaker at the American Association of University Women event. Ware is CFO of Operation Underground Railroad – a privately funded group commonly known as O.U.R. that is dedicated to eradicating the sexual exploitation of children.
The average cost of a child for an entire night is $300, Ware said, adding that if the child is a virgin, their price is raised to $1,000 for the night.
The majority of people demanding sex with a child are Americans, making up 80 percent of the market, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told St. George News in a previous interview.
Human trafficking occurs in Utah and even in Southern Utah, Reyes said, because it’s something no one suspects could exist in such a wonderful community.
O.U.R., which Reyes has been involved in, takes a boots-on-the-ground approach to combating sex trafficking by using trained extraction operations specialists to dismantle the criminal networks holding children captive.
O.U.R.’s team consists of former CIA, Navy SEALs and Special Ops operatives that lead coordinated identification and extraction efforts, Ware said, while working in conjunction with law enforcement throughout the world.
Once the trafficked victims are rescued, a comprehensive process involving justice for the perpetrators and recovery and rehabilitation for the survivors begins.
“When you save one person, you’re not just saving her,” Ware said, “but you’re saving generations to come.”
Utahn Tim Ballard, a former CIA agent and former U.S. Homeland Security investigator specializing in child sex trafficking cases, heads up O.U.R. and goes undercover as someone soliciting the children’s services.
When the money exchanges hands, authorities swoop in and arrest the criminals.
Since 2014, the organization has rescued more than 600 victims and assisted in the arrest of 275 human traffickers.
In many parts of the world, there is little to no perceived stigma to purchasing sexual favors for money, and prostitution is often viewed as a victimless crime.
According to the FBI, few realize the explicit connection between the commercial sex trade and the trafficking of women and girls and the illegal slave trade. In western society, there is a common misconception that women enter the commercial sex trade by choice.
Studies indicate that most women in prostitution were sexually and physically abused as children and that the majority of girls enter prostitution before they have reached the age of consent.
Some sex trafficking is highly visible, such as street prostitution. But many trafficking victims remain unseen, operating out of unmarked brothels and businesses in unsuspecting neighborhoods. Sex traffickers may also operate out of a variety of public and private locations, such as massage parlors and spas.
Human trafficking is often confused with the smuggling of migrants. While both are illegal activities, the main difference is that smugglers assist people to cross borders in exchange for money, while traffickers keep a stranglehold over their victims using force, coercion or deception to exploit them.
During Monday’s luncheon, Ware shared a story of a young girl trafficked for sex in Mexico. The girl and her parents had believed she was going to be modeling in Brazil. After years of separation, O.U.R. was able to rescue the girl and reunite her with her parents.
A documentary movie called “The Abolitionists” was released last year providing an inside look at some of the group’s rescue efforts.
The average rescue mission costs about $50,000, and to fund its missions, O.U.R. relies on donations. The organization’s “give a Lincoln, save a slave” campaign asks people to become “abolitionists” by giving $5 a month. Supporters can sign up to receive text-message alerts when children are saved.
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