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Sandy • Hundreds gathered at the Jordan Commons Megaplex Tuesday night to watch a pre-screening of a new documentary, "The Abolitionists," and offer support to Operation Underground Railroad, a Utah-based non-profit that fights child-sex trafficking.
Featured guests at the screening included Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, "Walking Dead" actress Laurie Holden, professional runner and human trafficking survivor Norma Bastidas, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who recently joined an undercover OUR sting operation in Colombia.
"I was impressed [by the film]," Reyes said after the showing. "I have been in some of those situations, and I think the film captures sort of the dual emotions. Just pure joy in liberating little children, and horror in seeing them in those situations in the first place."
The documentary, which is narrated by ex-CIA. agent and OUR founder Tim Ballard, uses actual footage from three of the organization's sting operations in Latin America.
Posing as wealthy Americans, the team would renta house and contact sex traffickers to "buy" a bunch of kids for the night, often girls as young as 11. As soon as they had the girls, handed over the money, and had enough video and audio to secure a conviction, local authorities would burst in and arrest everyone, including the OUR team to keep members' cover.
"This is hard stuff you're going to watch," Ballard said, addressing the audience before the showing. "And there's a bit of a burden off our shoulders by sharing the burden with everybody."
After the screening, newly appointed OUR. Board President Heidi Miller announced that her family has decided to show the film at all 17 of its theaters and donate all proceeds to the foundation.
It costs $1,500 to rescue a child from sex slavery, OUR officials said, estimating they had rescued more than 120 children, both boys and girls.
"I just love the people here," said Ed Smart in an interview with the Tribune before the screening. "And they are so committed to rescuing children, and not just rescuing children but making sure they have a new future."
Smart, OUR's director of prevention and rehabilitation, emphasized that the mission continues until the children are in a safe place where they can receive care and treatment. He and his daughter Elizabeth, who is on OUR's board, know well the difficulty of recovering from such a traumatic experience. "We had our miracle happen, and I look at it as helping miracles happen for others," he said.
He said OUR will soon add to its website a section focused on survivors that will include interviews with Elizabeth and Norma Bastidas.
"I want [these girls] to understand that I now stand tall. I have an amazing life. They shouldn't feel shamed," Bastidas, a world-class ultra-distance athlete said in an interview. She was trafficked in Mexico and Japan as a teenager and was blamed for it after she escaped. "It's nobody's choice. It's nobody's fault. What we need to do instead of victim blaming is to…teach respect. Teach that to the future generations."
Holden, who is best known for her role as "Andrea" in "The Walking Dead," said she has been involved in the crusade against human trafficking for years. "I fell in love with these people," she said. "Their hearts are all in the right place."
She went on last year's mission to Cartagena, Colombia, playing the girlfriend of a rich American businessmen. She said it was an "acting challenge" to stand in front of the girls and let them think she was a "bad guy." But the result of the operation made it all worth it.
"I can't even explain, I can't even describe what that's like to see these lives transformed," she said. "To see these girls, [ages] 11, 12, 13, look at you in shock and disbelief, like, 'Oh my God. I never have to do that again? I'm free? I'm free?' It's liberation."
She said she is planning another operation with OUR, and although she couldn't give details, she said they want to bring it home to the United States.
"This is a worldwide problem, human trafficking, but it's really a big problem here in the United States, and it's something that people don't talk about," she said. "But there are girls and boys that need to be saved here in this country and I want to bring it home."
In a Trib Talk interview Tuesday, Reyes emphasized the severity of the problem in Utah.
"I want to be able to talk about this issue, not just with statistics, but to say I've been up close and personally seen what's going on," the attorney general said. "I think this issue can unite Utahns and Americans and all of us as world citizens. It transcends political and ideological differences. …It affects everyone, and everyone can make a difference."