THE CHIL­DREN’S LIB­ER­A­TION ARMY

Maxim - - CONTENTS - Nina Burleigh is na­tional pol­i­tics cor­re­spon­dent for Newsweek and au­thor of The Fa­tal Gift of Beauty.

IN­SIDE THE VIG­I­LANTE CREW WORK­ING TO END CHILD SEX TRAF­FICK­ING

A VIG­I­LANTE POSSE OF UTAH DADS AND EX-COM­MAN­DOS TRAV­ELS THE WORLD HELP­ING PUT CHILD SEX TRAF­FICK­ERS OUT OF BUSI­NESS. BY NINA BURLEIGH

“I KNOW HOW CRAPPY it is to wait and wait to be res­cued,” El­iz­a­beth Smart tells Maxim. “It’s dev­as­tat­ing.”

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 chil-

dren (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 Lat­ter­day 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 19th­cen­tury 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.” ■

THE CAST of char­ac­ters in­cluded prom­i­nent busi­ness­men, EX-CIA and Navy SEALS, and Utah’s at­tor­ney gen­eral.

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