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SALT LAKE CITY — Attorney General Sean Reyes made a secret trip to Colombia last October as part of an operation to rescue child sex slaves.
Reyes made the dangerous trek with Operation Underground Railroad, a Utah-based nonprofit organization that works with governments around the world in fighting child trafficking. It came just weeks before Reyes won his first election as attorney general after being appointed to the job in December 2013.
The organization set up the sting by posing as wealthy investors in a cartel's plan to build a child sex hotel in the Rosaria Islands off the coast of Cartagena. To celebrate the deal, they planned a party on the small island of Baru, where the traffickers would bring the young girls.
Reyes, who speaks Spanish, played the role of translator and bodyguard for the lead investor.
"I wanted to get down where I could make a difference, look evil in the eye and stare it down," he said.
The situation become tense when money exchanged hands, but local authorities did not immediately swoop in to make the arrests as planned. They were waiting for an official from the mainland before moving in. Meantime, the traffickers wanted to bring out the girls.
We had to just sort of on the fly make stuff up. It was a little hairy for a while. … The hardest part was not wanting to kill the guy.
–Sean Reyes, Utah attorney general
Reyes said he had to talk to the traffickers for 50 minutes until the takedown occurred. He said he had to stay focused and in character.
"We had to just sort of on the fly make stuff up," he said, adding he appealed to a trafficker's greed by talking about upping the million-dollar deal. "It was a little hairy for a while. … The hardest part was not wanting to kill the guy."
Tim Ballard, Operation Underground Railroad founder and CEO, described Reyes' performance as "masterful." Initially Reyes was to have a peripheral part, but his knowledge of business and law were instrumental in keeping the traffickers engaged, he said.
"He was able keep the conversation rolling and flowing and talk the talk," Ballard said. "It was just a total blessing on so many fronts to have him there."
The island operation resulted in 54 children, including five boys, ages 9 to 16 being rescued, Reyes said.
Reyes' campaign adviser Alan Crooks, who speaks Spanish, also made the trip playing the role of a business partner.
"It was very intense," he said.
Reyes said his interest in joining Operation Underground Railroad on a sting arose out of the Victor Rax case.
State investigators arrested Rax, of Guatemala, last year and said he was the mastermind of a sex and drug trafficking ring involving teen boys, mainly undocumented Latinos. Rax, who faced 63 felonies, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Salt Lake County Jail cell last April.
"That Victor Rax case really moved me," Reyes said.
He contacted Ballard, who had worked with Utah's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and told him he wanted to get more involved. Ballard said they were glad to have the attorney general and put him through some training before the covert operation.
"He's someone who truly cares deeply about his problem," Ballard said.
Reyes admits it was a risky endeavor.
"But the most important things in life require a little bit of risk sometimes," he said.
Reyes said he can share what he learned about human trafficking to empower local law enforcement and make people aware that it can happen in Utah.
"My desire is that by doing that it will prevent other Victor Raxes from coming into the state of Utah," Reyes said.
Contributing: Lee Lonsberry