Editor's note: While we have made every effort to avoid unnecessary graphic language and descriptions, this article includes details about one woman's experience with human trafficking and abuse that might be disturbing for some readers.
This article is the first 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.
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In a moment of insane courage, Coco quietly closed the door behind her, careful not to wake her captors. Her heart felt like it was beating out of her chest. Listening to “Taking Chances” by Celine Dion to buoy her up, the 15-year-old girl took off running in the dark November night as fast as her feet would carry her. She ran like her life depended on it. Because for Coco, it did—if she was caught, if her escape attempt failed, she would be killed. Just like her sister before her.
Coco was running to escape the only life she had ever known—a life of sex trafficking.
“I had not chosen to be tortured but I have chosen to survive it.”
You wouldn’t know by looking at Coco Berthmann today that she was a victim of human trafficking. She looks like any other student on the campus of LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, Utah. The lithe blonde with a slight German accent and a dancer’s body belongs on a stage, motivating a crowd with her infectious energy and passion for life. She shares her testimony of God’s love and His hand in our lives so effortlessly, it’s hard to believe she was only baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints less than two years ago.
But Coco is not like every other student; Coco is a survivor—and she is on a mission to fight the horrors of human trafficking that she knows all too well.
The only remnant of her former life in Germany is a tiny tattoo on her left hand, branded into her skin by her captors to indicate which sex trafficking ring she belonged to. Coco decided to keep the tattoo as a reminder to “fight the good fight,” as she calls it, to end human trafficking and to educate and inspire others to get involved. Her goal is to study international law and become a human rights lawyer.
“Every time I look down on that finger, I am being reminded of my purpose. I feel really empowered being here now, and I'm doing and working with everything I have to fight human trafficking,” she says. “And I cannot, nor will I, live peacefully knowing there are countless slaves held captive for unbelievable acts of horror.”
According to the International Labour Organization, more than 25 million people were estimated to be victims of modern slavery in 2016—and one in four of those were children. The number jumps to 40 million slaves when forced marriages, such as when a child is sold into marriage, are included in the count. The vast majority of the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are females. Trafficking people is now the third most profitable business for organized crime, behind drugs and arms. It is also the fastest growing form of international crime.
Coco currently serves as a board director for ARISE Project for Humanity, a non-profit organization with the global aim to end human trafficking through mentoring and empowerment. In 2018, they partnered with Operation Underground Railroad to provide support and services to victims rescued from human trafficking around the world.
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For Coco, looking at the tattoo spurs her on. It’s a daily reminder of the price she paid to get to this point.
“This is why I decided I don't want to erase it. I don't feel ashamed for what happened to me. I don't let people judge me. This is something that has been put on me. I had not chosen to be tortured but I have chosen to survive it. I have chosen to make it my life goal to help other victims become survivors themselves.”
Statistically, Coco should be dead right now. Or a drug addict. Or a prostitute. She should be anything but what she is today—alive, healthy, happy.
“My dreams have been fulfilled and came true and miracles took place,” she says. “And just because I had a few seconds of insane courage in the middle of the night and said, ‘I'm out of here.’ I made it halfway across the globe from a place that I had never thought I could escape—from adults who made me pray every night to ask God to take away all the grown-ups of this planet.”
Coco insists she isn’t special. She insists she didn’t do it alone.
Only a series of miracles and “earthly angels,” as she calls them, rescued her from her darkest moments—like lying on a forest floor after a failed suicide attempt—and led Coco to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to a new life, one that began as a tourist on Temple Square
“Once you close the door—hell is happening.”
Like many children born into this life, Coco was trafficked by her own mother. For her first 15 years, Coco only knew life as part of a sex-trafficking ring.
Coco was born and raised in Germany, the third of four children. By all accounts her family seemed like a normal family—the children went to school; they had hobbies. At Christmastime, they attended mass together. To the outside world, they appeared to be a typical family.
“We've been referred to as the ‘perfect’ family, which is so normal in abuse cases. . . . Then, once you close the door—hell is happening. That was my life.”
Coco is quick to point out that human trafficking in real life bears little resemblance to what people see in movies. It’s far more nuanced and complex; traffickers excel at keeping their seedy underworld hidden from prying eyes.
“Trafficking doesn't mean that you are being shipped all over. In my case, the abuse happened within the walls of our own home . . . but people came and, you know, they paid money and these are people we trust on a daily basis—police officers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, really good people you would think.”
Coco’s earliest memories as a child are of rape, gang rape, physical and emotional abuse, and various methods of torture at the hands of these “really good people.”
“When you are born into trafficking, you don't know anything different. You don't know that what is happening to you is not a normal thing,” she says.
Coco began to realize, however, that what was happening to her was anything but normal. She would watch television shows like Gilmore Girls and long for the kind of mother-daughter relationship she would see on TV. She began to learn values and ideals from the shows she watched and the music she listened to. She began to see that what was happening to her was wrong.
“I started to pick fights at home when really racist comments were made, and I said, ‘This is not right,’” she says. “I started to create my own values because of music and some TV shows. . . . That is what kept me in this life, which I will be eternally grateful for forever. I didn't do it on my own–I did it because God knew what I needed and He sent it.”
Coco’s biggest source of comfort was the music of Celine Dion. She heard Celine sing about a type of love that didn’t exist in her world of rape and abuse.