It’s the stories that keep Tyler Schwab going, and typically, they range from bad to worse.
The 12-year-old girl who was sex trafficked by her neighbor at a public pool in Colombia. Or the 10-year-old girl in Mexico who was sold for sex by her older brother to his friends and other paying customers.
The one thing they all have in common is a vulnerability that makes them easy victims for predators.
Schwab’s goal is simple: Save these girls and women and provide them with resources to escape their traffickers and lead better lives.
Growing up in Afton, Wyoming, Schwab had never been exposed to the seedier side of sex tourism. He was introduced to it as a 19-year-old while on a two-year mission in the Dominican Republic for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Once there, he noticed quite a few young women in the company of older men. At first, he was judgmental about the women’s motives. He thought they either had to be promiscuous or gold diggers.
What he learned by talking to them, however, was most of the girls didn’t actually want to be with these guys; rather, they were forced by others to be there. Sometimes it was the girl’s parents who sold her to a man or girls living on the streets who had no other means of feeding themselves or other circumstances beyond their control.
“It was my first real exposure to the real inequalities of life,” Schwab said. “The poverty was so much more extreme. It rocked my world and was an injustice I just couldn't sit with.”
Back To The Dominican
After returning home from his mission, Schwab decided in 2014 to launch a nonprofit, Gifts of Grace, that later morphed into Libertas International.
The first thing he did was to sell all of his stuff — textbooks, his bag and anything of value — to buy a $500 plane ticket back to the Dominican. He wanted to spend some time talking to survivors and those being trafficked to learn as much as he could about their situations and the various drivers that led them to be exploited.
His first stop was a club where young girls were being sold.
He was honest with the proprietor about his motivations for just wanting to talk to the girls. The proprietor initially told him to get lost and accused him of being a cop. So, Schwab offered to pay the requisite fee of $20 an hour to just talk to a girl. The owner agreed, so Schwab took the girl out for dinner.
It’s an experience that changed his life, he said.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I sat down with her, and she was so terrified of me.”
He explained he wasn’t there to have sex with her, and she began to relax.
‘She Felt Like She Was Trapped’
She told Schwab that she’d originally gone to the club for work and was offered a job as a waitress. The girl came from a conservative Catholic background and had no inkling of sexual activity.
On her first night at work, the owner told her that her job wasn’t to wait on tables but to sexually service men or they would go to her home and recruit her little sister and mother.
“She felt like she was trapped,” he said.
Because of her lack of experience, the owner had her watch porn films that first night. Schwab met her on her second night and was her first paying customer. This is why she was so terrified, he noted, because she had no idea what to expect.
“That’s why there was so much fear at her in her eyes,” he said. “I was so torn up by her story.”
It prompted him to return the next evening, but the girl was already gone. This is one of the tricks of traffickers, Schwab said. They move girls from different nightclubs and brothels to confuse them and make it harder for them to be found.
“I met victims like that from all over Latin America,” he said. “The underlying theme was that they were mostly women. And they all were extremely vulnerable and had fallen victim to predatory men.”
Today, Libertas International has operations in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Honduras with about a dozen employees located throughout the various countries.
Schwab, who has a bachelor’s degree in health care administration and an MBA from the University of Wyoming, as well as additional certification in human trafficking, has worked for Operation Underground Railroad and the Make-A-Wish America foundation. Today at age 33, Schwab is active in the nonprofit, which has expanded in scope.
Along with providing trafficked girls and women resources they need — from housing, food, tattoo removal, school, training programs and counseling — to help them escape their traffickers and lead better lives, the needs and services are specific to every survivor.
To date, the organization has helped more than 5,000 survivors. The average age of a victim is about 14.5, Schwab said, but they’ve helped women as old as 45 and as young as 20 months.
On average, Libertas International supports survivors for three to five years at a cost of about $3,000 per survivor per quarter.
Mostly Professional American Men
Apart from providing resources and after-care for survivors, Schwab and his team also work with police and the legal system to bring abusers to justice. In his experience, the buyers are typically professional American men who take advantage of the vulnerabilities that fuel the sex tourism industry.
In the last couple of months, Schwab flew out to a sentencing hearing for a 42-year-old Philadelphia man and construction company owner who was trafficking girls as young as 12 and selling their virginity.
In another case, a school teacher in Austin, Texas, was arrested for his sexual exploits in Colombia. He would travel to Colombia in the summers to abuse young girls and post videos online.
“It’s mostly American men perpetuating the abuse,” he said. “Most of the cases we work involve American men traveling down to Colombia, abusing young girls, and then going back to the States.”
The trick to crushing the sex tourism industry, Schwab said, is to slap the buyers with harsh financial penalties to compensate their victims and to push for maximum sentencing and jail time.
‘The Smile Of A Survivor’
Though while the work can be grim and soul crushing, Schwab said at the end of the day it’s his connections with the survivors that fuel his passion.
“One thing I never forget is the smile of a survivor,” he said. “That smile of safety and smile of a full belly.”
In his office, he has a wall of photos and handwritten letters from women he and his nonprofit have helped. Photos of the girls in what Schwab calls “their moments.” One girl holds a newborn baby while another is pictured at her high school graduation. On her class ring, she chose to put the date she was rescued from her trafficker.
“All these different moments are what keeps me going,” he said.