Operation Underground Railroad, a small Mormon-led group, is going undercover to rescue kids from sex trafficking. But is its brand of salvation working?
On a warm morning in March, an American man named Paul stands on the balcony of a sprawling stucco mansion in Acapulco, Mexico. In the distance, the spring sun glimmers on the city’s harbor, nestled among iconic white beaches and lush peaks. Acapulco is quiet—relatively speaking anyway. Caught in the cross-hairs of the country’s gruesome drug war, a city that once bustled with cruise ships and spring-breakers now has the ignominious distinction of being Mexico’s murder capital: 590 people were killed there in 2014.
The co-founder of a multibillion-dollar real estate investment fund, Paul is on the cusp of middle age. His short, graying hair is thick with gel, and he wears a pale blue shirt, sunglasses, and a Bentley-edition Breitling watch. He has come south of the border to take advantage of Acapulco’s seedy underbelly. He isn’t after property or drugs, however. He’s looking for sex with underage girls.
Down below, a dozen other gringos are scattered around the mansion’s pristine infinity pool. A mix of associates and Paul’s imposing security detail—hulking ex-military types in Oakley shades—they sip beers and chew on cigars. On the balcony’s railing, Paul carefully props an iPhone against a wine bottle so that he can look at the live visage of a friend in Silicon Valley, beamed in on FaceTime to watch the lurid show. “I have to apologize,” Paul says. “There are only two girls coming.”
A little after midday, the girls arrive. They have long, dark hair and are squeezed into strapless dresses. Leading them into the backyard is Mario, their squat, grim pimp. Men around the pool shout, “Hey, hey, Super Ma-ri-ooo!”
The girls greet the gringos with cheek kisses and totter in stilettos into an airy living room next to the lawn. There, a thick-armed security guard with a drooping blond mustache introduces himself as Brian and expresses some concerns to the pimp: Paul and his entourage got some young girls a few months ago, Brian explains, but when the boss started touching them, they flipped out. “If it happens again, I’m fired,” he says. “So are these girls going to do everything?” Anal sex, Mario answers, “depends on how big” Paul is. But he insists the girls are game. Brian turns to one of them and asks how old she is. “Voy a cumplir diez y seis,” she replies—almost 16.
At a wrought-iron patio table, the final details are hashed out as Paul and the Silicon Valley voyeur watch from above: $1,000 for the girls—half up front, half after the sex—plus a tip for Mario’s troubles. “You’re just like us,” Brian tells the pimp. “You’re not afraid to get a little dirty from time to time.”
The girls greet the gringos with cheek kisses and totter in stilettos into an airy living room next to the lawn.
When two flashbangs explode in the street outside the mansion, the pops echo dully around the pool. For a moment, no one really seems to notice. But then more than two dozen police officers in black SWAT gear come pouring into the yard. “Abajo! Get down!” they yell, their assault rifles raised. A second column swarms in from a side entrance just under Paul’s nose, their faces hidden behind balaclavas.
“You’re working with the cops, are ya, Mario?” Brian yells as he drops to the ground. “You’re fired. You’re all fired!”
Stone-faced, Mario slips out of his chair and slithers belly down. A policeman grabs his arm and drags him into the middle of the grass before searching him. The teenage girls, now lying on the floor of the living room where they’d been left, put their hands over their heads. One begins to cry quietly. A female social worker co- operating with the cops arrives at their side, cooing that they’re not in trouble.
Their grotesque fun over, the Americans are led uncuffed into a ground-floor room of the house. Plucked from his perch, Paul is among the last hauled inside. “So this is where they’re going to interrogate us?” he asks.
But it’s a deadpan question. Paul smiles, and some of the other Americans laugh. The mood in the room quickly loosens. Everything in the sting, the men agree, went according to plan. “Oh, man, did you see Mario’s face?” Brian asks. “These guys are going to jail for a long time.”
Not a security guard at all, Brian is really named Tim Ballard. He’s the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a U.S.-based organization that goes undercover to rescue children forced into the sex trade. The Acapulco trip was the group’s first foray into Mexico. In total, three people, including Mario, were arrested; they face prison sentences of up to 25 years, according to OUR.
Paul, a member of the OUR team who keeps his real identity private to protect his cover, holds up his phone: “It was awesome,” proclaims the disembodied voice from Silicon Valley. An executive at a major technology firm—OUR won’t provide his name—the man on FaceTime had donated the money needed to set up the operation. “Let’s fund another,” he says.
“This is going to end—and I’m not lying—in the rescue of thousands and thousands,” Ballard rhapsodizes, still wearing his fake blond mustache. Without it, he’s the epitome of the all-American man: tanned and fit, with bright blue eyes. “[The Mexican police] just learned how to do something.”
After Mario and the girls have been removed from the mansion, the Americans pile into police trucks queued up to take them to Acapulco’s airport. A loaned private plane is waiting on the runway. Ballard and Paul are due at a dinner in León hosted by former Mexican President Vicente Fox, and they’re already running late.
Human trafficking is one of the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprises, according to the United Nations. Precise figures are hard to come by, given the inherent challenges of collecting data on illegal activity. But according to estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO), trafficking is a $150 billion industry affecting 20.9 million people worldwide, nearly a quarter of whom are marketed for sex.
The ILO estimates that 5.5 million children are victims of the trafficking industry, and many are sexually exploited. Some young people are held or live in brothels, while others are forced into the hands of international criminal rings; still more are marketed by relatives seeking cash. What typically unites their stories is poverty. Pimps or networks of traffickers usually target people who are “poor, isolated and weak,” according to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Efforts to eliminate sex trafficking have enjoyed prominent backing in the United States for about 20 years, ever since strange bedfellows—feminists who opposed sex work, politicians from both political parties, and right-wing Christians—rallied behind the cause of defeating modern-day slavery. In 2003, three years after Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which established new laws against trafficking and rights for victims, President George W. Bush called sex trafficking a “special evil” in an address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Responding to the call for a moral crusade, a handful of private organizations has adopted what is now widely known as a raid-and-rescue strategy: identify where people are being sold for sex, send in police to haul them out, and arrest traffickers. Among the groups using this method is the International Justice Mission (IJM), a Washington, D.C.-based Christian legal organization with a presence in 11 developing countries; it claims to have rescued at least 258 people from sex trafficking and abuse in 2014 alone. The FBI uses the same model and says its busts have saved more than 3,600 trafficked children since 2003.
OUR is a new entrant in this field. Ballard was a U.S. government agent for a dozen years, including a stint at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for which he posed as a pedophile to infiltrate child-trafficking rings. But he became frustrated with red tape. While working abroad, Ballard says, “I could find children who were being sold into the sex trade, but if there was no U.S. nexus”—if the case would never land in a U.S. courtroom for jurisdictional or other reasons—“I couldn’t pursue it.” So in 2013 he struck out on his own and formed OUR, a small group of independent operatives who could set up stings anywhere in the world.
Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work. “The other option was to face my maker one day and tell him why I didn’t do it,” he says of his decision to start combating crimes against children. Ballard insists that religious belief isn’t a requirement to join OUR but notes that the staff members often pray together. If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he says, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” (In a February interview with LDS Living magazine, Ballard was more candid about his faith: He said he launched OUR after being instructed by God to “find the lost children.”)
Responding to the call for a moral crusade, a handful of private organizations have adopted what is now widely known as a raid-and-rescue strategy: identify where people are being sold for sex, send in police to haul them out, and arrest traffickers.
Today, OUR has a full-time staff of 12 people and a stable of trained volunteers, most of them Mormon. They include former military and intelligence officers, nurses and Army medics, cops and martial arts instructors. From small offices in Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Anaheim, California, OUR has coordinated more than a dozen raids in Latin America and the Caribbean. It claims to have saved at least 250 trafficking victims, including 123—55 of whom were children— in three stings coordinated across Colombia last October.
Simultaneously, OUR is making a public splash by amplifying the drama of its tactics and the ways people can support the group’s cause without ever busting into a brothel. A documentary movie, called The Abolitionists, has been screened privately in select U.S. theaters, and a proposed TV series about OUR is currently being filmed. The organization’s “give a Lincoln, save a slave” campaign, which like the term “underground railroad” conjures noble notions of 1800s anti-slavery efforts, asks people to become “abolitionists” by giving $5 a month. Supporters can sign up to receive text-message alerts “when children are saved.” If they’re big funders, they can get front-row seats: The tech executive watching the Acapulco operation gave more than $40,000.
As of this writing, OUR has 229,000 likes on its Facebook page, 3,000 more than the veteran IJM has. According to Jerry Gowen, OUR’s chief operating officer, the organization has raised almost $5 million since its founding less than two years ago. Celebrities, many of whom are Mormon, are getting on board too. The Walking Dead star Laurie Holden and Dancing With the Stars’ Chelsie Hightower have participated in raids. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes went undercover with the group. This March, OUR announced its merger with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, a child-protection NGO run by the family of the young Mormon woman famously kidnapped in Utah when she was just 14 and held in captivity for nine months.
OUR and its growing network of backers are nothing if not committed and well intentioned. But do their chosen methods actually work? The answer is anything but clear-cut.
Though most people can get behind fighting human trafficking, how to wage the war is another matter. Nor is claiming victory necessarily quick or simple. After a raid, there’s long-term support to consider, such as psychological care and rehabilitation for victims; this could take months, if not years. “To realize success in a lot of these cases takes a lot of time,” notes Rebecca Surtees, a senior researcher at the Nexus Institute, an international human rights research and policy organization.
But time, OUR argues, is exactly what children being sold for sex do not have. Getting them out of a horrendous situation as fast as possible is the top priority. “The children are desperately waiting for us,” Ballard testified before Congress in May, advocating that the U.S. government do more to combat trafficking. “I know. I have seen them.”
Right, wrong, or flawed, this urgent mission only seems to be gaining steam. Between February and April, OUR staged five operations in as many countries, including its first in Thailand. “This idea of actually doing something is very powerful,” says Anne Gallagher, an expert in trafficking and an advisor to the United Nations. “It’s addictive to people.”
Four days after the Acapulco bust, Ballard is sitting on a plastic lawn chair on a beach in Sosúa, a town on the Dominican Republic’s north shore. It’s late morning, and behind him is a strip of tourist restaurants and tchotchke shops. On another chair nearby, Dutch Turley, a 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound former Navy SEAL, is getting a $10 pedicure from a woman with dyed red hair who carries a small nail kit in a bucket up and down the beach.
The lazy scene belies an early step in OUR’s next raid: The men are waiting for two young Dominican traffickers who the day before had promised they could deliver girls, maybe even some as young as 12.
When the men arrive, they’re wearing board shorts; one sports a Lakers hat. Standing near the Caribbean surf, they tell Ballard and Turley that they have pictures of the teenagers on offer. “I know you guys are tourists,” one says, “but you can’t have cameras.” It’s too risky to let evidence leave the scene. In the end, they promise to bring 13 girls the next day to a party—the cover for the operation.
The Sosúa sting is following OUR’s usual pattern. The first phase is finding a government, in a country with high trafficking rates, willing to cooperate with the group. OUR’s staff members reach out to people they know from their former lives as agents and soldiers: local police and prosecutors with whom they’re already friendly or representatives from the State Department, FBI, or DHS who know the territory. In the Dominican Republic, the group secured a memorandum of understanding with federal police before getting to work.
That work is done by what OUR calls its “jump team.” Ballard coordinates trips and inhabits fake identities as needed. Paul plays the moneyman; lest anyone question him, he has created a false, elaborate identity online, complete with a Facebook profile boasting pictures of yachts and private jets to advertise his lavish playboy life. Turley handles tactical details—who goes where and when during raids—and can act as muscle if necessary. Matt Osborne, OUR’s senior vice president for rescue and rehabilitation, acts as the main liaison with local law enforcement. Then there’s Krista Rykert, a tall, blond CrossFit instructor and gym owner from a Salt Lake City suburb who plays the “groomer”: She talks to the children as a sting is happening, gives them candy, plays games—whatever is needed to keep them distracted. The film crew for the TV series is in tow as well; cameramen shoot the jump team using lenses hidden in backpacks, water bottles, and sunglasses.
OUR operatives walk the streets of whichever city or town is their latest target and pose as potential sex customers. They go to bars, talk to hustlers, explain that they’re throwing a party and want to cut a deal that will satisfy their boss’s desires. Sometimes Paul himself goes looking for traffickers; he throws money around, buys strangers drinks, and telegraphs that he wants particularly exotic partners—meaning, underage girls. (The group is careful not to entrap potential targets.)
In Sosúa, the jump team has trolled beaches and the local red-light district, thick with frumpy Americans and Europeans in town for sex. “Some guy will almost always come up to you and ask you if you want something,” Ballard says. “‘You looking for some smoke? Maybe a girl?’” One woman at a roadside restaurant even offered her daughter, who she claimed was 17, and five of her friends. (The age of consent in the Dominican Republic is 18.) Wearing tank tops and heavy makeup, the girls smiled at Osborne as he pretended to check them out.
The goal is to get as many children as possible to the site of a bust. By the night before OUR’s party in Sosúa, seven people, including the young men from the beach, have said they can bring more than 26 girls for Paul and his friends.
OUR has rented two houses—one for the faux celebration, the other across the street as a hideout for cops. Both are modern, all stone and glass, and sit in a tony, gated community a short drive from the beach. The documentary crew carefully places more than 20 cameras throughout the party house. (Police often use this footage as legal evidence.) Some $7,000 in cash is meticulously laid out on a bed and photographed before being divided into envelopes for each trafficker.
For final preparations, police officers and members of the local prosecutor’s office stop by. The logistics are explained: Some police officers will come in through the driveway, while others will enter a side door by the kitchen. The cues for storming will be a text message from an undercover Dominican cop working alongside OUR when Ballard shouts the words, “Bring in the wine!”
The prosecutor, who will ultimately try the case against the people arrested, is satisfied. “Remind everyone to keep straight faces,” admonishes a contact from the U.S. Embassy who has come to survey the setup. The mission is a go.
OUR says its method of collaborating with law enforcement and luring traffickers works like a charm. At a $200-per-plate gala in Washington, D.C., last November, Ballard regaled more than 260 guests with success stories. Wearing a dark suit and a slightly too wide red necktie, he told the crowd at the JW Marriott, “I don’t care about borders and boundaries when they’re kids.” A teaser for The Abolitionists played. OUR makes slam-dunk cases, Ballard’s voice-over explained, and then ensures they’re “delivered to [law enforcement] on a silver platter.” The gala raised more than $150,000.
Critics, however, are quick to pick apart claims of triumph, as they have been since the advent of raid and rescue. IJM largely pioneered the field in the early 2000s when it conducted high-profile stings across Southeast Asia; during a March 2003 bust in Cambodia, journalists from Dateline tagged along to produce a widely watched segment called “Children for Sale.” Later, in 2011, IJM took New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof along for an operation in India. IJM’s approach quickly gained acolytes. An Internet search reveals numerous raid-and-rescue groups with names like Destiny Rescue and The Exodus Road. “The undercover and mass-mediated model of activism that IJM propounds has become the emulated standard,” Barnard College professor Elizabeth Bernstein, a prominent critic of raids, has written.
Detractors, including many health and human rights advocates, argue that stings are only as good as their ability to actually improve lives—and that they often do the opposite. “The appeal of the rescue is that it’s a happy ending,” says Janie Chuang, who teaches courses on trafficking at American University’s Washington College of Law. “But it’s not. It’s a really hard life.”
In some cases, victims are quickly cut loose because governments lack the resources or concern to assist them. Others choose to leave protective services; sometimes they fear that authorities will abuse them or that traffickers will do the same to their families. (This is to say nothing of rescued adults who weren’t trafficked at all but had chosen to be sex workers, a distinction that raid groups often fail to make.) Mother Jones found in 2003 that girls and women saved in an IJM bust in Thailand were “locked into two rooms of an orphanage by Public Welfare authorities” and were allowed outside for only one hour each day. Following up on the operation featured on Dateline, the Nation reported in 2009 that some of the rescued children were addicted to intravenous drugs and made deals with the police to keep using; at least a dozen ran away and returned to brothels. “You hear about the raid, but you don’t hear a lot about the safe houses, the rehab process,” says Gretchen Soderlund, a professor at the University of Oregon who studies trafficking.
Sometimes, the consequences can be even worse. In the same investigation, the Nation learned that IJM didn’t track minors rescued in Thailand, including young girls from Myanmar who subsequently may have been deported back to their oppressive homeland. It also found that busts in Cambodia disrupted health NGOs’ efforts to educate women and girls in brothels about HIV; pimps believed the groups had aided IJM and no longer wanted them providing care.
Holly Burkhalter, IJM’s vice president of government relations and advocacy, shot back in 2012 in the Anti-Trafficking Review, “This view suggests that there is some level of backlash by brothel owners against health workers that would justify leaving the children to their fate.” Critics, she added, “have not offered any alternative to police operations to apprehend perpetrators and bring them to justice. That is because there are none.”
Still, IJM has tweaked its approach over time. “It’s not just a … drop-in to get a couple of children out of a brothel and then leave. We did that in the early days,” Burkhalter said in an interview with Foreign Policy. IJM now sets up offices in countries where it works—it recently opened one in the Dominican Republic—and places greater emphasis on training police and building the capacity of judicial and social-service systems. “We want to walk away from the image of the Western superhero going into places of darkness to rescue … the little girl,” says Pablo Villeda, IJM’s vice president of regional operations for Latin America.
“It’s not just a ... drop-in to get a couple of children out of a brothel and then leave.”
Ballard knows the criticisms that have plagued other raid-and-rescue outfits, and he is wary of OUR being characterized as a group of vigilantes. He insists that his organization has strong relationships with its police partners and that its missions are intended to set examples for future stings. OUR is also developing software that could flag international travelers whose computers are known to have downloaded child pornography—a tool that could help foreign officials intervene before customers even get to traffickers.
Still, the organization has opened itself to plenty of reproaches. Busts, Soderlund says, are “very strategic events that are almost tailor-made for the media.” OUR has embraced this notion, using the Internet, television, and film to push a slave-to-saved narrative. But Chuang says this story is an oversimplification that “just seems to be glorifying the savior.” She also worries that flashy campaigns divert donor funding from “the mundane work that needs to be done on the prevention side” of the trafficking equation—a concern shared by Randy Newcomb, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based philanthropy Humanity United, who wrote in the Anti-Trafficking Review in 2014 that donors’ desire for visible results has had “the unintended consequence of growing the capacity of only a select group of organisations that may, in fact, be more successful at marketing and far less successful at actually ending trafficking.”
Unlike IJM, OUR doesn’t have plans to shift from its parachute approach. “We really feel like we’re not in the building- homes business,” says Gowen, OUR’s chief operating officer, referring to planting roots in foreign locales. “That’s not our … core competency.” This isn’t to say that the group isn’t concerned with aftercare: OUR routinely links up with local entities that can assist the children gathered during raids and says it is hoping, with resources from the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to provide these groups with a best-practices guide and funding.
This model, however, doesn’t always work. In 2014, after OUR’s first operation in the Dominican Republic, a local organization called the National Council for Children and Adolescents (CONANI when abbreviated in Spanish) quickly discovered it didn’t have the capacity to handle the 26 girls rescued. They were released in less than a week. Some still went on to testify against the men arrested in the sting—as of press time, a verdict had yet to be delivered in the case—but CONANI lost track of others. “The influx of a large number of victims at once is very challenging to the social-service side,” says Fernando Rodriguez, IJM’s field office director in the Dominican Republic. (IJM has coordinated with OUR on two raids.) “To some degree, it is potentially a disservice and creates more problems than it would solve.”
Sometimes, OUR takes matters into its own hands. After the Acapulco bust, which was much smaller than anticipated—and one of the two girls saved turned out not to be a minor—OUR decided to take care of the almost-16-year-old’s financial needs. She was placed at a shelter in Mexico City and “wants to be a beautician,” Osborne says, estimating that OUR will provide $20,000 raised over the next few years for her care and education. “In the small rescues you don’t get as many,” he explains, “but you can really, really make a difference in the life of this girl.”
On the day of the Dominican raid, a bevy of teenage girls arrives in a caravan of vans, shuttle buses, and SUVs at the house rented for the fake party. Some have come from as far as Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital; the city sits 125 miles away, on the country’s opposite coast. Wearing colorful dresses, the girls stand around the backyard pool, chatting nervously. At one point, all of them start singing. Rykert, the OUR groomer, has told them it’s her birthday—a way to keep the girls busy as, behind sliding glass doors, other operatives negotiate the day’s deal. To further the lie, the deck has been decorated with pink and yellow balloons, and the gringos saunter around drinking Red Bull poured into Presidente beer bottles.
Rykert towers over the teenagers, her wrestler-size arms stretching out of a cobalt-blue tank top. She hams it up, conducting the singing with her hands: “Cumpleaños feliz!” The chorus peaks in an off-key “Deseamos Mariaaaaa”—the fake name Rykert is using—“cumpleaños feliz!” The girls, gathered in an arc, burst into applause.
As the teenagers and Rykert take selfies, Ballard, Turley, Osborne, and undercover Dominican police hand the traffickers the cash. “Vino!” Ballard yells to his associates, as one of the cops shoots off the text-message signal.
What happens next is much the same as in Acapulco. The Americans pretend to be shocked as the cops rush in. The teenagers begin to cry. The traffickers, who had been grinning at their good luck, turn dumbstruck. Afterward, the Americans and the police congratulate each other, but the celebration is once again short-lived: Ballard has to get to the airport to make a meeting back in the United States. “Can we get a quick wrap-up?” asks one of the cameramen as OUR’s founder grabs his bags. “Some of [the girls] were crying on the way here,” Ballard says to a camera before pulling off his hidden wire. “These were truly, truly kids being trafficked.”
A few members of the OUR team stay behind, planning to lay low for the night at one of the tawdry all-inclusive resorts that dot the Dominican Republic. They drive away from the house not long after Ballard, in the vehicles that brought the girls to the house. The teenagers have all been taken to CONANI and been given access to IJM psychologists. A few hours after the raid, OUR’s Twitter feed boasts:
YOUNGEST AGE: 13
Less than three weeks later, the girls are released to their families on a judge’s order—well short of the three months of targeted care the rehabilitation organizations had hoped to provide. IJM’s Villeda claimed in an interview with Foreign Policy that his group asked OUR to consider a smaller operation “knowing that the Dominican government didn’t have the capacity to house the number of victims that they were expecting to rescue.” OUR, however, insists it was the government’s call. “Were there too many that were brought? Perhaps,” Ballard said in a phone interview in June. “But that’s the number that the Dominicans wanted.”
He also detailed his plans for his group’s future. “It’s not just a bunch of sex parties,” he explained. “It’s going to be raids on brothels; it’s going to be buying one kid on the beach from one trafficker … [and] military- style raids on a slave-labor camp.” OUR, in other words, is just getting started.