SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes urged Congress on Thursday to get tougher on human trafficking worldwide, particularly by passing an international Megan's Law to protect children from predators.
Human trafficking, he said, is one of the most insidious but least understood and recognized crimes.
"As a father of six children, I want to change that," Reyes told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Human Rights in Washington, D.C.
Victims are forced into hard labor, military servitude and suicide bombings, recruited for terrorism or killed to harvest their organs on the black market, he said. But the overwhelming majority are forced into sex slavery or sex exploitation.
Reyes and Tim Ballard, founder and CEO of Utah-based Operation Underground Railroad, testified about the evils of human trafficking and called on lawmakers to pass laws and provide more resources to combat it.
"The children are desperately waiting for us. I know. I have seen them," said Ballard, a former Homeland Security agent.
This is an American problem no matter where on the earth the child victim happens to be.
–Attorney General Sean Reyes
Both Utahns lobbied for a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the subcommittee chairman, that would require notification of foreign governments when an American-registered sex offender is traveling abroad. It also calls for the president to work out agreements with other countries to inform the United States about the travel plans of foreign sex criminals.
Reyes said an international Megan's Law makes sense because it would allow law enforcement worldwide to be more vigilant about preventing sex crimes against children.
The legislation is patterned after what is known around the country as Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement to make information about registered sex offenders available to the public. It has passed the House three times, most recently in January, but the Senate has yet to vote on it.
Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee said they look forward to working with their Senate colleagues to pass the bill.
Human trafficking is a crisis that must be addressed at all levels, both domestically and internationally, Hatch said.
“Child sex exploitation is a tragedy that we must work together to oppose, and it is especially offensive when wealthy Americans travel abroad to engage in so-called sex tourism," Lee said.
Sex tourism is expanding "exponentially" around the world, especially in Latin America and Asia, Rosi Orozco, president of the Commission United Against Human Trafficking, told the panel.
A high percentage of those traveling abroad for sex parties are Americans. Reyes said he's embarrassed that Americans, estimated to account for 80 percent of sex tourists, are driving the demand. About 98 percent of victims are women and girls.
"This is an American problem no matter where on the earth the child victim happens to be," Ballard said.
Reyes made a secret trip to Colombia last October with Operation Underground Railroad to rescue child slaves just weeks before being elected attorney general. The nonprofit organization works with governments around the world to fight child trafficking.
Members of the group set up a sting by posing as wealthy investors in a cartel's plan to build a child sex hotel on an island off the coast of Cartagena. To celebrate the deal, the traffickers would bring the young girls to the island.
Reyes, who speaks Spanish, posed as a translator and bodyguard for the lead investor. He said he saw up close the horror the girls faced as the were offered up "as if they were desserts."
"The fear and the helplessness in their eyes is something that I will never forget," he said.
After some tense moments with the traffickers, the group freed 54 children ages 10 to 16. Combined with two other undercover operations in Colombia that day, the group rescued 120 girls and boys, Ballard said.
Asked by committee members what became of the children, Reyes said some were returned to their families but in some cases it was their families that sold them in the first place. Officials, he said, do everything they can to put them in a safe place where they can get their lives back.
"The last thing we want to do is liberate them and set them up for failure," he said.