In just its first year and a half of existence, the non-profit organization Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) has already rescued nearly 300 victims of human trafficking, of which a majority were children. O.U.R. is the brainchild of Timothy Ballard, who for 12 years served as a U.S. Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security. As a member of the Internet Crimes against Children Taskforce and the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team, Ballard helped infiltrate and dismantle dozens of trafficking organizations that kidnapped children and forced them into the sex slave industry. Despite the positive experience of working side-by-side with dedicated U.S. government professionals, Ballard believed the strategies being employed didn’t do enough to rescue enslaved children. He felt helpless by the fact that the vast majority of child sex slaves fall outside the purview of developed nations, which meant that they were lost and unlikely to ever be rescued. As a U.S. agent, Ballard would never be authorized to rescue children if their cases lacked a U.S. nexus or couldn’t be tried in a U.S. court. Feeling called to attack this problem from a different angle, Ballard left the U.S. government in October 2013, recruited a team of supporters from around the globe, and created Operation Underground Railroad.
Our mission is to rescue children from slavery and dismantle the criminal networks holding them captive. Rescued children are then reunited with their families (whenever possible) or placed with reputable recovery programs. O.U.R. undercover teams of former CIA and Special Operations personnel have dedicated their lives to rescuing enslaved children, always with the invitation and permission of local governments. We keep the respective U.S. Embassies informed of our activities, and have been fortunate to count on their support and participation in a number of our rescues. Our motto is, “We enter through the front door, or we do not go in at all,” and that formula has worked in countries as diverse as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, and the United States.
The U.S. government is light years ahead of its foreign counterparts in the fight against human trafficking, but funding and restraints allow it to do only so much. In the meantime, thousands of children are being trafficked into the U.S. every year from Mexico and Central America, while hundreds of thousands are trafficked and forced into prostitution within these foreign countries. These countries do not have the resources or skills necessary to extract these victims and get them to safety. O.U.R. crosses jurisdictional lines by offering the services of its skilled ex-government and military officers to any affected nation, which allows O.U.R. to intervene wherever justice is needed.
The scope of the problem is vast; there are an estimated 27 million enslaved human beings in the world: more slaves than ever existed during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many are sex slaves, as sex trafficking represents the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. Many reputable organizations exist to disseminate information about this problem, and others function as aftercare organizations for victims. Very few, if any, dedicate themselves to the pro-active rescue and direct extraction of the victims, and to the capture and prosecution of their captors. Operation Underground Railroad fills this void. However, we are careful to ensure that the rescued children receive the rehabilitation and aftercare necessary to help them rebuild their lives. The liberated children are reunited with their parents whenever possible, but in the unfortunate cases where the children are orphans or, even worse, were sold into slavery by their parents or other family members, O.U.R. ensures that the host governments put the children into reputable shelters, orphanages, or safe houses. O.U.R. employees endeavor to visit the rehabilitation shelters every few months to ensure that the children are receiving high quality care, and we bring with us clothes, school materials, and other humanitarian supplies.
Our organization has in the past partnered with computer software companies that have helped us root out and pursue child pornographers, child rapists, and child traffickers. These initiatives led to some of the successful operations we conducted to date. Based on feedback we’ve received from countries and embassies around the world and because of the constraints we’ve found in delivering the software, O.U.R. is currently developing its own online tool that will be at the cutting edge of anti-trafficking operations. Because of the international impact this software will have, it is being designed with a federal focus in mind. This solution will empower law enforcement agencies around the world to track not just sex offenders but people who are making or viewing child pornography who are traveling across borders to likely act out against children.
Because of the undercover skills of our operatives, foreign governments often seek out O.U.R. to assist in sting operations against child sex traffickers. The largest and most successful rescue operation took place this past October in Colombia. In conjunction with Colombian government officials and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations working out of our Embassy in Bogotá, OUR led simultaneous operations in three Colombian cities (Armenia, Cartagena, and Medellin) that resulted in the liberation of 123 trafficking victims—of which 55 were minors—and the arrest of some ten perpetrators. This was the largest recorded child trafficking rescue in history, and took months of painstaking investigation and pre-operation engagement with local officials and the perpetrators themselves. The details of the three operations were different, but each allowed O.U.R. to play to its strengths—impersonating the roles of would-be child sex tourists who were organizing sex parties for wealthy and influential Americans and Canadians. We met early and often with the perpetrators to convince them of the seriousness of our plans, and to entice them to bring large numbers of minors to the party who we ultimately were able to liberate. In each undercover meeting our operatives wore concealed microphones and hidden cameras, which allowed us to capture high-quality evidence that Colombian prosecutors are using to build airtight cases against the arrested individuals.
In a sad commentary on our society, the reason that our cover story has worked so well and has been easily bought by perpetrators is due to the fact that this type of sex party and sex tourism happens for real every day and in almost every part of our globe. As the publicity and recognition of our operations grow, we will be on the lookout for the need to continue to change tactics to thwart the bad guys and rescue more children. We are fortunate that we have the speed, skill, and agility to tailor our operations to each case and to each country. We are constantly on the lookout for experienced operatives who have worked the darkest corners of the world and who can come on board to help us expand our operations into Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Despite our organization’s successes, we realize that nearly two million children are still out there being abused and trafficked in the worst form of slavery imaginable. It is our hope and prayer that they all will be freed someday, and it is our commitment and promise to dedicate all we have to rescuing them. This vast problem will never be stopped unless good people everywhere rise up and seek a solution, and that is the mission of the Operation Underground Railroad. Please join with us and help O.U.R. children. www.OURrescue.org and www.ourrescue.org/blog/.