Dominican Republic, 2009-2011. A young American missionary, Elder Tyler Schwab from Star Valley, who was serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shocked and sickened by a human power dynamic that he witnessed in Latin America as very young girls accompanied adult men in social activities. At first, he was confused. It made no sense. And then, he was repulsed to learn that these girls were accompanying these men because they had no choice. They were victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Within a short time after he returned from his mission, Tyler determined to make it his life’s work to rescue and empower girls who had been trafficked by American men in Latin America. “It’s just something I couldn’t sit with,” he shared in a candid conversation with me. “I just couldn’t believe the injustice of it. The power dynamic is just so disgusting – American men who abuse girls from developing countries.”
Within a short time after completion of his mission, Tyler’s nonprofit organization, Gifts of Grace, was born, and he began working tirelessly to rescue girls and help them heal from the trauma of horrific and humiliating experiences that they suffered at the hands of American men.
In 2021, Gifts of Grace underwent a name change to Libertas International because “Libertas,” which means “Freedom” in Latin, is a more “accurate description of what we’re doing,” said Tyler, about his work and the young women he defends and protects.
Freedom “might mean economic freedom to start a business or start to work. It might mean mental freedom, like working on their mental health after the trauma that’s happened. In many cases, it’s the freedom of justice. They were trafficked by someone, and they want to see justice done. They want the freedom of knowing that they received justice, and that what they said was believed and heard.”
Today, Libertas International actively works to fight human trafficking and child exploitation in Latin America in three ways: Prevent Trafficking, Recover Victims and Empower Survivors. “Our mission is to empower survivors who have been trafficked and abused by American men in places like Colombia and Guatemala,” said Tyler, with humble regard for the girls he helps. “We help support those young girls in their healing and then we pursue justice on behalf of the girls to help get these guys behind bars and make them pay up in restitution.”
Tyler’s organization consists of 25 individuals who work together in their rescue effort. Three staff members in Colombia are the main drivers of the work. There is a staff member in the Dominican Republic and one in Guatemala. These five are the boots-on-the-ground professionals who are the “most important members of the team.” A board of five members travels back and forth between the US and Latin America to keep all the legal, financial, and public relations details in order.
The remainder of the team consists of “a whole lot of volunteers that make this organization” successful. Law enforcement is a critical piece in the puzzle. Tyler and his team have earned the respect of law enforcement officials in the areas they serve, and they work closely with them to support girls who come forward, find girls who need help, and take down the individuals who abuse them.
“We have a really good relationship with foreign law enforcement and US government officials,” said Tyler with gratitude. Most of the girls come to Libertas through law enforcement, and Libertas ensures that they have their immediate needs met and supports them through the reporting process. Talking about a specific case, Tyler explained, “The first thing we did with these little girls was to make sure that their basic needs were met, that they had food, that they had shelter, that they had medical care, that just their basic human needs were met. Then, we worked our way up to more advanced levels of healing like education. When the girls felt safe enough, we helped them make a report.”
The first case Libertas ever facilitated came to them through a government agent who trusted Tyler and reached out to him with details of a 16-year-old girl who was trafficked by an American. “We sat down with her, and it was really successful.” Today, this young woman she serves on the board with Libertas International and “helps guide the governing principles of our organization, and with that case, it just increased our reputation and increased our standing in the community.”
“This May, she traveled to federal court in New York City to testify against her trafficker,” Tyler shared, in wonder. “He had raped her, filmed her, and uploaded the [films online]. To watch her this May was amazing! She went up in court in front of him, in front of his family, in front of a federal judge, in front of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, and she said exactly what had happened to her and she was believed and justice was done. This is what freedom looks like! When I first met her, she was 16, she’d been abused, she was vulnerable, and now four years later, she’s testifying in federal court in the most powerful country in the world against and in front of the people who abused her. ‘Libertas,’ for her, meant economic empowerment, educational empowerment, and also the empowerment to speak about what had happened to her in front of the people who had abused her.”
The perpetrators in these cases are often wealthy and powerful. A recent case involved the arrest of an influential crypto fund manager who had 3.5 million followers on Instagram, owns Airbnb properties all over the world, and has a fortune in crypto currency. “We are working on making sure that he spends the next 20 years in jail and that we can take all his crypto cash that he had stored away and give it back to the girls.”
“It seems like all these girls know somebody who knows somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody who has been abused by an American, and so they tell their friends that they are safe that they’re getting help,” shared Tyler. “We get survivors who reach out on their own” asking for help.
Only three weeks ago, the law enforcement partner who works directly with Libertas made reports to local law enforcement, and then contacted Libertas about two sisters, ages 12 and 14, who reported being groomed online by an American man. He was luring them to his Airbnb and wanting very specific things from them. “They asked for help and wanted to make a report. So, the cops reached out to us and facilitated their contact so we could bring them into our survivor family.”
The 3,000 survivors with Libertas have experienced every imaginable horror in the world of human trafficking. They have been trafficked by their own families or by friends from their own homes and communities, under the threat of violence or under deception, being taught from a young age that such abusive relationships are normal. Some have been held against their will in brothels. Most of them are living their horror from the prison of their own homes.
“We have the case of this sweet, sweet kid,” lamented Tyler. “She was trafficked by her dad, and her dad had groomed her in a way that she believed what was happening to her was normal, and it definitely wasn’t normal. Once she went to school, and they gave a training on sexual abuse, she realized what was happening to her. He would just tell her from the time she was seven until she was 12 that this was how little girls were supposed to love their dads. He would film the abuse and show her [images of] abuse that he had perpetrated on other kids, and he told her ‘If you tell anybody, I will hurt you, I’ll have to hurt mom, I’ll have to hurt all these people. It has to be our little secret.”
The far-reaching relief that Libertas International brings to Latin American girls has garnered the attention of officials in these countries where trafficking and abuse are at epidemic proportions. Because of his work, Tyler recently received two prestigious awards, The SHIELD of Dipro and The Statue of Gratitude, which honor him and Libertas International for their life-changing and life-saving work with victims.
“The SHIELD is such an honor,” Tyler shared in humility. “It legitimizes what we’re trying to do. Receiving it with all of my Colombian team, and all of the survivors is the biggest reward. It represents the aftercare work that we’re doing with survivors. We’re doing the work of justice against these American men. It’s about all these brave, brave girls and it belongs to them. It’s their award. They’re the ones who make it special and they’re the ones who really give us the motivation to keep going.”
With 3,000 girls in their survivor family this far, Libertas is determined to help every girl who asks for help. Though every girl’s story, experience and needs are different, Libertas invests an average of $3,000 annually for each girl who comes to them for support. Some girls need basic necessities. Some girls who have been taken from their homes need travel funds to return to their families. Each rescue looks different and incurs different expenses.
“That’s our goal – to have enough funding to never turn a girl away,” Tyler shared with passion. “Because if a girl is vulnerable enough to ask for help and reveal to us the most intimate and terrible thing that’s ever happened to her, we always want to have enough resources in the bank to be able to say, ‘Of course we are going to help you, sweetheart. Let’s get you some food. Let’s get you some new clothes, and then we’ll figure out where to go from there.’”
Funding for the Libertas operation comes from private donors. No money comes to them through grants or any government. A few nonprofits lend support, but most of their funding comes from private individuals who see the value of their work. Donors are always invited to provide a monthly contribution at whatever level is comfortable for them. This is what allows Libertas to continue to rescue girls and help them rebuild their lives, as well as bring offenders to justice.
Monthly donations ensure a monthly budget so that Tyler and his team know what they can do for any girl who comes to them. “We always want to have a safe landing for these survivors who ask for help. The monthly donors allow us to do that, and their sacrifice is not lost on me. It’s such an honor to receive that funding that’s such a sacrifice because I know that these two little sisters who have come to us this last month, if they can tell us the most awful and intimate thing that’s ever happened to them and because of those monthly donations and sacrifices, they have a soft place to land, they have a team that cares about them and they are heard believed and helped.”
Tyler knows that many of the generous donors who fund his work are friends and family from Star Valley, and he is humbly grateful for the support of those who sacrifice to give so much to the girls he rescues. “That’s not lost on me that because of the generosity of the people in our little Valley up in the mountains of Wyoming, there are people living in freedom in Colombia and the pedophiles are now rotting behind bars.”
“Every time there is a fundraiser for Libertas in the valley, every time there’s a new article, every time I tell people what I’m trying to do, The Valley just rallies around me, and I have the membership I need and the friendship I need. It’s not lost on me.” With Project Crypto Mine, that involved the prosecution of the crypto fund manager, one more man was put behind bars. “The result of that project was the liberation of four survivors, the arrest of this monster, and if you backtrack the funding, I’m sure that it was the good people of Star Valley that helped make this happen, and make sure that this guy pays for what he did and that our survivors got everything they needed to continue and that they are healing.”
To financially support Tyler in his work, visit libertasfreedom.org The site offers various donation amounts from as affordable as $25 a month to $1,000 a month. Donors can send funds to the Venmo address @libertasfreedom. “Whatever people can give,” said Tyler. We try to make donating as easy as we can, so people can donate through any avenue they wish.”