Holy Freedom Fighters

A Compassion partner church keeps up the pressure until a kidnapped girl is rescued from the sex trade

A kidnapped girl is rescued from the sex trade when a Compassion partner church raises its voice

By Galia Oropeza With Richard Miller and Zoe Noakes
Photographs by Galia Oropeza

They’d been watching Daniela* for a while. She was young, just 19, petite and pretty. Her neighborhood was one of the poorest in the district of Yapacani, a sea of rusty tin roofs in rural Bolivia. They liked that her mother was gone, that her home life looked chaotic, with 21 family members living under one roof. They thought it meant her family had no power and no voice.

They were wrong. 

Yapacani is in a region known as a “red zone” for production and smuggling of illegal drugs. Drug traffickers have long terrorized the area. But as the Bolivian government attempts to crack down on the drug trade, criminals expand their insidious business to the modern-day slavery of human trafficking.

Unlike drugs, traffickers say, a girl can be sold over and over again.

Ruthless, organized and widely feared, the human traffickers pick their targets — usually girls — and wait for just the right moment to strike. Using simple deception or brute force, they are away in an instant. Their victims vanish with them. Most never reappear; they are simply gone.

Victims like Daniela, who went for a walk one afternoon and didn’t return.

When Pastor Alcides Valenzuela first heard that Daniela — a teenage girl who attended the Compassion center at his church — had disappeared, he knew immediately what had happened. Kidnapping is a daily threat to the children he fights to protect.

The traffickers target families in poverty — families with the least political or social influence, the least able to raise an alarm and fight to get their children back.

“Kidnappers don’t mess with complete families,” he says. “They mess with broken families.”

For years, he and his church had educated the children of their neighborhood and the Compassion Child Sponsorship Program to be wary of strangers, to travel in groups, to know their rights, to never get in a car with someone they didn’t know.

Fragile defenses against an overwhelming threat, but all they had — until Pastor Alcides decided they needed to do more to fight for Daniela’s release. They would make noise — immediate, bold, persistent noise that couldn’t be ignored by the governing authorities.

“We started to mobilize along with her family. It wasn’t only her kidnapping but there were also threats to the family. And constant threats to other girls who were from the child development center, so we had to act,” says Pastor Alcides. “We reached the vice ministers, ministers, mayor, city councilors and congressmen. We had to reach everyone, because if we don’t mobilize in this way, there is no movement and nothing happens,” he says.

As the days dragged into weeks, they kept the pressure up, rallying in the streets and holding prayer vigils in the hope Daniela would be returned to them.

Meanwhile, the abducted girl was living a nightmare in a filthy, crowded house. Drugged, force-fed alcohol to keep her compliant and moved from one place to another, Daniela suffered through a month of sexual abuse and violence. In lucid moments, she witnessed many other teens — and even children as young as 8 years old — trapped in the same horror.

“The girls [were] being forced to do things they didn’t want to do,” says Daniela. “[The traffickers] were planning to take girls to other countries. I didn’t think I was going to return home. I didn’t know what to do or how to escape.”

According to the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency for social justice, one in four enslaved persons worldwide is a child; the vast majority are girls and women.

In Bolivia, girls from rural areas like Yapacani are taken to urban areas to work in the commercial sex industry. As Daniela encountered, they are also spirited away to other countries like Argentina, Peru and Chile.

With no way of knowing where Daniela was, her family, the pastor and church members pressured all the different agencies and courts that they could, demanding to know what was being done to get her back. They marched in the streets and met officials at every chance, desperate for whatever help they could get.

After an agonizing month of phone calls and relentless pressure, Pastor Alcides told the vice mayor the entire town was ready to begin a blockade that would bring traffic in the region to a standstill. They would keep up the blockade for as long as it took for law enforcement to bring their girl home.

Within 72 hours, Daniela reappeared, rescued from the traffickers’ grip by undercover police.

“You must have a lot of political influence,” her captors told her. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been rescued.”

What Daniela had was a team of people in her corner who refused to give up and would not be silenced.

In the midst of their joy and relief at Daniela’s return, Pastor Alcides and the church recognized she and her family would need time and help to find healing. With Compassion’s help, they organized counseling and extra support as she dealt with the trauma of her experiences.

As time passed, life moved on for the young woman. She graduated from the Child Sponsorship Program and moved to another city, far from her trauma. Yet the thought that other families are suffering as hers did still haunts her.

“The girls’ families must not be in peace, because they don’t know where their children are,” she says. “If I hadn’t been part of Compassion, I would probably never have returned home. I’m very thankful for all the help they provided my family.”

Today, Daniela is safe. Other girls are not. Until then, Compassion and the global church will continue to protect them and fight for freedom.

 

*Name changed to protect privacy

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:17, NIV