SALT LAKE CITY – Utah's top law enforcement officer said this week that he secretly traveled to South America to play a role in a sex-trafficking sting operation in order to help fight the crime before victims end up in Utah.
In October, Attorney General Sean Reyes traveled to Colombia with a nonprofit organization and pretended to be a bodyguard and Spanish-speaking translator for businessmen seeking children for a sex party.
When local Colombian law enforcement and military officers burst in, the effort freed 54 children from trafficking, Reyes said this week. Reyes, a Republican who was re-elected in November, was working with the Utah-based group Operation Underground Railroad.
The organization works around the world with local governments to organize similar sting operations and fight child sex-trafficking.
Operation Underground Railroad said the raid Reyes participated in was one of three they staged in Colombia last fall, freeing more than 120 children.
Reyes said the operation was dangerous but he wanted to do more to fight trafficking after his office prosecuted a man accused of drugging and sexually abusing teenage immigrant boys in Utah.
Victor Manuel Rax, 42, was found dead in his jail cell in April, several months after prosecutors filed 63 felony charges against him.
"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 told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Like a lot of other Utahns, I was not aware of what was going on under our own noses."
Reyes said Operation Underground Railroad invited him to participate in the sting and no state resources were used during the project. Alan Crooks, a consultant on Reyes' political campaign, also participated in the sting and played a Spanish-speaking business investor.
The traffickers believed they were meeting with wealthy businessmen who wanted to help build a child sex-trafficking ring in Utah. As part of the deal, the traffickers believed the businessmen were participating in a sex party with children.
Reyes said he had to keep up his guise as a translator and bodyguard for 50 minutes because the raid by law enforcement officers was delayed.
"It was a little hairy for a while. . The hardest part was not wanting to kill the guy," Reyes told the Deseret News.
When officers burst in, Reyes and the others posing were also arrested as part of the guise.
Reyes said the children were returned to their families.
While he acknowledges the operation was risky, Reyes said he hoped it would highlight the organization and make people aware of the global problem of sex trafficking.