“It wasn’t the only alley I was going down, it was just the alley I couldn’t figure out how to get back to.” – Matt Parker
Seven years ago, Matt Parker was in a taxi speeding toward his hotel on an unknown route through Bangkok at midnight. He glimpsed a flash of an obscure back alley where he saw young girls for sale. As soon as he realized what he had seen, it was gone.
Seven years later, Matt returned to this back alley in a chance encounter on another taxi ride. Listen to the episode to hear the full story, and learn about the operation in progress to rescue these trafficked victims.
Note: Until All Are Free is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a third party speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Matt Parker: (00:02)
But I remember we took this exit, turned left, came to a stoplight turned right. And we drove by a set of railroad tracks, I remembered that. And all of a sudden we were in this dark alley. It was not lit very well. And all of a sudden, on this dark alley, on the roadside was just a lineup of young girls.
Preston Goff: (00:47)
This is Until All Are Free, a podcast by The Exodus Road. I’m Preston Goff. I’ve fixated on an idea, as we’ve produced podcasts at The Exodus Road for the last few months. It’s an idea that presents itself in every survivor story and every retelling of a case. An idea that is even embedded into the organizational values of The Exodus Road.
Preston Goff: (01:13)
The idea is that the work that we do combating human trafficking, is work with longterm payoffs. Matt Parker, our CEO, and the guest of this episode often says that our work is a marathon and not a sprint. And here’s the thing. I’ve come to believe that actually, the only way that real change can take place in the criminal industry of sex trafficking is through this commitment to the long game. Systemic criminal enterprises aren’t developed overnight. And their undoing isn’t easily enacted. The fight against human trafficking requires grit and consistency. And so the story you’re about to hear represents that very notion. It’s a story about the commitment to showing up in very ordinary ways. Time and again, in one specific city where trafficking is prevalent. It’s a story of a chance encounter with survivors on an isolated back alley and the years it took to recall their location. So, here’s the story.
Preston Goff: (02:25)
Hey, there, listeners, I’m excited to welcome Matt Parker, the CEO and co-founder of The Exodus Road here to the show today. And there was a story that you shared from your most recent trip to Thailand that just really caught my attention. And we wanted you to have a chance to share it with our audience today. So welcome to the show.
Matt Parker: (02:43)
Yeah, thanks for having me again. And I think it’s really true that a large portion of society or stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking, they gravitate towards this idea of fast food charity. They desire, as we all do, for us to be able to impact human trafficking, cheaply, quickly, that instant gratification, that a lot of people want. When they want to bring change to the world, they want it fast.
Matt Parker: (03:15)
But the truth is, with human trafficking and other charitable causes, there’s a lot of labor and a lot of time that has to be invested before you start to see systemic change in particular. So you’re right, that this idea that The Exodus Road plants, in a very deep way, into a culture and into a community and a geographic region with strategy for not a sprint, but along kind of marathon approach is very accurate. And a good example of that in my experience, really happened this last January. We were deployed to Southeast Asia, had an amazing team of Delta members with me partnering with our alpha team who are local nationals in Thailand. And it was one of the best deployments we’ve ever had. Everything just went really well. We were able to deliver eight cases of human trafficking over a two week period, spanning multiple cities, to law enforcement for action. And they were thrilled with the target packages we delivered.
Matt Parker: (04:28)
But I had an experience, which is what you’re referring to, which just really blew my mind and took me way back. Maybe seven years now, when I first started to operate. I was a loner back then, I didn’t intend to be that. It’s just, I hadn’t figured out quite how to hire and train local nationals to do undercover work. And the partnerships that I had were very slim. I just didn’t have that many. And I was working with law enforcement up in region five. And around that time, I had gotten several requests from other nonprofit leaders to come and do an investigation in Bangkok.
Matt Parker: (05:11)
There’s a lot of stuff that happens in Bangkok that’s not so great. And so I started to get these calls and so I would hop on a plane and I would travel south, it’s a one hour flight to Bangkok. And look into brothels or street corners that had been sent to me as a tip. But I remember while I was doing that, I would normally fly to Bangkok. I’d get in a taxi around midnight and the traffic’s not bad. And I would drive to this one particular part of Bangkok where a lot of the red light communities are. And I’d get a hotel there.
Matt Parker: (05:53)
And what was interesting is almost every the taxi would take the same route from the airport to this particular area. And it was this main highway. We’d go, we’d take this exit and we’d turn left and another left and we’d be at the hotel. And I kind of got into this rhythm because I was traveling to Bangkok quite a bit. But one particular night, it was late. I remember just feeling that exhaustion of it being in the middle of the night. And I think too, as an investigator, there’s a lot of stress and there’s a lot of sadness that we work all the time in. And so I was just feeling that even though I was still quite new as an undercover operator. I just was feeling this sense of dread of being in the city and having to go do this work. And I was just fatigued.
Matt Parker: (06:43)
But, it caught my attention, because as an undercover operative, we really train all of our men, and even back then in the early days to be situationally aware. Because you don’t always know where the cab’s going to take you and you want to perk up and be cognizant of left and right turns. And are you familiar with your surroundings? And it was late and I was tired, but man, this cab driver, he took a different turn. He wasn’t taking that path. But I remember we took this exit, turned left, came to a stoplight turned right. And we drove by a set of railroad tracks. I remembered that. And all of a sudden we were in this dark alley. It was not lit very well. And all of a sudden, on this dark alley on the road side, was just a lineup of young girls. And as soon as I recognized it, it was over.
Matt Parker: (07:49)
And I just remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I got to try to remember where this place is.” And I was tired and it didn’t click fast enough for me to drop a pin, on a map on my phone. Which is something we would do easily today. It just didn’t cross my mind in the moment. And I was just trying to focus on how to get back to this alley. But I had just started operating in Bangkok. I wasn’t so familiar as I am today with the streets there. And before I knew it we’d taken too many turns. And I remember getting to the hotel and pulling up a map and trying to figure out where it was. And I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.
Matt Parker: (08:30)
And I think in those early days, you just feel this sense of guilt. Like I had an opportunity and now I can’t get back there. I just had no idea how to get back. And I never told anybody about that. I went and I did my casework and I reported back to law enforcement, like I normally did, and I went back home. But that was about seven years ago and every year and every deployment, every time I go to Bangkok, it was in the back of my mind. And I’ve been looking. I haven’t told anybody this, but I was looking for that place for years.
Preston Goff: (09:08)
Why carry it for so long without sharing?
Matt Parker: (09:12)
That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have an answer for that. I think at the time I was doing so many cases and I was still quite new. About seven, eight years ago, when I had this experience, it was a very shaping and formative experience for me. Because that wasn’t the only alley I was going down. It was just the alley I couldn’t figure out how to get back to. And to be honest, there’s lots of alleys like that. It’s just that, that one… For whatever reason, pricked my spirit and I couldn’t let it go. And I never forgot it. And it kind of haunted me. And in this kind of work, you are haunted quite a bit, but that was one of those cases and those moments where I’m like, “Man, I need to find that street again.”
Matt Parker: (10:07)
So fast forward seven years. And I’m with Delta operatives in Thailand, we’re doing casework and we are in a van and we’re driving to Bangkok and we’re on that major highway I was so used to taking and we almost always take it. This is the first time in seven years, all of a sudden this particular driver, he exited early. And there was something in the back of my mind that triggered. I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is a different route.” And we took a left and we came to a stoplight and sure enough there’s railroad tracks. And it was this wild experience because it all came back, seven years ago, it all came back. And it was daytime when we were there, this last January and it just struck me. This is the place. And we drive down this railroad track and I just a hundred percent, I know this is, this is it. And so this time I dropped a pin.
Matt Parker: (11:17)
Later that evening, I sat my Delta team down and I said, “Listen, gentlemen, I have…” We break up our, our Delta force into multiple teams and we hit different targets simultaneously. And so I pulled a group of three men together and I said, “Listen, I need you to go back to this street and I need to send you to this place that has history for me. And I don’t know if there’s still girls there. A lot of these traffickers move locations and a lot of girls are shuffled to different brothels. So it could be nothing guys, but I need to send you down this alley because seven years ago I saw girls lined up against this side of the road here.”
Matt Parker: (12:02)
And they were eager to do it. And we deployed them around midnight and they walked up and sure enough, all those girls were there. And this really old man came up. He was trafficking them and totally willing to sell them. And we were able to capture video footage and deliver to law enforcement, this little blip on the radar from seven years ago.
Matt Parker: (12:22)
And I think this idea of perseverance and longevity and patience, something we wrestle with all the time is we invest a lot of energy and effort that doesn’t go anywhere. Or that takes a much longer time to find success. There’ve been many, many times when girls disappear and we just keep going back. Because what we know, is those girls will show back up at some point. They’ll come back through a rotation, through a trafficking syndicate at some point. But the point is, is that we’re going to show up.
Preston Goff: (12:57)
For an audience that, maybe they can imagine a street of Bangkok, maybe they can’t. What do you mean when you say a lineup of girls? It seemed like for me, as you told that story, it seemed that that was such a triggering moment. There was no doubt in your mind what you had just witnessed. And largely that’s probably because of your experience on investigations and in missions. But I just wonder if you might describe what that would look like?
Matt Parker: (13:39)
Yeah. Literally girls lined up against the road, just on the side of the road, in kind of a shadowy environment, low light. And it is true, when you do investigation work and you spend a lot of time on the streets, and you learn where people are bought and sold, it does kind of fit this pattern of what we might see in the movies. Back alleys, behind the establishment, around the corner in secret. But not so secret, you can’t find it. And so when you see something like that, when you turn right down an alley and you see girls lined up against the side of the road, I knew instinctly what was happening. These girls are for sale, no question about it. And I think that most people, if you were to drive… If you were not an investigator with experience and you saw that and you took that turn down that alley, you would instinctly know, if you were paying attention at all.
Matt Parker: (14:44)
You would know this is an abnormal event. These girls are dressed up like dolls, in a really nasty dark alleyway. So I did know. And I think the other thing that I was feeling at the time, and I think a lot of people who care about this cause and this issue of human trafficking. At some point, it stops being girls along the side of the road whom I don’t know. And it starts becoming my responsibility. I think that I felt that in that moment. And the reason I feel that, and had felt that is because of all the research I had done on human trafficking. What we knew is that no one’s actually looking for victims of human trafficking. So I think I did feel this sense of responsibility that heightened that experience for me. But that’s what it looked like. Straight out of a movie. Most of these places we operate, straight out of movies. Dimly lit, lots of cigarette smoke and drugs, and really young kids dressed up like women.
Preston Goff: (15:55)
So you send a team to go in and scope it out and they make a walkthrough. You gather intel on that. Where’s the case at today?
Preston Goff: (16:06)
Just a quick note, in retrospect this question revealed some of the sensitive natures of this case that we’ve chosen to omit from part of Matt’s answer here, because he’s actually describing the law enforcement agency that is currently working this case. Delta team provided the initial information to the agency and our national operatives are continuing to follow up and work towards rescue on this open case.
Matt Parker: (16:30)
You know, this is what I can say, Delta team… They’re amazing. The video they were able to capture from that alley is so incriminating. We’re engaging with traffickers selling young girls. We have it all on film, and I’m very hopeful, and this is what we do, right? I mean, this is what we do at The Exodus Road, we capture videos, surveillance, evidence. Put all that intelligence together and deliver it to law enforcement. And it really does mobilize them effectively. So it is my hope that they’re going to mobilize soon. Right now, we’re kind of in the middle of a pandemic and it’s changed some of the caseload for our partners, but they have the case, it’s one of the eight cases we submitted.
Preston Goff: (17:19)
There’s one other question that just came to mind for me, because as you were describing riding in a taxi, you have your iPhone, you can drop a pin. That’s a reality that everybody has. And so for the average audience member who, maybe they travel overseas sometimes. We’re not so naive as to believe that it doesn’t happen here, stateside as well. And I just wonder, for the average person, is that something they can do? Can they drop a pin and send that to someone? What is the process for them to become involved if they want to say, I want to go beyond advocating for the freedom. I want to have my eyes open, my ears attuned, and I want to be able to respond. What can they do?
Matt Parker: (18:09)
That’s a great question. It really is as simple as, if you see something, say something. Drop a pin, grab an address, take a photo. And you’re going to need to then say something. It’s not enough to just grab that intelligence. You have to give it to law enforcement. And most States have human trafficking task forces as a part of their police department. And you can call your police department and say, “I saw something and it did not look right.” It may not be human trafficking. It could be a drug deal. There’s all kinds of crimes that happen around human trafficking. And you’re not going to know, but we call it that sixth sense. You’re going to feel in your gut, something’s not right. You need to say something. Call law enforcement say, “Look, I observed this behavior.”
Matt Parker: (18:55)
And even if that in isolation, doesn’t lead to a whole lot of law enforcement activity, if enough people in the community are watching out for each other, then more people are going to be reporting. And if there’s two or three calls that come in from the same establishment about the same street corner, that’s when law enforcement is going to say, “Okay, this is a repetitive story. We should really look into this.” But it’s when we’re all silent that, this amazing amount of evil in the world can exist. Untouched, unbothered by civil society and the good men and women who would rise up on behalf of a child. I think if you were to say, “Look who here, raise your hand, cares about children and their safety?” Well, everybody’s going to raise their hand, but not all of us are willing to say something.
Matt Parker: (19:43)
And I think that’s that shift that has to happen. It’s that same shift that happened for me in that dark alley, they stopped becoming strangers standing on the side of the road and they somehow became my responsibility. And that’s really what we have to embrace I think as a society is, “Hey, I’m not going to drive by and see a potential exploitation scenario and say nothing. No, I’m going to say something. I will take a step towards freedom for these girls towards justice for them.”
Matt Parker: (20:12)
And that doesn’t mean you get out of the car and you go start fist fighting people. But it does mean you’ll call your local anti-human trafficking police taskforce. You’ll call the FBI. There’s so many phone numbers to call. To say I don’t know who to call, might be an excuse you’d use. Don’t let that be your excuse. A quick Google search now on your phone while you’re driving, will give you the relevant phone number in that area that you’re in. And you’re right, those of us who travel a lot, we might see a plane full of young girls that are traveling together and it’s suspicious. You know what? That is suspicious. And you should say something about that.
Matt Parker: (20:53)
We’ve had Exodus Road followers who have been in that situation in Saudi Arabia, went and spoke to the girls, gave them The Exodus Road’s email address. These girls ended up being exploited and they reached out to The Exodus Road and we connected them with their local embassy and human trafficking task force. And they were able to get out of those situations of labor, where they were not paid fairly. That happens all the time. And those of us who are out in the community and are in circles of influence, when we see something, we really have to take a step towards it. Our gut instinct is to take a step away, but we can’t do that.
Preston Goff: (22:00)
On behalf of everyone at The Exodus Road, our operatives, support staff, law enforcement partners, and most importantly, the survivors we get to help rescue. Thank you for choosing to join and listen to the podcast today. We believe that the first step to joining the fight against human trafficking begins in education. Learning the stories and the real facts that surround this dark criminal industry. And as Matt shared today, we want to equip you to say something if you encounter a situation that leaves you suspicious. So on our website, we’ve left some resources and links to help you get in contact with law enforcement in your area. And I just want to be clear, our recommendation will always be for you to engage with local authorities when there are suspicions of trafficking. At The Exodus Road we firmly state, that we work to support and augment the work of law enforcement.
Preston Goff: (22:52)
So you can learn more by visiting our webpage at theexodusroad.com/podcast. Until All Are Free is a podcast by The Exodus Road, it’s hosted by me, Preston Goff and produced by Isaac Leigh. Our internal themes and mastering are produced by Lucas Leigh. And the music you’ve heard on the intro and outro was generously donated by City of Sound. We’re working hard on new episodes of the podcast right now, and I don’t want you to miss out. So take a moment and subscribe wherever you’re listening to this episode, to be notified when our next show is available. And if you’re listening on Apple podcasts, we’d love for you to take a moment to rate and review us. It really helps.
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