Editor’s note: The film about Operation Underground Railroad premiered at South Jordan’s Megaplex Theatres on Tuesday, Jan. 27.
A team of former Navy Seals and CIA operatives splash beer on their faces as they prepare to play the part of American sex tourists. They’ll have to maintain laser-sharp focus as they engage in negotiations with some of the world’s dirtiest criminals.
One suspicious move or remark could put their whole team at risk and prevent the rescue of dozens of innocent children.
This team, known as Operation Underground Railroad, works to prosecute child sex traffickers and to rescue the victims. Heading the team is Tim Ballard — a husband, a father of six children and a BYU alumnus.
Ballard has run multiple sting operations in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua and the United States, all since he founded the organization in January. Ballard worked undercover as a government agent for 12 years before founding Operation Underground Railroad but is now speaking out to raise awareness about 21st-century slavery.
“It was the darkest thing I had ever seen or witnessed or felt in my life,” Ballard said. “We have to show people, because it’s not going to go away until everybody sees it and is so repulsed that they rise up.”
Equality Now, a human rights organization that seeks to protect women and girls, estimates there are at least 20.9 million people bought and sold into commercial sex servitude. Two million of them are children.
Equality Now stated on its website that even though international law and 134 countries criminalize sex trade, “Trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.”
Anyone can buy a child’s freedom for around $15,000, but doing so only increases the demand for more child sex slaves. Ballard’s organization seeks to prosecute traffickers to achieve a long-term solution and to deter others traffickers from selling children.
Ballard and his team use an array of methods to carry out their campaigns. They recently organized a campaign simultaneously in three Colombian cities — Armenia, Cartagena and Medellin.
They rented out multi-million-dollar mansions to organize fake bachelor parties. Ballard headed the operation in Cartagena, where he persuaded traffickers to bring as many teenage girls as possible. Hidden cameras rolled the whole time money exchanged hands and as Ballard coaxed information from the trafficker about the girls’ ages and what sex acts they intended to perform.
Money must be exchanged for criminal prosecution to take place in Colombia because it’s legal to sell oneself but not to sell someone else. Police rushed in after Ballard’s team had obtained sufficient evidence. Police cuffed both the traffickers and Ballard’s team to preserve the team’s cover, releasing them once the traffickers were taken away.
“I’ve never had a beer in my life, so I’m not a party guy, and yet here I am pretending to be not just a party guy, but the most perverted form of a party guy on earth,” Ballard said. “It’s weird for me because I live the standards of the Church.”
Half of Ballard’s team are BYU alumni and members of the LDS Church. They pray often and fast before each operation. Ballard said some of the most spiritual moments of his life have occurred “while I’m sitting across a table from these bad guys and … saying things I would never say, holding a fake beer in my hand and negotiating a sale of children.”
He continued, “I know the Lord is with me and my team … we feel that light and that Spirit in those moments of complete darkness.”
Ballard has returned to the streets of Cartagena to observe the effectiveness of his efforts. Traffickers informed him they no longer sell children because “these Americans came down two months ago, had a big party, and everyone’s scared to sell kids now.”
“We went back and proved it; we create this deterrent effect,” Ballard said.
Filmmaker Gerald Molen, who is best known as the producer of “Schindler’s List,” heard of Operation Underground Railroad’s cause earlier this year and approached Ballard with a large budget to make a documentary. Molen’s crew set up the hidden cameras and has recorded nearly every second of the undercover operations. The film will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s funny, because we all read history and we think, ‘Oh, I would … have risen up, I would have fought, I would have been an abolitionist,'” Ballard said. “And I tell them, ‘No, you wouldn’t have. If you would have, you’d be doing that right now. You know trafficking exists, you’ve heard of it, but you don’t want to look.'”