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There are 127 Colombian girls free from captivity as a result of sex-trafficking stings last fall that were orchestrated in part by a Utah group and included Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in a covert role.

Reyes traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, last October posing as a security escort and translator for a wealthy Utah businessman who supposedly wanted to invest $1 million in a sex-trafficking ring. When 54 girls were brought to the supposed sex party, local law enforcement and military burst in, taking down the ring and freeing the girls. It was part of three coordinated stings that returned a total of 127 girls to their families.

"They started singing songs to us, thanking us. They were crying and we were crying," Reyes said. "The thought that some of these girls would be going home to parents who had been praying for their safe return for years [was gratifying]."

Resources to help the girls and young women recover from the emotional trauma they endured after being taken from their families and forced into the sex trade are being organized by the Utah group, Operation Underground Railroad, which also helped organize the sting.

No state resources were used for the project, Reyes said.

The group was founded by Tim Ballard, a former FBI agent who left law enforcement to start a non-profit that works with foreign governments to try to crack down on sex trafficking.

Reyes became more interested in the issue locally when his office prosecuted Victor Rax, who is charged with bringing girls and women from Central and South America to Utah, as well as kidnapping Utah girls, and forcing them into the sex trade.

"When I saw the dirty, unseemly side of all of that up close as we were working on that case, I started asking my investigators how serious this problem is domestically," Reyes said. They told him they could keep another 20 investigators occupied in Utah alone. "Like a lot of other Utahns, I was not aware of what was going on under our own noses."

The state has shut down some businesses in the last year, predominantly involved in adult trafficking of women from Ukraine, Thailand, China and South America.

When Reyes said he would like to be more involved, Ballard told Reyes his group had received a tip from drug traffickers in Cartagena and invited him to participate in the sting that had been orchestrated with local law enforcement.

They created a fake identity for a Utah businessman and, in order to get all the girls in one place, told the traffickers he wanted to invest $1 million in their operation, but wanted to see all the girls first.

When the traffickers arrived, law enforcement and Colombian military was waiting. The bust was delayed, however, because one of the officials missed the boat to the islands where the meeting was taking place. Reyes said they stalled, teasing the traffickers with investing more and building a hotel for their business.

Finally, the entire group was arrested ­— including Reyes, the man posing as the businessman and others involved in the sting, to make sure it appeared legitimate.

But Reyes said someone told the girls the Americans were there to help free them, prompting celebrations and songs.

Reyes said his hope is that working with groups like Operation Underground Railroad can help stop the flow of women into the state. He said Utahns also need to be aware of what's going on at home and let law enforcement know if they suspect trafficking.

"I'd rather have 10 calls that don't pan out than miss one," Reyes said.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke