DENVER (CBS4) - Denver has evolved into a breeding ground, officials say, for sex-traffickers who lure young runaways, often in exchange for drugs, into the underground business.
"We see more and more minors that are being trafficked into the commercial sex industry," said Sgt. Dan Steele of the Denver police and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force.
In June, the FBI announced it had recovered 18 child victims of sex-trafficking in Colorado during an annual operation called "Cross Country." Nationwide, 168 victims were rescued and 281 alleged pimps were arrested.
Tom Ravenelle with the FBI said he's seeing more print and online advertisements -- chock-full of keywords like "4-20 friendly" -- that attract young girls.
"We're dealing with people who are pimping these girls who are sometimes gang-related. These are people with low morals," he said.
Steele watches for what he calls "markers" along the 16th Street Mall or truck stops that indicate a girl may be in danger of being lured.
"If you're running away from home, you're thereby homeless and you're putting yourself in a situation where, if you're homeless, you have to survive. And you're going to do what you need to do to survive," he said.
A former prostitute who said she traded sex for marijuana talked to CBS4 anonymously about her experience.
"It is so sad," she said. "I know there are so many young runaways down there and they don't have anything and these men come along."
Others, she said, have traded for harder drugs, including heroine, meth and crack.
"I traded for marijuana because that was my vice," she said. "I needed to escape."
She ran away when she was 17, fell into prostitution, bartered sex for drugs and didn't escape the industry for more than two decades.
"I was very young and naive," she said. The pimps are very dangerous, too: "They'll hurt you. They'll beat you. You don't have any choice."
Several nonprofit organizations in the Denver area help teens flee and survive sex-trafficking. One of those organizations is Streets Hope.
She said she's gained strength, wisdom and a compassionate heart to help others.
Only after she was nearly murdered in front of her children did she seek charges against her abuser. She's now helping other girls survive and avoid sex-trafficking.
"I just really recommend people, parents especially, really keep a better eye on their children," she said, and especially advocates addressing children: "Kids, it's not as bad at home. Really it's not. It's so easy-peasy at home. It's so hard on the streets."
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