Battling human trafficking in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, (ABC 4 Utah) – Utah has a lucrative and secret underworld run by abusive businessmen known as sex traffickers.

“These are bad people,” Kirk Torgensen, Chief Deputy Attorney General of Utah, said.

Sex traffickers target young women, sometimes homeless children, and exploit them.

The problem is masking itself on the streets of Salt Lake in massage parlors, salon shops and corner stores. Law enforcement, outreach groups, even Senator Orrin Hatch is trying to stop it.

“You can’t believe how really vicious these sex traffickers are,” Hatch said.

The cycle is viscous too, according to Leo Lucey, head of the Human Trafficking Task Force under the Attorney General’s S.E.C.U.R.E. Strike Force.

“It’s a fast cash business that can get turned over to feed another vice,” Lucey said.

Gina Salazar knows that all too well. She said she sold her body to feed a cocaine addiction. Salazar escaped the sex slave world over a decade ago and said it is even harder for children to leave.

“I believe they are more at risk,” Salazar said. “I know my childhood was a mess. I didn’t even want to be a kid.”

Salazar was in and out of jail as a teen. She said her mother was checked out and her father was hooked on heroin. At 16, Salazar got involved with a 35-year-old man who beat her.

“He broke almost every single bone in my body,” Salazar said. “He was a nightmare.”

She said the man went to prison for killing her cousin. With two kids to support, a female friend introduced her to the streets where she started selling herself.

“I got such a false sense of validation from the men, but at the time it just felt good to be noticed,” Salazar said.

But not all women do it to feed a vice. Many young girls are forced into sex slavery. Torgensen said it is a big problem.

“I will tell you right now, this stuff is happening in Utah,” he said. “It’s happening in our neighborhoods and people don’t know it.”

Torgensen, Lucey and victims advocate Tammie Garcia-Atkin are investigating numerous cases of women caught in human trafficking. Sex trafficking is just one of several forms of human trafficking.

The task force brought down a major sex trafficking ring in Millcreek and Salt Lake in 2012 at Reiki massage. Lucey said women were forced to create online profiles to lure clients into the massage parlors. Four men were arrested for the sex trafficking ring, in which 14 women and 2 children were victims. The victims were immigrants from Central and South America and said they were promised a better life in the U.S.

“They believe this is their ticket out,” Torgensen said. “This is their dream.”

Zach Bale with Volunteers of America said Utah’s homeless youth are targets too.

“We keep seeing the numbers growing and more youth in need landing on the street,” Bale said.

According to research, 60 percent of sexually exploited kids are recruited out of the nation’s welfare and foster care systems. It is an upsetting statistic for Sen. Hatch.

“There may be hundreds of thousands of these young kids that leave foster homes and then just go out on the street,” he said. “They don't have anywhere to go. They just have a plastic bag with their clothes in it.”

He said sex traffickers can become a homeless teen’s only friend.

“Intelligent young women try to escape but they can’t because the so called pimps threaten to kill them,” Hatch said.

Hatch recently introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate called “IO Youth” to help children at risk of being sex trafficked. In the bill, he wants to take social services grant money to help get kids into foster care homes instead of group homes so they have a place with some guidance and help.

Right now there is not enough money or resources to help victims.

“We are just not set up yet to understand there needs to be resources available quickly,” Torgensen said.

“We don’t have a budget so we just have to find other agencies to help us,” Garcia-Atkin said.

One agency that does help is Volunteers of America in Salt Lake. It is the same organization that helped Salazar nearly a decade ago. She is now an outreach worker for the program.

“Anytime I help another woman or we see them on outreach, it feels more than any cocaine high,” Salazar said. “It’s so rewarding.”

Garcia-Atkin said studies show it takes roughly five years of services for sex trafficking victims to rehabilitate. Each person the task force group helps is a victory, but law enforcement knows they leave behind many more everyday.

“They’re slaves,” Garcia-Atkin added. “It’s ugly, but it’s true and if we don’t try to make a difference then who will?”

If you notice the signs of human trafficking, you're encouraged to call the confidential tip line 801-200-3443

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