Sex trafficking: The horror and the hope

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Story highlights

  • There are 4.5 million victims of sexual exploitation around the world
  • Sex trafficking globally is worth $99 billion a year
  • Organizations around the world are fighting human trafficking

(CNN)When Karla Jacinto was aged just 12 she fell for a 22-year-old man.

She ran away from the small Mexican town where she grew up so she could be with him. At first he treated her well, showering her with gifts. It wasn't long before he was forcing her to work as a prostitute.
    She says that for the best part of four years, she saw up to 30 men a day, seven days a week.
    "I had to close my eyes so that that I wouldn't see what they were doing to me, so that I wouldn't feel anything," she said.
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    Her story is far from unique. There are around 4.5 million victims of sexual exploitation around the world. The vast majority of these are women and girls.
    Sex trafficking has become a huge global industry, worth $99 billion a year. For the criminals the risks are relatively low, and the rewards high. On average, each sex trafficking victim creates nearly $22,000 in profits per year for their exploiters.
    "Gustavo" is a convicted human trafficker, now serving time in a Mexican maximum security prison. For years, he lured girls away from their families with gifts and romantic promises, before forcing them into prostitution by threats, coercion and/or physical and verbal abuse.
    "The faster they fall in love and leave with you, the faster the business starts making money and the less cash you have to spend showering them with gifts and going out," Gustavo said. "To me, the girls meant a source of income, merchandise you can buy, trade or sell."
    Confronting a trafficker inside a Mexican prison
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    These days, he says he's a changed man, a born-again Christian. He says people need to know that there are still many men doing what he used to do: preying upon young, innocent girls and luring them into prostitution.
    "They don't know that behind Prince Charming there's a monster wearing a mask. A monster that is going to lead them into a world of prostitution and exploitation."
    These stories are harrowing, but amidst the horror, there is hope: the women who escape lives of exploitation, and the organizations that help them.
    Women like Jennifer Kempton, from Columbus, Ohio, who spent more than five years in forced prostitution and addicted to drugs.
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    She was tattooed by her traffickers, "branded" to mark her as property. But she eventually escaped and got her tattoos covered, changing the way she saw herself.
    Kempton wanted other survivors to experience the freedom she had found, so she started a nonprofit organization -- Survivor's Ink -- that pays for trafficking survivors to have their branding tattoos covered by new tattoos of their choosing.
    Or women like Rachel McCool, whose story shows there is a life for survivors.
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    McCool grew up in a small Georgia town and was forced to prostitute at a strip club. She eventually left that life behind her and enrolled in a center for trafficking victims called Wellspring Living.
    She is now 28 with a beautiful son and an optimism about the future.
    "I have a whole new appreciation for the color of the sky, because when you're an addict and when you're in bondage, you see everything as black and white, as gray," she said. "I didn't see the beauty of this world, this world we're living in. Yeah, there's a lot of hurt and I understand that too, but there's a lot of beauty and there's a lot of freedom."
    Human trafficking can be ended, and awareness is the first step. Find out more at cnn.com/freedom, and see some of the organizations fighting trafficking around the world.