This story contains graphic material such as quotes and scenarios.
Imagine a father in St. George tucking his children into bed knowing that he was about to walk into a third-world country where little boys and girls are bought, kidnapped and sold for human sex trafficking, sometimes even by their parents.
Dallas Hyland, a photojournalist and resident of St. George, is such a man.
“I am married, I have four children," Hyland said. "I have a daughter who is in her middle twenties from my first marriage and I have three little boys.”
He spent Saturday in Armenia, Colombia with a privately funded organization, Operation Underground Railroad, to execute what they called Clear Hope; a mission that would prove to be the biggest child trafficking rescue operation in history.
One hundred and twenty-three children were saved Saturday in three simultaneous operations based in Colombia and resulted in the arrest of 15 perpetrators.
Hyland says it was an incredible experience - thought provoking and moving.
"You know, I just got home last night so I’m still processing it. But obviously it was huge. I do know at the Medellin mission there were ten little boys that were saved as a result of this, young boys. So yeah, it has huge ramifications for my personal life knowing that this can happen to children.
"What gets a person to a place where they either traffic their own child or if the child is lost to some kind of a kidnapping or, for instance, puts their child on a boat to America knowing they’ll never see them again but wanting to get them the heck out of where they are?"
Matt, the jump-team leader for the mission Hyland was involved in and whose last name will not be used for security issues, approached Hyland about being more than a cameraman on the mission.
“Matt was really good at being improvisational like you have to be in situations like this, and he was also pretty good at identifying assets. And I don’t want to toot my own horn but if you meet me and look at me I look like the kind of person who would do this. And so he asked me to consider going in undercover with basically a wired camera and play the part of his bodyguard which, I jumped on it. I said, ‘yeah, absolutely I’ll do it.’”
Hyland says that he saw a side of humanity that he can’t unsee, especially from the perpetrator Matt pretended to be working with.
“Basically the culmination of it was that they were going to bring 31 girls and six boys, most of which would be underage and at that time he also showed us pictures on his phone of some under aged girls in different settings and performing different acts and it was iron clad that he was for real and this was for real,” Hyland said.
The experience made him aware of a reality that he says Americans are, in part, responsible for.
“I haven’t quantified this yet, but I do understand that Americans and Canadians are number one and number two respectively, in consumerism of sex tourism in the world," Hyland says. “Canadians ranking second and then I think, Europeans. There are approximately 23-million people worldwide in some form of subjugation, forced labor, sex labor, some form of human subjugation. Two million of those are children in some form of subjugation- either sex tourism or forced labor.
“At the height of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the slave trade, I believe the numbers were around 17 million. This is alarming because that means we’re not progressing, we’re digressing. But slavery did not end with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement or any of those things. It didn’t end. It’s getting worse. It’s just underground and nobody talks about it.”
With everything that Hyland experienced in his three days in Colombia, it was the manner in which Martin, the perpetrator that the OUR had in their sights, conducted his business.
"The almost blasé way business was conducted... That was unbelievable to me. I thought I really would like to take a picture and publish it of a recently saved child who was trafficked in the sex trades. Because in the interest of protecting them, we’re not showing their faces or who they are and in a way we’re inoculating ourselves from the reality of it.
“As a photo journalist and someone who is very keen to the idea of how powerful a photograph can be you know I thought, 'Why not photograph them? Why not put it right out there where people can see it?' And I do understand, thoroughly, the interest of protecting children but I also do think we do turn a blind eye to it. So what was the most shocking? Was how I guess, kind of how things can happen right under our noses and nothing is done about it.”
He says he wants people to be aware of the issues surrounding sex trafficking, and inform themselves.
"(I want people) to be aware that when they’re shaking their finger at people for, immigrants trying to get into this country it’s because maybe, they’re trying to get the hell away from that. We absolutely need to examine ourselves as a culture, as a society. Not just Americans, but all of us because this is the ugliest side of humanity I’ve ever seen," he says.
Sources say that due to evidence discovered in this mission, some Americans have been arrested and even more are under scrutiny of the U.S. law enforcement.
Most of those involved in OUR are from Utah, including founder and CEO Tim Ballard, who graduated from BYU.
Full interview with Hyland
Full interview with Matt, the jump team leader