HONOLULU (KHON2) — From the outside, Hawaii seems like paradise to the world. It’s home to nice beaches, scenic hikes and mouth watering food.

However, behind the bustling nightlife is a problem even paradise is not immune to.

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“Here in Hawaii, our children are being victimized as young as 11,” said Deputy Special Agent in Charge Lucy Cabral-DeArmas with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “The average age throughout the United States is 14, but for us, it’s 11.”

Ashley Maha’a was 17-years-old when she says she was lured into the world of sex trafficking by someone she was close to and exploited in the streets of Waikiki.

“I felt so stuck, and I never felt like a victim because I honestly felt like everybody,” Maha’a said about her mindset at the time. “Probably thought I was just a really bad kid and like involved in like really bad things.”

According to Cabral-DeArmas, human trafficking is more widespread in the islands than people think.

“We’re just a large tourist destination. I mean, it’s Hawaii,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Who doesn’t want to come here? And just the demand is very high. They know how to charm them. They make promises of a better life… And then before you know it, these victims are dependent on them for food, for shelter, and oftentimes they get them hooked on drugs as well.”

It’s not just happening in tourist hot spots like Waikiki.

“They are all over, and I think that’s maybe the misconception because Waikiki is known as a tourist area,” Cabral-DeArmas said.

HSI Honolulu has seen more sex trafficking in neighborhoods since the pandemic began.

“It just made it go further underground,” Cabral-DeArmas said. “Now we’re seeing it more in residential areas. It’s more online. The recruiting has definitely moved more online.”

The victims can be of any age or gender. Many are locals like Ashley, while others are flown into the state by their traffickers.

Non-profit, Ho’ola Na Pua is on a mission to educate Hawaii about the problem. The organization also directly helps survivors.

Its President, Jessica Munoz, said there are signs of sex trafficking that the community can be on the look out for.

“Some of the key things that can be indicators are, you know, your child having an older boyfriend or a love interest,” Munoz said. “All of a sudden they have a bunch of new items that you didn’t necessarily buy them. They might have a couple of cell phones. They might be running away from home, might be skipping school.”

According to Ho’ola Na Pua’s website, three out of four victims knew their trafficker (family, friend or significant other).

“I always tell people, ‘If you see something, whether it’s a family member, or whether it’s someone in your community, you need to say something,” Munoz stated. “It doesn’t mean you need to know for sure that they’re confirmed trafficked, or anything like that. But there’s the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is 888-373-7888. And then Child Welfare Services in Hawaii has a child trafficking line as well and that number is 808-832-1999.

If you believe you may be a victim of sex trafficking, there is help available.

“Please call for help,” Deputy Special Agent in Charge Lucy Cabral-DeArmas said. “Like it doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It does not mean that you have to continue to be a victim. We will listen and we will seek justice for you,”

To report suspicious criminal activity, including human trafficking tips, to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tip Line call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-866-347-2423).

Ashley Maha’a managed to get out of that world years ago, and she is continuing to build a better life for herself, and her family.

Maha’a is the proud owner of My Truth Is Now, an online essential oil business. Her company is personal to her.

“Part of my healing in 2011 was aromatherapy, yoga, a lot of alternative healing,” she said about why she wanted to sell essential oils after what she had been through as a victim of sex trafficking.

Now Maha’a is sharing her story to raise awareness about the problem with the hope that someday her kids can live in a better world.

“I just feel like I wanted my kids and their kids to be able to dream beyond being in that industry,” Maha’a said.

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Ashley Maha’a also wants other survivors of exploitation to know about an organization called the Community Against Exploitation Hawaii. The group is led by those with lived experiences to help support one another. If you would like to be a part of the group, email: Hawaiiagainstexploitation@gmail.com