Meet Dani

Two stories of survival told from the eyes of a child.

Part One – Dani from Colorado Springs

Dani grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, born to young parents for whom money was often tight.

When her parents divorced the year she turned 9, Dani stayed with her mother, who quickly remarried. Unfortunately, Dani’s stepfather turned out to be physically and sexually abusive. 

By the time she was 16 years old, Dani was frequently staying with friends to escape her painful home life — staying out all night when there wasn’t a couch to crash on. Despite what she’d experienced, Dani had a sharp, witty sense of humor and an ambitious streak that helped her excel in school. She wanted to go to college, to build something different from the perpetually cash-strapped world she’d grown up in.

One day, Dani got a message online from a man named Antony. He was in his mid-20s, and he seemed instantly infatuated with her.

He complimented her, told her she was beautiful, and that she could be a model if she wanted. Flattered, Dani started messaging with Antony daily, often late into the night. Soon, they were meeting in person, and she often slept at his house. 

Antony continued plying her with compliments, and he also bought her electronics and designer clothes, things that were hard for Dani to get with her unstable home life. But over time, his behavior started to change. He started acting jealous and upset if she didn’t answer his texts fast enough while she was at school. She wanted to make him happy, to reclaim the adoration he’d initially shown her, so Dani did everything he asked. One day, he made a terrible request.

Antony insisted that they livestream sexual acts online. Dani was horrified and humiliated by the idea.

But Antony really seemed to love her, and he told her she was ungrateful when she hesitated. He claimed that the money they could earn would help them start a life together. She desperately wanted to be with him instead of having to go back to her abusive home. So Dani reasoned that she could do this, for him, just once. 

But it wasn’t just once. Men paid to watch, and Antony collected the money. Dani never saw any of it. Soon, Antony’s demands went beyond webcamming: he was asking Dani to meet his “friends” in person for sex at motels. He became increasingly aggressive when she tried to deflect or resist. Dani felt trapped and alone. She was too embarrassed and afraid to tell her parents or her friends what was happening, and Antony checked her phone all the time anyway. Dani had no idea that what she was experiencing was human trafficking.

One of Dani’s teachers started to notice that the funny, smart girl she knew had become quiet and withdrawn.

Dani seemed to have expensive new belongings: a Louis Vuitton bag, designer Prada sneakers. But her attendance was dropping, and even when she was in class, Dani often just slept. Dark circles ringed her once-bright eyes.

Her teacher was so worried that she started to search online to understand what might be happening. In the process, the teacher found articles listing the warning signs of human trafficking: things like a big behavioral shift, the appearance of expensive gifts, and tiredness. One article listed the Human Trafficking Hotline. The teacher called 888-373-7888.

Law enforcement was contacted by representatives at the Human Trafficking Hotline. They began to use information from Dani and Antony’s social media profiles to piece together what was going on.

They could see a sudden dramatic change in the content Dani was posting once Antony entered her life: photos with the gifts he’d bought to control her and provocative poses. Meanwhile, Antony posted endless photos of Dani, many of them with veiled references to a potential “good time.”

When law enforcement compared images of Dani with similar postings on local escort websites, they confirmed that Dani was being offered for sexual services, and that she was a minor. Investigators knew that this was a clear case of trafficking.

They found Dani, interviewing her about her experiences. She still didn’t understand that what had happened to her was criminally wrong; she was afraid that she would be in trouble. But police communicated that she was actually the victim of a crime, that Antony had been trafficking her by manipulating her into providing sexual services for his own profit. The deep betrayal and relational trauma will take a long time for Dani to heal from, but officials connected her to a local aftercare home so she can begin the process.

Meanwhile, police are on their way to arrest Antony for his crime, ending his chance of exploiting any other girl.

This is a representative story, but it portrays real situations that are happening to real teenagers in Colorado right now. These teenagers need the support of people like Dani’s teacher, who offered compassionate attention and took action.

Part Two – Dani from Jalisco, Mexico

Each day Dani’s back bent under the hot sun in the fields of Jalisco, Mexico.

Even though he was just 17, he knew he was one of the fastest in the field. He had the exact knack of twisting a tomato off the vine, setting it in his basket, and moving to the next with machine-like precision. At the end of the day, weary but proud, he’d press the coins he’d earned into his mom’s hand, enough for her to buy ingredients for tomorrow’s pozole

Some days, his mom’s much-praised soup had more hominy in it than pork. Dani never said anything, just spooned more onions into his soup on those nights, saying, “Qué buena, mama..”

Many of Dani’s friends had taken jobs in the U.S. to work in the fields

He hated to leave his family and everything he knew, but maybe if he did it just once, he could make enough so that his mom wouldn’t always be so worried about money.

A friend from the fields told him about a job in Colorado and connected him to an employment agent. He liked the agent — his smile reached his eyes when he greeted him — and before he knew it, Dani had signed a contract for a year’s work in Colorado. 

He’ll never forget the morning he kissed his mom and hugged his siblings goodbye. When the bus that took him and a dozen other young men eventually wound into Southern Colorado, he was surprised to see that it looked much like Jalisco, if less green, with low mountains rimming a wide expanse of fields. 

The smile in the employment agent’s eyes had faded when Dani arrived in Colorado.

The agent took his identification papers, saying it was protocol for the agency to keep all documentation. He also informed Dani that he’d incurred a large debt with his travel, and he’d need to work off that debt — with interest — before he could be paid. The agent said he wasn’t sure how long it would take. 

Dani worked long hours under the sun, just as in Jalisco. But now, he was always watched, and he was never paid. He and the other men lived in small, cramped rooms together, but they never stayed in one place long. They were always piling back into the bus to be moved to another farm. One time, he heard Javier, an 18-year-old boy he often worked next to, complain that he needed payment or he’d leave. The agent beat Javier in front of everyone. 

“You wouldn’t want the same to happen to your families, would you?” The agent asked, looking each one of them in the eyes. Dani, and all the men, learned to keep their heads down.

One day, as they moved to yet another farm, the bus pulled into a rest stop, a large white block of restrooms squatting on the brown Colorado prairie.

The men filed out one by one to each take their turn. Dani was last that day, having paused to put his shoes back on after a nap. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone at the rest stops they’d visit. He’d learned that lesson through several bruised ribs his third week in Colorado.  

But as he exited the bus this day, he bumped into an older man. 

“Disculpe,” the man, who looked Hispanic, said kindly to Dani. 

Dani kept his eyes on his shoes, which had a considerable hole in them, and started to move forward. Shame burned in his chest to be seen by this tidy older man. Dani knew his clothes were torn and dirty, and he could feel the eyes of the agent on his back. 

“¿Qué tal, muchacho?” the man asked. 

Without looking up or replying, Dani shuffled toward the restroom.

The man knew something wasn’t right. A bus full of dejected young men, none of whom would look up from the ground or make an intelligible reply to his friendly greeting?

Last summer, he’d seen a poster in a bathroom stall at a rest stop very similar to this one. “Signs of Human Trafficking,” it had read: 

Disheveled appearance

Won’t make eye contact

Seems to be being watched 

He’d saved the number of the hotline on the poster in his phone. 

Maybe it’s nothing, he thought to himself. Maybe I’m overreacting. But that last young man, whose downcast eyes seemed to hold sadness beyond his years, had reminded him so much of his own son. He pulled out his phone, glancing around to ensure no one was watching, and took a photo of the bus’ license plate while pretending to text. He got back in his car, pulled up the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, attached the photo, and hit send.