Matt and Laura Parker, founders of The Exodus Road, live two lives. Here in Colorado Springs, they lead a normal, if relatively affluent, existence where they raise their three kids and go to work at a classy, cushy office space on the north side. The office boasts warm, dim lighting, clean and high-tech workspaces, and piles of smooth stones spread out over tables or filling vases. Each of these stones bears the name of a human trafficking survivor and the date of their rescue, the results of the Exodus Road's efforts overseas.
When the Parkers aren't here, they travel throughout Southeast Asia, Latin America, or other areas of the world where they feel the Exodus Road's resources can be of use in the global fight against slavery. The goal: to save minors and adults from exploitation, whether in sex or labor industries — though like many anti-trafficking organizations, their focus tends to fall on sexual exploitation.
Exodus Road's calm, quiet office space couldn't feel farther from the red light districts in which they claim to have rescued more than 900 survivors. (Exodus Road declined the Independent's request to speak to even one of these survivors, even when offered anonymity.)
"It's unique," Matt says of the culture surrounding red light districts. "I tell people, that first time in particular, it's like I'm on this major highway, and then I turn down this alley that's just lit up like Disney World. ... You go from normal society, and all of a sudden you're in the deep end of the underworld. Drugs. Guns. Weapons. It's all on this one little alley. There's sensory overload — the neon lights, the hooting and hollering, the 'hey handsome man,' the grabbing. They grab you, hug you, touch you, show you things," he trails off, shaking his head. "But for me," he continues, "when I [first] experienced that, I wanted to shrink into nothing. I just had this sense that as much as there are people here by choice, there are others here who are just really broken people."
Matt recalls his first foray into a red light district in Bangkok, around 2011, when he and his family were living in Thailand. He had heard that there were photos of children on the back of a brothel wall, but didn't know their actual ages, or whether they were being exploited. He and his undercover partners that night, members of an organization dealing in aftercare for survivors of human trafficking, walked into the brothel's dingy bar, owned by a Vietnam veteran who ran the operation as part of his retirement plan. "Apart from his moral and ethical compromises you wouldn't be able to pick him out from any other guy," Matt says.
Though it wasn't crowded that night, with only four or five other men milling about, there were about 10 girls up for sale. One of them, Bell, sat with Matt and his partners that night. He guesses she was no older than 17 — small, shy, with a round face and a bob haircut, labeled with a number so that prospective customers didn't have to speak the language to buy her.
They spoke to her for a while, and learned about her life, how much the brothel charged for her, and where she lived — whatever information they could to prove that she was being exploited.
When Matt returned to his home that night, he says, "I remember just bawling my eyes out, because I had left little Bell down there... There was this belief and hope that if I could just deliver information to law enforcement, that will give them what they need to get little Bell and recover her."
Matt says that hope formed the foundation of the Exodus Road, whose primary function is to gather proof of exploitation in cases of suspected human trafficking — to find evidence of force, fraud or coercion. The group claims to work closely with local law enforcement and nationals so that the people doing the trafficking are processed appropriately through the law. Arrests and prosecutions are the bread-and-butter of intervention work.
"If you're not arresting the criminal, they're going to traffic someone else," he says simply.
But Matt says that Exodus Road's role remains supportive rather than central. Oftentimes, westerners will come into another country to do work like this, and assume they know more than the people they set out to help. In reality, the Parkers say, these law enforcement officials often have the knowledge and ability, but they're overstretched, burdened by sliced budgets and insufficient manpower, occasionally corrupted from the inside. They don't have access to expensive technology that aids in trafficking investigation, nor the officers to use it if they did.
So the idea, Laura says, is "to not come in as this westerner that has all the answers, but to really work with them and let them be successful. That creates that positive change in the community." (Exodus Road also declined the Independent's request to speak with any of their law enforcement partners.)
In spite of their efforts, and the efforts of numerous anti-trafficking non-government organizations (NGOs) around the world, the problem has yet to abate. There will always be more Bells and more criminals out to exploit people for their own gain. Sex trafficking (which comprises about 75 percent of Exodus Road's counter-operations; the other 25 percent being labor trafficking) is only one facet of a major, global issue, and opinions vary widely on how best to address it.
The subject of human trafficking has been much in the news lately. On April 11, President Donald Trump signed The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law. SESTA makes it illegal to knowingly assist or support sex trafficking, and FOSTA makes online services (like Backpage and Craigslist) responsible for the illegal actions of its users. Both aforementioned sites have come under fire for allowing sex traffickers to post ads, and Backpage was seized and shut down by federal authorities in its entirety, prior to FOSTA being signed into law. Reddit, like Craigslist, removed its personals section before it was forced to do so.
In addition to that recent publicity, the anti-trafficking movement was vocal throughout the month of April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Despite the disparity in statistics, which show an overwhelming majority of trafficking victims to be adults entrapped in labor industries, many anti-trafficking organizations focus especially on the sexual exploitation of children.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation's 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery concluded that there were about 40.3 million people in the modern slavery system worldwide in 2016, though the number is an estimate. The nature of this exploitation takes different forms — 16 million have been forced into labor, primarily in domestic work, construction and manufacturing. When it comes to sexual exploitation, 4.8 million people suffer on any given day, 99 percent of whom are women, about 20 percent children.
Traffickers target the poor and the marginalized, those desperate for work who might agree to a life of prostitution or hard labor, only to find their passports stolen and their work benefiting the person or criminal syndicate that has exerted control over them. Or, they may agree to take on a job that sounds "respectable" (grocery stores and restaurants are common lies traffickers offer to their victims) before being abducted and sold, or trapped into a cycle of debt they can never repay.
Intervention in this process can take as many forms as the process itself, and it can be sticky.
There's widespread criticism of intervention-based organizations like Exodus Road, which has been covered, sometimes less than flatteringly, by The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 and Vocativ. Of the three pillars of anti-human trafficking work (prevention, intervention and aftercare) many, including prominent voices such as author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking, Anne Elizabeth Moore, argue that intervention attracts thrill-seekers and vigilantes.
Prevention focuses on raising awareness and offering education; and aftercare encompasses the restoration process for survivors. In comparison to these options, intervention, which involves actively rescuing victims and prosecuting criminals, does sound a bit more Dirty Harry.
Exodus Road staffers say they aren't trying to play hero, and, while appearances aren't much to go on, they certainly look more like a group of grown-up Boy Scouts than loose-cannon cops.
The Parkers, high school sweethearts from North Carolina, moved to Woodland Park in 2005, where Matt worked as a youth pastor at the non-denominational Woodland Park Community Church. But when the opportunity came around in 2010 for him to run a children's home in Thailand, the couple took a leap of faith and packed up their lives and family.
They, like many outside the industry, knew at the time that human trafficking was a problem, but as Laura says, "I think we thought at that point that everyone else was handling it." The children they cared for at the children's home came from hill tribes in rural Northern Thailand, where children were allegedly often abducted and trafficked. Trafficking affected their work, but they knew of many anti-trafficking organizations with "hundreds of thousands of people on Facebook that like them," and thought that, surely, those organizations had the problem covered.
While in Thailand, Matt was invited to a meeting of about 50 anti-trafficking organizations, though he had no "dog in the fight" as he puts it. The facilitator divided the room into the three pillars of anti-trafficking work, and Matt says the effect was like the parting of the Red Sea. Half the people in attendance categorized themselves as prevention, and the other half considered themselves aftercare.
He was left standing in the middle of the room with the two other people who made up the intervention group. "So I just thought, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing, so I might as well just go where no one else is.' It was that simple, that silly," he says.
That launched the Parkers into an intense year of research, planning and working with Thai law enforcement to establish the roots of Exodus Road. Matt learned how to go undercover and how to gather effective evidence, and they experimented with technology (such as undercover cameras and tracking devices, legal in Thailand) bought from Amazon — originally with their own money.
They claim to have helped local law enforcement shut down a number of brothels and criminal rings over the course of that year (and say that their Amazon tracking device helped them bust a ring of German pedophiles), but they wanted to make a bigger impact.
"There was this moment where we were like, 'you know, this is working," Matt says. "... 'this is worth doing. Let's make a go of it.'"
The Parkers moved back to Colorado in 2012, in part because it was easier to raise money in the States, though they continued to focus their efforts exclusively overseas until recently (see "Locals on the lookout" on p. 16). They hired their friends for minimal salaries to help them out in an office they had rented above a Woodland Park tire shop, and set to fundraising, getting the word out and getting to work.
Now, six years and some change later, Exodus Road has almost 50 full-time employees, and seven offices globally in four countries, including the United States, Thailand, India, and a Latin American country they say they can't identify for security reasons. They also have plans to move to Indonesia and Bahrain. Add to that what they claim is more than 45 volunteer investigators, more than 900 survivors rescued and more than 350 traffickers arrested, and The Exodus Road has certainly outgrown its humble beginnings.
Asked for proof of their results, Exodus Road provided articles from The Christian Science Monitor and the official blog of Freeland, another anti-trafficking group. They did not have police reports to share. Amy Sandrolini, Exodus Road's chief of staff, explains: "Our main philosophy is that we aim to be invisible. If we're doing our job to the best of our ability, The Exodus Road disappears in the midst of it. Our job is to always empower local law enforcement, and because we are a nonprofit and not law enforcement, we also are not the ones making the arrests or getting credit for the arrests."
Exodus Road's financial impact report for 2016 (the most recent available) claims that they raised more than $1.8 million, mostly in donations from individuals and households, and spent $1.4 million of that revenue on their programs. Though, of note, Matt Parker's salary as founder/CEO/chairman/secretary in 2016 was $113,700, and Laura Parker, senior vice president and board member, received $91,700.
The work itself is expensive — sending folks with pricey equipment all over the world — but it seems the background expenses rack up, too. Many critics assert that anti-trafficking organizations are fundraising machines, and that the money they raise to support their pricey intervention work (and their own salaries) would be better spent in prevention — economic development and education in the areas in which they work.
Sarah Ray, co-founder of local Yobel Market, works in the prevention field. Through Yobel, she has trained people in poverty-stricken communities around the world to generate a sustainable income through creating and selling their crafts, making them less likely to become victims of trafficking. (See "Trading places," Feb. 26, 2014.)
Ray says: "A lot of people that were finding themselves in a position to be vulnerable to sell themselves into prostitution, or to be trafficked ... were in that position because of extreme poverty. So we really wanted to find a way to address poverty issues and economic issues from the ground up."
But, she says, her work is no more valuable than that of Exodus Road. She has known the Parkers for more than a decade, and once worked at Woodland Park Community Church with Matt. For Exodus Road's work, she expresses nothing but support.
"I'm of the camp that believes that every single person has a part to play in this," Ray says. "And I don't see one part as being more impactful or more important than another part, as long as the people doing their part are doing it with excellence, sensitivity and expertise."
In her eyes, she and Exodus Road support each other on the same side in the fight against human trafficking.
The Human Trafficking Center at the University of Denver, a nationally recognized research center, has raised concerns about intervention-based organizations in general, though they are not familiar with The Exodus Road's work. Beyond religious concerns (see "Collateral damage" on p. 18), HTC's community outreach coordinator Pamela Encinas and research project associate Leah Breevoort say that there are ethical considerations to be taken into account in regard to raids and undercover operations.
Traffickers know how to hide themselves, Encinas and Breevoort say, meaning oftentimes the people on the front lines who will be held responsible (and sometimes culpable) are the people being trafficked. If an organization doesn't do enough research before conducting a raid, they can make the lives of these survivors difficult by re-traumatizing them, making them suspicious of police, or taking away their only option for income by removing them from the sex industry, without providing other options for recovery.
When groups of SWAT-outfitted officers bust down brothel doors and lock up both victims and perpetrators, and when they sometimes fail to distinguish between the two, innocent people (many of whom voluntarily provide erotic services) may be charged with a crime in which they were the victim.
"A lot of what we're afraid of," Breevoort says, "is that raids can also make people more fearful of the police, making it more difficult and less likely for them to reach out to the police when they do need help. It also pushes everything, the entire sex industry, farther underground, which can make it more difficult for sex workers to receive access to health care as well."
Raids, they say, can do more harm than good, especially when corrupt cops are involved. They cite an example from 2005, when the U.S. launched a major raid in San Francisco and "rescued" 120 women. Service providers meant to care for the women weren't allowed access to them for 24 hours, at which point federal authorities had put the majority of the survivors into immigration detention, claiming they hadn't been trafficked.
That is one reason that, even when NGOs work with law enforcement, there's no guarantee that raids will be ethical, fully legal, or at all helpful.
"Reducing the reliance on ad hoc raids," Breevoort says, "may mean that fewer individuals are rescued now, but implementing more effective and ethical practices could yield long-term, sustainable progress."
They also raise ethical concerns about going undercover in the first place, which is where many intervention-based organizations do the majority of their research and gather the majority of their evidence.
Exodus Road Vice President of Global Operations Kevin Campbell, who has been with the organization since 2014, says Exodus Road has learned to utilize a variety of techniques to get the evidence they need, undercover ops being one of them. Primarily, they submit video evidence to law enforcement, gathered through undercover cameras (many of which are quite cleverly disguised). Though video is always most effective, evidence gathered through cyber operations has become a large part of their investigative technique over the last two years especially.
"It's critically important to go into that space to be more effective," Campbell says, though he hesitates to say that their investigations require cyber ops to be effective on their own. "I think over time that will be the case. But I can tell you I can put investigators on the ground and there's places in this world I could go right now and I'll find kids being sold."
It's not hard to find traffickers, Campbell says. Collecting evidence against those traffickers proves more difficult, but that falls on Exodus Road's volunteer force and employed investigators.
People tend to assume that the men (and the bulk of the organization's investigators are men) who volunteer for operations like this come from the military, police force, or other high-testosterone jobs, but Campbell says that isn't necessarily the case. When it comes to recruiting volunteer investigators: "We turn away more military and law enforcement than we ever take, because their action orientation is very different than doing what we do."
He says they need investigators who know when to hold back, who can walk into a brothel and find evidence of minors being exploited, and walk right out as if it doesn't affect them. Military, police and folks in other action-oriented positions have trouble reining that in. They want to intervene.
Michael (who declined to use his real name for security reasons), one of Exodus Road's volunteer investigators, has been on about 12 deployments in the last 21/2 years. He says that investigations require a great deal of patience. Some operations take six to nine months, and one investigation on which he worked required 21 months of investment, from start to finish.
"It's tough," he says, "because we live in a society — and I'm the same way — we like things to be fast. But when you're talking human trafficking ... you have to be willing to think long-term and go long-term to really be effective."
Less than a third of people who enter Exodus Road's volunteer vetting process, he estimates, actually make it through the interviews and background checks into their first deployment, and some quit after that.
"It's very overwhelming the first time you do this," he admits. "Because The Exodus Road runs off this concept of justice in the hands of ordinary people." And while he says that quite a few volunteers, like himself, have a background in the military, none of them are spies.
Accountants, pastors, lawyers, office workers and others comprise Exodus Road's volunteer force — including Adam LaRoche, the baseball player turned undercover investigator who made waves when he abruptly retired from the White Sox in 2016; and rock singer David Zach. Their members range from Buddhists to atheists to LGBTQ people and more. Campbell says they employ investigators in their 30s and their 70s, men and women, westerners and — perhaps most importantly — nationals.
While the Human Trafficking Center doesn't necessarily condone raids or all undercover operations from an ethical perspective, working with law enforcement and nationals could, at the very least, help ensure operations are not conducted recklessly. "There's plenty of organizations that do team up with law enforcement, and their field workers are natives in the country," Encinas says. "The organizations that do have good relationships in the field can take important steps to minimize potential harm by doing their due diligence to understand both the cultural context and political and economic system in place."
After his first investigation in Thailand, Matt returned to Thai police, hoping that the information they gathered would be enough to save Bell, and to shut down that brothel for good. It turns out, they couldn't confirm that minors were systematically sold there, and there was nothing more to be done.
He has returned several times since Exodus Road's techniques have developed, but he hasn't seen Bell. It's likely he will never see her again, nor know what became of her.
But Exodus Road claims they did rescue Bashita, a Bangladeshi girl who agreed to marry a man across the border in India, and found herself trapped in a brothel instead; Cathy, a Ugandan woman whose passport had been stolen by the man who was selling her, and who lived in slavery for two years before she was freed; and Sarah, a 15-year-old Thai girl whose virginity had been sold for $600, who now hopefully has the chance to recover and build a life.
These individual stories, in the eyes of The Exodus Road, justify the money, the time and the resources they pour into their investigative work. And while they deny accusations of religious influence and anti-sex work ideals, the Parkers cop to other criticisms of their efforts.
They recognize that intervention work is pricey, maybe even impractical, but they don't seem to let that bother them, for better or worse. Instead, they think about the blank stones they keep on each of their desks, awaiting the name and the date of their next rescue, to join their fellows in the vases that decorate the Exodus Road office, oceans away from the survivors themselves.
"When we fail — because we have rescue missions that fail," Matt says, "[or] when we read a report about slavery and it's overwhelming, when those feelings come, we look at these rocks ... to remind us that there's just one more. We can do one more."