In June 2017, a Bangladeshi woman named Bashita* sat in a rural brothel in India, tearing up from the pain of multiple daily rapes. The 20-year-old, who had only a third-grade education, had been lured into forced prostitution after a family friend promised to marry her if she joined him in India—a common ploy used to draw poor South Asian girls away from their families. Bashita had believed him, and now she was trapped.
Fortunately for Bashita, an informant soon tipped off the Exodus Road, an anti-trafficking nonprofit based in Colorado Springs with connections in the region. Thanks primarily to video evidence the Exodus Road’s undercover operatives gathered, local police were able to rescue her—along with two other women and two underage girls—and arrest five traffickers and customers.
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Bashita represents just one of the 852 human trafficking victims the Exodus Road has liberated since its creation in 2012. Its teams of trained investigators—made up of Westerners with backgrounds in the military or law enforcement, as well as natives of other countries—pose as customers to build cases against traffickers. They then turn over the information to local cops who have the muscle and authority to free the trapped women (and sometimes men). The nonprofit is one of few in the world that actively infiltrate trafficking networks to help remove victims from dangerous situations; most organizations work to prevent trafficking from happening in the first place or provide aftercare for survivors.
The Exodus Road launched shortly after co-founders Laura and Matt Parker moved from Woodland Park, near Colorado Springs, to Thailand to manage a children’s home. Matt, a former youth pastor, had heard rumors about young girls being sold into slavery and prostitution and volunteered to go undercover to help the police bust the traffickers. After a year of sending intelligence to law enforcement, during which he visited 60 to 80 brothels, Matt began applying for grants to fund more equipment and investigators. Almost five years later, the Exodus Road employs 84 covert operatives in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and India—and recently began operations in the United States. (The Parkers now live in Colorado Springs.)
8,042: Cases reported to the nonprofit Polaris Project’s national human trafficking hotlines in 2016, a 35 percent increase over 2015’s figures.
Stateside, the nonprofit conducts its work a bit differently than it does abroad. Any video investigators take in America can’t be used in court because of privacy laws that recognize the footage could be manipulated. Instead, much of the Exodus Road’s domestic work revolves around its four-month-old cyber operations center in Colorado Springs. There, data analysts scour the darknet (where sites aren’t tracked by search engines, so they can easily sell illegal products) for clues to potential trafficking operations. Staffers employ facial recognition software to track images of girls in online sex ads across different websites. They can also use cutting-edge technology to pull photos, texts, contacts, and phone records off the cell phones or laptops of known traffickers—as long as police have a search warrant—in order to find links to larger crime syndicates.
The cyber analysts won’t be the only employees of the Exodus Road tracking criminals in the United States, though. The nonprofit will also employ investigators here; the first two to receive salaries will start working this month. “I hope we’re able to get a lot more done faster in the United States because our levels of corruption are so much lower here than in the developing world,” Matt says.
But the work doesn’t end once investigators help authorities arrest traffickers. Survivors tend to be scarred by their traumatic experiences, and the Exodus Road partners with vetted aftercare shelters to ensure victims have enough time, space, and protection to recover. Right now, Bashita is doing just that.
*The Exodus Road changes all name for safety.