This article is the second in a two-part series addressing the atrocity of child sex slavery—one of the fastest growing and most lucrative criminal industries in the world today. While we have made every effort to avoid unnecessary graphic language, this article includes details about human trafficking and might be disturbing for some readers.
Coco Berthmann is a survivor of human trafficking and a board director for ARISE Project for Humanity, a nonprofit organization working to combat the epidemic of modern slavery. LDS Living recently sat down with Coco to discuss the modern plague of human trafficking.
Coco escaped from sex trafficking at the age of 15 and eventually found peace and the home she had been searching for in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
She is now working to end the atrocities of human trafficking once and for all.
Human trafficking is a global epidemic, one that continues to grow every year. The latest reports put estimate the number of modern-day slaves in the world at 40 million, counting those in forced labor or sex trafficking and those forced into under-age marriages. There are more people in bondage currently than in 300 years of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“The hardest part to understand is that we have more slaves today than ever before in history,” says Coco. “This is the biggest human rights challenge of the century.”
The key to fighting human trafficking is educating the public about what signs to look for, she says. Due to the complexity and pervasiveness of human trafficking, law enforcement officials need the public’s help identifying possible victims.
Coco says trafficking is not like what you see in the movies. “I promise you, you've probably been really close to trafficking already. It happens right next to you, in really common places, and I think that this is something people don't understand—it happens while you're in the grocery store, it happens where you get your manicure or pedicure or when you go to the movies or where you fly into airports.”
Because it happens everywhere, the public can play a role in ending it.
“It happens right next to you and you have the power to end it,” Coco says. “You have the power to save someone. All you need to do is be brave enough to be somebody's hero. It only takes you paying attention while you go through your day.”
Human trafficking has different forms. It is not only sex trafficking but also organ harvesting and labor trafficking, which happens regularly within the United States. According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year; 80 percent of those are female and half are children.
According to the Operation Underground Railroad website, 71 percent of total slavery victims are women and children. One in four slavery victims are children. Trafficking in persons is now the third most profitable business for organized crime, behind drugs and arms. It is also the fastest growing form of international crime because of its relatively low risk and high-profit potential.
Sex trafficking is by far the most prevalent form of human trafficking in the US. A UN study revealed that 80 percent of documented cases of human trafficking are for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The United States was listed as the most common destination for victims.
“Usually children are being trafficked within their own families, believe it or not,” says Coco. “That was my case. And the younger the children the more money the trafficker receives.”
People have misconceptions of what a victim might look like, she says. “I always ask people to take one minute and imagine a victim. Just picture a victim in your mind. Now take a break from that and have your sister in front of your face or your child or your mom or your coworker or your classmate—that is a victim.”
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So Happy to announce that I am the new Board Director for @arise_projectforhumanity ! It’s an amazing cause and we are EXPANDING the program to the USA to actively FIGHT Human-trafficking. Dreams DO come true! Let’s change the world one child at a time! Please make sure to support us in the most important fight of this century. Let’s end Human Trafficking! ❤️ #StopTorture ——————————————— "We are SO excited to officially announce that we will be EXPANDING our mentoring program to the United States! 🇺🇸 🇭🇹 Our mentoring program enables children, Youth and Young Adults to break through the vicious cycle of abuse, poverty, bad choices, and unhealthy patterns. We are constantly working to reassure the safety of children and youth who are targeted for sex trafficking and save those who have been victimized. We have more slaves today than ever before in history. Our new Board Director @coveje (Coco Berthmann) will be a huge contributions to release the suffering of children in this world as she survived trafficking herself. She lectures law enforcement and local leaders on Human trafficking, assists survivors to thrive, and will be now directing our program within the USA. With the extension of our program we will be actively supporting the fight of human trafficking and be able to connect and change the world one child at a time." #EndHumanTrafficking ❌ #Arise #StandForHaiti #StandForUSA #SafeTheChildren
Coco with Williamson Sintyl, founder and CEO of ARISE Project for Humanity.
Coco says traffickers look for vulnerable people—runaways, drug addicts, homeless people, those from difficult family situations, or those who are financially or emotionally unstable.
“Grooming is part of trafficking and it happens for weeks. They lure them in. It takes place over weeks of manipulation and brainwashing and making somebody really emotionally dependent. If they don't do it, they are being tortured and they suffer emotional torture and physical torture. [The] effects are long-lasting and that's the problem for law enforcement because those trafficked victims are so afraid and so emotionally dependent.”
With child trafficking, the traffickers want to keep their victims isolated and disoriented. They may move around to keep kids from establishing any kind of bond or support system. Coco moved 16 times the first 15 years of her life.
Coco says we need to practice being hyper-aware. Teachers and doctors are especially valuable in identifying children involved in human trafficking. When it’s a teenager or adult, Coco says there are common signs to be on the lookout for. (You can learn more about these signs on polarisproject.org and sharedhope.org.)
Image from the Texas Attorney General's office
Image downloaded from Operation Underground Railroad
“If you have a friend who all of a sudden, after a few weeks, starts to be showered [with] expensive gifts from that new boyfriend, and [they] just seem really isolated and start to become more quiet and seem more anxious, maybe there is some physical abuse (not as [common] in the beginning). You want to keep looking at that and you want to find out a little bit more about that 'boyfriend.' Also, [what] is her family situation or his family situation? It's not a problem that only happens to girls; it happens to boys, [too.]”
Coco stresses the need for the public to reach out to law enforcement or to The National Human Trafficking Resource Center if they suspect something.
“You cannot call once too much; you can only call once too little! We don't want this to happen,” she stresses. “So I really encourage society and the public to find the confidence to call. Don't be afraid, nothing can happen if it's not [trafficking] and nothing will go wrong. The only thing that you can do is save a life.”
Coco wants those going through any kind of abuse to know that there is hope. Happiness and healing is possible!
“The fact that I'm sitting here is a miracle to me," she says. "Statistically, I should not be here. Statistically, I should be dead. I should have been murdered at age 21. I should be a drug addict. I should be a prostitute. I should be anything but what I am today, and I am happy.”
Often, we find help and hope through those around us.
“Now, I am here, halfway across the globe, and I made it, not on my own, but because God made sure to send earthly angels along the way. I am flattered when people said, ‘Oh, you made it on your own,’ but I didn't. This is what I'm trying to tell people—we are never meant to go through this life here alone. The Atonement doesn't work that way. Nothing in the Church works that way; we are always meant to work in a team. We're here as a team and we are meant to pick each other up.”
Coco adds. “I strongly believe [that] whatever we're going through is not for ourselves but for someone else we're supposed to help.”
After Coco’s miraculous escape and conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she feels called to the work of ministering to her brothers and sisters enslaved in human trafficking.
“When I go through hard things, I try to picture a girl or a boy that is being trafficked and that helps me,” says Coco. “When I get to a point when I say, ‘I can't do it anymore,’ I see that face and I see that we need to do it. There are children out there that literally need us to help them and save them. . . . I strongly believe it is our obligation and our mission to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
She adds, “I survived it and I'm here and happy and I'm functioning and I'm sane. How can I not dedicate my life and my talents and my resources to help others do the same?”
If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, contact your local law enforcement or The National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888
To find out how you can help fight the good fight against human trafficking, check out these organizations:
Lead image from Getty Images
To learn more about the realities of human trafficking, check out Slave Stealers by Timothy Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad. This foundation infiltrates black markets in human trafficking, liberates victims, and provides a comprehensive aftercare process involving justice and rehabilitation for survivors.
Slave Stealers alternates between two riveting true stories of slavery—one in the 1800s, and one in 2012—weaving them together to expose the persistent evil of trafficking and sexual exploitation that has existed for centuries. Filled with heartbreaks and triumphs, miracles and disappointments, hair-raising escapes and daring rescues, this gripping book provides insight into this terrible evil and the good that can be done when caring people step up and stand in the light.