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Utah Attorney General Posed as Bodyguard in Undercover Child Sex-Trafficking Sting in Colombia

Sean Reyes went undercover as a translator and bodyguard for a wealthy American businessman at a child sex party hosted by a trafficking cartel.
Image reproduite avec l'autorisation de Operation Underground Railroad

Utah's top law enforcement official has revealed he posed as the bodyguard and translator of a phony pedophile businessman in an undercover operation to rescue dozens of kidnapped child victims of sex trafficking on an island off the coast of Colombia.

Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes took part in the sting last fall at the request of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a non-profit that works with local police and government bodies around the world to free abducted children from slavery. Rescue teams are usually comprised of ex-CIA operatives, former Navy Seals, and other highly trained agents, and now, it seems, government lawyers and their campaign advisers.

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Reyes, who speaks Spanish — his father was a Filipino with Spanish heritage who immigrated to the US — assumed the role of a translator and security escort for two wealthy, Spanish-speaking business investors, one of whom was played by Reyes' real life political consultant, Alan Crooks.

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The attorney general, who was formally elected in November after being appointed to the role in December 2013, said he was personally moved to join forces with OUR after prosecuting an international case of child trafficking in Utah. He told VICE News that his efforts, in part, were to help, "keep those criminal elements from coming into our state," and added that no government resources were used in the operation.

After participating in training, Reyes and Crooks travelled with a group of agents, including officers from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to Colombia last fall to "do business" with local traffickers. The men met with the cartel, claiming they wanted to invest in a child sex hotel in the Rosaria Islands off the northern coast of Cartagena, Crooks told VICE News. As part of the trap, the undercover operatives attended a child sex party on the island of Baru, where a raid was planned.

Reyes said police were meant to spring into action 3 to 5 minutes after the men gave authorities the secret signal, but that an operational "snafu" involving one of the officials involved delayed the raid for nearly an hour.

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In the meantime, cartel members presented the men with an 11-year-old virgin girl to "seal the deal."

"She was made-up and dressed in a skimpy outfit, but the drugs she'd been given had worn off and she was terrified," recounted Reyes, who is a father of six, including a 12-year-old girl. "The fear in her eyes is something I'll never forget. I'm crawling out of my skin at this point."

"You just wanted to throttle [the men]," he added.

Rohingya victim of human trafficking found suffocated in truck in Thailand. Read more here.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP

When police finally arrived on the Island, the undercover agents were arrested alongside the alleged traffickers, so as not to raise suspicion. The 54 children freed in the operation, including five boys, were returned back to their homes. In all, 120 minors — between the ages of 9 and 16 — were rescued in three separate operations conducted in Columbia on the same day, according to Crooks.

According to Crooks, the cartel, and others like it, regularly kidnap children by setting up fake modeling agencies and luring victims and their families with promises of money for fake contracts. During the course of the operation, the traffickers had recruited a former beauty queen, a winner of the Miss Cartagena contest, to add credibility to their grooming tactics, he said.

"It became obvious to us very quickly that this happens on a regular basis," Crooks said. "It was really eye opening and disturbing."

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Reyes said that "human trafficking is more significant than people realize," even in the US where a large number of abducted victims come from Asia, Europe, and South America.

"They come through the corridors of the border states like Texas, California, and Arizona," he said. "We're investigating a number of cases at the moment."

Even in Utah, which "is such a small, quiet state, perhaps unspectacular in terms of major crime, people are able to hide in plain sight," the attorney general added. "The community's so trusting, it isn't able to understand and believe there is a problem. The human traffickers have been able to prosper in this community until now."

Sex tourism drives underage prostitution boom in Cartagena, Colombia. Read more here.

The US National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) says on its website that between December 2007 and September 2014, there have been 18,275 cases of human trafficking reported nationally, with 59 of those cases in Utah. Sex trafficking accounted for a majority of those cases.

Meanwhile, the Colombian sex tourism industry is booming, particularly in Cartagena, where officials recently issued a "sex tourism alert" as foreigners flooded the city during peak tourist season. Minors are particulary susceptible to being drawn into the trade. As one cab driver, who drives girls to clients and vice versa, told VICE News earlier this month: "The underage girls always earn more, for being young."

Figures from the NGO End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) reveal that as many as 35,000 underage children face sexual exploitation in Colombia, including 1,500 in Cartagena.

Worldwide, there are some 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation, according to a 2012 International Labor Organization (ILO) assessment, while the US state department estimates that human trafficking is a $150 billion a year industry.

VICE News' Meredith Hoffman contributed reporting to this article.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields