Sex Trafficking Survivor Escaped a Life of Abuse to Advocate for Victims

May 3, 2019

Coco Berthmann escaped a life of sex trafficking in Germany after 15 years of trauma. She’ll share her experience during an event at Northern Arizona University Sat, May 4 to raise awareness about sex trafficking and how it's more common than many might imagine. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius had a chance to speak with her before the event. And a warning: this conversation contains graphic descriptions of abuse and may not be suitable for some listeners.

Coco Berthmann (right) and Williamson Sintyl, the CEO and founder of the ARISE Project for Humanity. The organization was founded in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. It mentors struggling youth and raises awareness of human trafficking, among other programs.
Credit Coco Berthmann

Ryan Heinsius: I’m wondering if you can share your story with us.

Coco Berthmann: I was trafficked for the first 15 years of my life by my own family. By the age of 15 I was able to escape. Initially, I didn’t know I was trafficked because it was my normal. You grow up in the environment, you see things, and so you don’t have the ability to distinguish from what was right or wrong. For the neighborhood community we looked like a perfect functioning family. You could not notice from the outside eye what is going on. But behind closed doors we had people coming in who paid money to sexually abuse me and my siblings. And we’re talking about people of all segments of society: teachers, police officers, lawyers, doctors. But then on Nov. 2, 2009 I was brave enough to pack my backpack and run away from home, which then was the start of my survival story.

RH: How could a family ever possible traffic their own child?

CB: What usually happens with families who traffic is what is called the transgenerational trauma. It means there was trauma before and it’s a vicious cycle. So, probably there’s been abuse and trafficking before and that generation is passing on that next trauma to the next children. The disturbing fact is that human trafficking is the most lucrative crime around the world, and the younger the victim the more money the trafficker receives. And so, a lot of families are feeling the need to go after that money.

RH: Where does human trafficking take place and how common is it in the U.S.?

CB: Human trafficking takes place right under our nose in movie theaters; airports are big spots to trade traffic victims among the traffickers. It happens in clubs, in restaurants, when you go to school or to work somebody is affected. And it happens in your neighborhood. It is really common in the U.S. The U.S. is the biggest consumer for human trafficking. We had over 400,000 victims last year that have been recorded, and the numbers are staggering. The suffering is unprecedented, and it is an everyday issue that happens in all segments of society, not only in the poorer part of this world.

RH: Conversations about human trafficking are more common these days. How does talking about it help combat the problem?

CB: I strongly believe that by sharing and talking about the issue we educate the public and therefore enable all segments of society to join the good fight and combat human trafficking. And education is the key, not only for the victims and survivors but also for our society to know what’s going on. We have more slaves today than ever before recorded in history. Last year the Global Slavery Index estimated 20 million slaves around the world. We need to talk about it in order to have our society know the signs, recognize victims and traffickers and then feel empowered to reach out to local law enforcement that can help prosecute trafficking cases. I think the first step towards healing is understanding it’s not your fault. Nothing is your fault, you’ve been victimized, and you can become happy and you can heal and you can overcome this by understanding that you have done nothing wrong and there are a lot of resources that are ready to help and ready to reach out and ready to support the victims to get out of it.

The Slavery in Our Midst event is Sat, May 4 at NAU's Cline Library Assembly Hall. It begins at 6 p.m. and features speakers Coco Berthmann and Williamson Sintyl from the ARISE Project for Humanity