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SPECIAL REPORT: Sex Trafficking Real in NWA and On Rise

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - Now more than ever, gangs in Northwest Arkansas are using sex as a quick and easy way to make money, and their main target is our children.

Law enforcement said sex trafficking is more appealing to gangs since it's an easier crime to hide compared to drugs.

"I was one of the very few people who get out alive." said Kathy Bryan, a sex trafficking survivor. "Trafficking is real. It's not a myth, and it's not uncommon." 

Sex trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the country, according to police.

More gangs in Northwest Arkansas are exploiting humans to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"You can sell a drug one time, and be done with it. A human being you can sell over and over as many times as possible in a 24 hour period," said Gretchen Smeltzer, Executive Director for Into the Light.

It's something that happens behind closed doors, but Bryan said she's using her past to shine a light on evil.

"I'll do whatever I can to help somebody else find the freedom that I've found." said Bryan.

Bryan was trafficked when she was 15 until she was 18-years-old.

"I met a man. He wooed me, showed me interest. He cared about what I cared about, basically treated me with value," said Bryan.

This grooming process took place for about 6 months before he attacked her.

"We went on a date one night and that ended up being the night that he and another man brutally raped me," said Bryan.

Bryan was trafficked through homes almost every night.

So, why didn't she leave?

"He held my sister over my head that whole time. That's why I did everything he told me. He said he would take my baby sister, she was 5 at the time," said Bryan.

Stories like Bryan's are almost identical to what Smeltzer sees on a daily basis at Into the Light.

"The majority of our girls say their trafficker was involved in a gang," said Smeltzer.

Into the Light is a non-profit that works with victims of sex trafficking across the state, but has a specific focus in NWA.

"There's tons of people at risk in every community, and are the communities aware of this? Are the youth aware? Do they know they're at risk for this," said Smeltzer.

Smeltzer said many survivors they see come from broken homes, and are looking for acceptance.

Unfortunately, they find it in the wrong places. 

"So the young lady is looking for identity and for community and connection but she's really being exploited," said Smeltzer.

The young ladies, who usually fall into trafficking online, think they're joining the gang, but that's not the case.

"So it's either to provide the sex service for the gang members, or when they're going out and moving drugs around the state I'm also going to sell the girls in the gang," said Smeltzer.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said law enforcement's role in policing trafficking has changed over the last decade.

"We just thought it wasn't here, but only in the big cities," said Helder.

Helder said now they understand typically those selling their bodies are actually the victims.

 "A lot of this involves our kids that have runaway repeatedly or they have found themselves in a situation at home where they got to get away from it," said Helder.

Bryan was eventually given freedom from her abusers, which only one to two percent of trafficking victims find.

"He suddenly stopped and looked at me and said I don't ever want to see you again," said Bryan. "This is the only way I can save you. Then he kissed my forehead, pushed me away, got in his car and left me there."

So can human trafficking ever be stopped?

"Until we have people who aren't willing to pay for sex, we'll have sex trafficking," said Bryan.


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