Most people have a hard time even thinking about child trafficking, and hence it is a topic rarely discussed. And confronting child traffickers is something most of us would not be able to handle.
But someone has to be willing to step up.
Someone with the guts to go undercover, get in deep into their operations, and ultimately present a case for them to be put behind bars. These children need heroes more than anything else.
And in this case, that is Tim Ballard – a devoted husband, father of 9, and an ex-agent for the Department of Homeland Security who has made it his life’s mission to save children from sex slavery.
Tim is the head of Operation Underground Railroad, a non-profit organization whose goal is to destroy the tentacles of child sex traffickers and release children from their clutches.
As a highly-trained counterterrorism and weapons expert, Tim wandered into the world of trafficking when he was offered to help fight child crime in the mid-2000s by the Department of Homeland Security. There, he learned to infiltrate the ring as a sex tourist and earn the trust of sex traffickers.
As a dad with 6 children at the time, he found this was a traumatic experience for him. But it was also a necessary one.
“I learned how to basically be just horrible things,” Tim says. “I learned how to act like a pedophile or talk like a trafficker or a purveyor of child sex tourism—whatever I needed to do. Then I started to infiltrate different organizations in horrible places in Mexico and Colombia.”
And he says seeing this world from the inside was not the only thing that traumatized him. It was the sheer size of the industry that had shocked him the most.
“The U.S. government didn’t realize what it was doing to me. They were basically destroying my soul, not only because I was being exposed to things—and we have regular checkups with mental health professionals—but the part that was the worst for me was I would go down and find the kids, and I couldn’t believe how vast it was. I couldn’t believe how big it was. It was at this time we started getting the numbers, and it was in well in the millions of children.”
Tim says that with time, he started to cope with the situation, and he eventually stopped seeing the faces of his own children in those he was saving from the horror. But he still hasn’t found a way of the darkness of his mind.
He worked as an anti-trafficker for the U.S. government until he started realizing that he could help more children by working on his own. In his position at the Department of Homeland Security, he had limited authority. But if he started his own operation, he would be able to do so much more.
But the water in the kettle boiled over when Tim wanted to save the son of a Haitian pastor, a little 3-year-old boy named Gardy who had been abducted by a church worker and sold to traffickers.
Tim did everything he could to help him, including bringing his father to the United States, but he was not given permission to make it a case the United States would pick up. Tim promised to find Gardy, but as part of the U.S. government, he did not have permission to act.
Tim started suffering mentally because he could not keep the promises he made to the families of the missing children. And then the day came when his wife Katherine successfully convinced him to start his own operation.
“My wife is my hero,” he said. “Katherine said, ‘You made a promise and they were good promises. These are real kids. We’re just going to trust in God. We’re just going to quit.’”
Even though the family was potentially putting their children in danger, Tim says he and his wife felt assured that they were doing the right thing.
Back in 2013, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) was launched. Tim brought together a group of people from the DHS, CIA, and state and local law enforcement. Some of them gave up on their job and pension security just to take part in his operation. At the moment OUR has around 25 fully dedicated members working around the globe and give or take 100 contractors – experts who form their “jump team” that is responsible for taking action anywhere they are.
The first mission they took on in Cartagena, Colombia was a major success, which saved dozens of kids and caught a group of sex traffickers that included an ex popular Colombian beauty queen. Tim has previously said that while most traffickers are men, there are always some women who normally work as groomers for the kids.
Operation number two took place in Haiti, at a fake orphanage where clues from Gardy’s abduction had led the team. They managed to save the kids there, who were left without food but were not yet sold. However, Gardy was nowhere to be found.
Tim had to tell the child’s father that he was not able to save his son.
Both men cried together, and then Gardy’s father said something that Tim would never forget:
“If my son hadn’t been kidnapped, none of these kids would be out. Nothing would have happened. If I have to give up my son so that these kids could be rescued, that’s a burden I’m willing to bear.”
But that wasn’t the end of it.
“Then he does the most amazing thing,” Tim said. “He goes to the police the next day and he tells them that he will bring home any of the kids that they can’t find parents for and parent them. And he brings home 8 of those kids, and he and his wife are now raising them.”
Deeply touched by all this, Tim and Katherine decided to also adopt two of the children – a brother and sister – whose parents could not be located. And after a four-year-old wait, they were able to come home to their new family in 2020. The search for Gardy is still ongoing.
Many times, Tim had thought of quitting due to the crushing effect the work has on his mental health, but his faith and his wife have kept him fighting on.
“Without Katherine, there’s no way,” Tim says. “She would stop me from throwing in the towel in those moments, and she would remind me, ‘As hard as this is, imagine how hard it is for the kids.’”
Seeing the light in the eyes of children slowly return after all they’ve gone through keeps him going.
However, there are many more children in need of rescue, and the situation needs to be tackled from every angle possible.
Without a strong market, sex trafficking would not exist, and Tim says the U.S. is the biggest client because they tend to have cash so traffickers can ask for higher prices. An underaged sex slave usually brings in 3 to 4 times more than what an adult would bring in – but who are these sick individuals exactly?
“I’ve asked myself this question for a little over a decade,” Tim says. “Why do you want this? Because people think child pornography is 16-and 17-year-olds. And technically it would be. But I’ve never met a law enforcement agency who has time to even worry about that. As horrible as that is—and we wish we could—we’re talking about pre-pubescent children. That’s something people can’t wrap their head around. I can’t wrap my head around it. I cannot. It’s the opposite of what most people think of as sexy. It’s so grotesque. And yet so many people want it.”
Today, Tim and Katherine are parents to 9 children, and he has moved away from doing fieldwork in order to be able to focus on expanding the mission of his organization.
A movie called “Sound of Freedom,” starring Jim Caviezel as Tim and Mira Sorvino as Katherine is currently in its final stages of production. Tim has also written a book called “Slave Stealers,” which features stories of slavery from the pre-Civil War era and now.
The “Sound of Freedom” starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino. I am blown away by the support for children today, it will be remembered forever. This doesn’t end here. The work keeps going. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. #endhumantrafficking #july30 pic.twitter.com/1Z1yTYehr1
— Tim Ballard (@TimBallard) July 31, 2020
OUR has helped catch more than 848 traffickers and saved more than 1,682 children from slavery.
If you wish to become part of their mission you can visit ourrescue.org and familiarise yourself with everything they do to help children in need. And should you want to contribute financially, you can visit their donation page by clicking here.
We wish these heroes the best of luck in their future missions. They are the kinds of heroes the world needs right now more than ever.
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