Inside The Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking

A vigilante posse of Utah dads and ex-commandos travels the world helping put child sex traffickers out of business. 

The Colombian pimps could hardly believe their good luck. Tim, the grinning, beer-soaked American dude in the baseball cap who’d been partying with other gringo buddies around Cartagena for a couple of weeks, was about to cut them in on the biggest deal of their lives. Tim worked advance for a super-rich American businessman who had a taste for underage girls. He wanted to invest millions of dollars to build an island brothel off the coast of Cartagena, and he needed to stock it with children. The pimps were happy to oblige, and after weeks of negotiations, they had arranged to meet the businessman himself—bringing along a show of good faith: two motorboats full of underage prospects for him to sample.

Everyone convened at a picnic table on the beach, and Tim made the introductions to the businessman and his associates. Girls, some as young as 12, and a few boys were unloaded from the boats, inspected, and sent to a nearby rented mansion to wait for the Americans.

Before the deal was completed, two boatloads of Colombian agents in blue uniforms pulled up and surrounded the men, throwing them facedown in the sand and cuffing the whole group.

Eventually, the agents separated the American buyers and the Colombian pimps, carting off the nationals for booking. They then quietly released the buyers, whose true goal, as it happened, was not to purchase children for sex at all. The entire transaction was a sting, captured on surveillance video by tiny shirt-button cameras. The Americans would never be seen in that region of Colombia again—at least until the next sting—and in the months to come, the Colombian authorities would take full credit for the bust.

For Tim Ballard, the affable Norte Americano in the baseball cap and Tevas, the sting was just another day at work. The 39-year-old Sunday-school teacher and father of six has spent the past year regularly getting cuffed and thrown on the ground in some of the world’s poorest, flyspecked backwaters, his way of helping to end the scourge of child sex trafficking.

The Colombian pimps never knew that the guy with whom they had been negotiating about virgins-for-hire had actually filled his beer bottles with water, after sprinkling the beer all over his clothes to make him smell like a drinker. Ballard’s lips have never touched liquor, and he says they never will.

The bust was Ballard’s biggest sting so far, one of three simultaneous operations in different parts of the country that liberated 123 kids and took down 15 pimps in all. The cast of characters included prominent Utah businessmen, ex–CIA agents and former Navy SEALs, and the attorney general of Utah, Sean Reyes, playing the wealthy abuser’s translator.

“Daddy!” The shrieking joy of a four-year-old greets Tim Ballard when he opens the door to his modest, beige, five-bedroom home in the exurbs to the west of Salt Lake City.

On a recent afternoon, two preschool towheads perched at the kitchen table, finger painting. Four more extremely photogenic kids, up to age 14, trooped in from the basement, where they were doing homework. Their mother, Katherine Ballard, had just baked bread. The loaves cooled on the spotless counter beneath a plaque that reads, “Be Grateful Be Smart Be Clean Be True Be Humble Be Prayerful.”

The only atypical note was the massive world map, eight by ten feet, on which the kids track their dad’s location when he’s off on a sting.

As a former CIA agent and then Homeland Security undercover operative and special agent, Ballard spent 11 years investigating child trafficking and pedophile rings in the United States. By December 2013, he was so upset at what he was witnessing, and so frustrated by the restrictions placed on him by the exigencies of government and diplomacy, that he quit altogether and founded his own private, not-for-profit rescue team, which he dubbed Operation Underground Railroad (OUR).

The group has attracted donors from Utah’s wealthy business elite, including Heidi Miller (whose family owns the NBA’s Utah Jazz). One of Mitt Romney’s sons sits on its board of governors. So does kidnap survivor Elizabeth Smart, whose father, Ed, is the organization’s director of prevention and rehabilitation.

Many, though not all, of Ballard’s colleagues are Mormons. Like him, they stand in a circle, bow their heads, and even fast before each operation. Ballard says 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. I know the Lord is with me and my team. [We] feel that light and that spirit in those moments of complete darkness.”

Since founding Operation Underground Railroad in January 2014, he has run sting operations in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the United States, rescuing 265 children from traffickers, and dismantling several trafficking organizations entirely. Now the group is expanding to Southeast Asia, including Thailand, where sex tourism and organized pedophilia have long thrived.

In addition to the children who have been saved, Ballard believes the real measure of the organization’s success is in the deterrent effect. When he returned to Cartagena undercover after the last large operation, traffickers informed him that 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.”

Furthermore, Ballard never takes credit for the arrests—the local police do, which he believes encourages them to redouble their future efforts. And he tries to leave behind expertise and software developed by the U.S. government for tracking pedophiles and trafficking networks. “The countries don’t have these tools, and that’s devastating for me,” Ballard says. “There is, like, one digital forensic expert per country. But the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. have the tools, and we want to bring the technologies to the foreign partners.”

Since he quit his government job in 2013 and moved to Utah, Ballard has operated out of a spartan suite of rooms in a loft office donated to him by a Salt Lake City financial services firm. On a January morning, as L.A. hipsters descended on the town for the Sundance Film Festival, Ballard showed up in a white shirt and black suit. He’s trim, from regular CrossFit sessions, and has bright blue eyes that well up as he talks about certain kids he’s met. Sitting at the large wooden table where he and his team plan their operations, he explained how he got into the dirty business of battling pedophilia.

A graduate of BYU and a fervent Mormon, Ballard has written a few alternative history books. The American Covenant (2011) argues that America’s founding fathers were guided by the Old Testament. A later title advances a theory—never before espoused by conventional historians—that Abraham Lincoln may have been influenced by the Book of Mormon.

Ballard grew up in Southern California, the second of six children (his father was in real estate, and his mother taught piano). “I always wanted to be a special agent,” he says. “But I never thought about child crime.”

That all changed in the early ’00s. Ballard was working for the Department of Homeland Security on the Calexico border when his boss offered him an assignment handling child-sex-trafficking cases. This is the only assignment, Ballard says, that federal agents are allowed to decline, because it can be so traumatic. His boss said he chose Ballard because he thought his strong religious faith would make him resilient enough to withstand the ugliness.

His instinct was to spurn the offer. Katherine agreed. They had three children then, and neither thought they could stomach the experience.

But by morning, they had changed their minds.

“We decided we needed to do it because we have kids,” Ballard says. He reeled off the statistics: There are 27 million slaves in the world; 10 million of them are sex slaves, and 2 million of those are children.

“So, those are numbers,” he says. “But it’s different when you hold one of them in your arms.”
Ballard’s first major case came early in July 2006. A customs official at the Calexico border got a bad feeling about a car driven by a 62-year-old California contractor named Earl Buchanan with a five-year-old boy on his lap.

A search turned up a pedophiliac videotape—starring Buchanan himself. “The agent popped in the cassette, and here was the guy, sexually abusing a boy,” Ballard says. Ballard was dispatched to interrogate Buchanan and talk to the child. “We went upstairs, and I met the kid,” Ballard recalls, eyes tearing up. “He jumps into my arms, and he’s holding onto me tightly—so tight. And he said, in English, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I just started sobbing. I broke down.”

From there, Ballard says, “the story gets worse.” He eventually learned Buchanan was a wealthy contractor who rented a row of slum houses to Mexican migrants, many illegal, allowing them to live rent-free if they let their children stay with him on weekends. Investigators believe the boy and his sister were among a dozen kids Buchanan was abusing.

After working the case for 48 hours straight, “I come home, walk in the door, and collapse,” he recalls. “I sobbed like a baby. I said, ‘I cannot do this. This is way too heavy. I have kids this age. I will have nightmares.’ ”

Ballard stuck with it, though, and wound up working in child trafficking for seven more years. But eventually, he became frustrated by the requirement that every case have a U.S. connection—an American sex buyer.

“It’s really hard to find that guy,” he says. “The easier way is to find the kids. I would tell my boss, ‘Please send me to Colombia and I will find kids,’ but they required an American nexus.”

In 2012, he began thinking about founding a nonprofit. It wasn’t an easy decision, leaving a career with a pension and guaranteed income. “I was in a fetal position every night. It came down to, I believe I will have a meeting with my maker someday. And I don’t want to have to say I could have saved some kids and didn’t. That meeting would not go over well. ”

Finally, he gave up his badge—and almost immediately, his project took off. He snared a couple of recruits from the government, including a CIA agent who also specialized in human trafficking while working with the State Department, and a few ex–Navy SEALs. He appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio show and walked away with almost a million dollars in donations from Beck’s fans. Meanwhile, the appearances caught the eye of Gerald R. Molen, an Academy Award–winning producer of Schindler’s List, who got behind a project to make a film about Ballard’s exploits. The documentary, called The Abolitionists, is due out later this year.

Elizabeth Smart signed on and participated in a sting on a pedophile in Southern California. “I know how crappy it is to wait and wait to be rescued,” she said in a phone interview with Maxim. “It’s devastating. Seeing them rescue actual children, not just talk about it, is so exciting. It’s an enormous undertaking.”

One Utah businessman, who like many of Ballard’s colleagues asked not to be named in order to maintain his anonymity for future stings, found himself called in last October to act as a wealthy pedophile in Cartagena. The 42-year-old father of three recalled the experience of coming “face-to-face with some of the most evil people on the planet,” as he put it. “Halfway through the meeting, [the main pimp] leans over and says, ‘I have a gift for you. This is Lady.’ ” She was 12. “He started talking about the horrible things I could do to this girl.”

As he talked about watching the girl’s hand shake, he began to cry. He says his faith kept him from breaking character to comfort her. “This isn’t an LDS charity,” he emphasized, referring to the Church of Latter-day Saints, “but I believe a higher power is as disgusted as we are that these horrendous people are out there. When I’m 85 years old, I will be able to say I built a billion-dollar company, and I will be able to say I helped rescue 50 kid sex slaves. Which one do you think matters?”

While civilians sign on as volunteers, Ballard also assembled a team of former law enforcement and military professionals to lead the stings with him. They, too, talk about a higher mission. One afternoon in the conference room of the Salt Lake City office, an ex–Navy SEAL fresh from two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq sat across from Ballard, while Dutch Turley, another former SEAL, and an ex–CIA officer were conferenced in from Texas. The four men were going over plans to set up a sting in Central America and to search for remote child-labor camps in a Caribbean nation they asked not to be named.

Ballard held up a white eraser board, on which he scrawled a complicated map and plan of attack. Turley, an Iraq war veteran who is now OUR’s VP of rescue operations, arranged for some private helicopters to take the group into remote forested areas, where authorities believe children are housed to work on farms.

The ex–CIA officer admitted that he, too, left the government because he felt limited by regulations. “Governments are like aircraft carriers—not easy to maneuver,” he explained. “We’re like Jet Skis. We see a problem area, get on a plane, and go. We work with countries that are known for corruption and inefficiency, but we give them this high-quality evidence so they can make ironclad cases. And the locals get to take credit for it.”

Even the hardened ex-spook says he needed advance preparation for the emotional aspect of the sting. “They brought in the girls, and the trafficker said, ‘This one is 11 and has zero kilometers on her.’ She was the age of my oldest daughter, and I just wanted to punch the guy.”

The other Navy SEAL also says the stings are both emotional and therapeutic for him. “My last deployment, we lost six guys. I sleep so much better now knowing I am part of something that is morally unambiguous.”

Ballard claims the same moral fervor that inspired America’s 19th-century abolitionists. “I chose the name Underground Railroad because it harks back to slavery,” he says. “When we talk about slavery in the South, we ask, How did it happen when so many knew it was wrong? Well, it was because they didn’t look. They didn’t want to look. And the same thing is happening now. Human slavery is going on all the time, but we don’t want to engage because it is so dark.

“I understand,” he adds. “I was like that, too.” ■

Photos by Jason Andrew/Getty Images