On a bright October day earlier this year, Tim Ballard waited in a rented mansion in Cartagena, Colombia, to pull off his biggest undercover operation to date.
Outside, delivery men showed up with crates of alcohol and expensive sound equipment — all part of an elaborate staged party.
But Ballard, 38, was waiting for another delivery. He was reprising a role he had played many times before and honed to cold-hearted perfection: that of a slick broker who represented clients interested in sex tourism. For today’s party, he had arranged for traffickers to bring dozens of children between the ages of 11 and 18.
The price of each child in Colombia for a party like this was $300 a day, and five of the children, girls as young as 11, were being sold at a premium of $1,000.
When the traffickers arrived and children started filing into the mansion, his instincts kicked in. Young lives hung in the balance.
Ballard spent 12 years working undercover for the CIA and then for the Department of Homeland Security in its child crimes group. He loved working for the government, but it bothered him that he could only pursue cases involving American citizens. Too often, he would infiltrate a sex ring only to have to let the case go, leaving victimized children helpless.
Last January, Ballard made a bold move and left his job to form his own team of former CIA operatives and Navy Seals who operate undercover to bust child slavery rings like this one. At the Cartagena bust, traffickers brought 53 children and Ballard coaxed information from the criminals while hidden cameras rolled.
Then a Colombian SWAT team busted in, arresting Ballard and his team along with the traffickers to preserve the identity of Ballard and those who work with him.
Over the course of several weeks, the team repeated operations like this in three cities in Colombia and rescued 123 children and made 15 arrests. Ballard says it’s the biggest child slavery rescue known to date.
Ballard’s organization is called Operation Underground Railroad, and members call themselves abolitionists. The references to 19th-century slave liberation are deliberate.
There are currently 25 million people living in slavery, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index research released by anti-trafficking organization Walk Free Foundation. The U.S. State Department puts the figure closer to 21 million, and about two million of those slaves are children.
Ballard’s line of work has opened his eyes to a problem most people are blind to — the fact that there are more people living in slavery now than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
"People think slavery ended with the Civil War, but it’s flourishing,” says Ballard. “Everyone thinks that they would be an abolitionist, that they would be on the right side, if they lived during the Civil War. I don’t want to offend people, but I gently have to tell them that they probably wouldn’t because slavery is happening now, and they turn a blind eye.”
Aspirations and discipline
Although slavery is thought of as an atrocity of yesteryear, it flourishes around the globe and even in the United States, where traffickers use violence, kidnapping and debt bondage to force people into commercial sex or forced labor.
Human trafficking has boomed in places like China, India and Bangladesh, and Russia, Haiti, Iran and parts of Africa according to State Department reports, but it happens in every country. UNESCO estimates that sex trafficking now generates $32 billion a year. Of that, $15 billion is made in industrialized countries.
Ballard knows better than anyone just how easy it is to buy a child. In an operation in Haiti earlier this year, he posed as a trafficker and visited an orphanage where two children — a brother and sister ages 2 and 3 — were sold to him for $15,000 apiece.
That's the going rate for a child, says Ballard, and over time, the owner can make millions of dollars by selling the child for sex or forced labor.
"It's a booming business because it's the most lucrative business in the world," says Ballard. "It's the fastest-growing industry in the world, too."
Of all the dirty crimes to fight, it’s hard to think of one more repulsive and dark than child sex trafficking. And, in fact, it’s not something that Ballard ever wanted to do, but when he left his comfortable government career to start OUR, he knew he could save more children, and he devoted his life to it full time. In just under a year, his team has freed over 250 children from slavery.
A few weeks ago, I met with Ballard at the Thanksgiving Point Cafe in Lehi, Utah. It's a family friendly place seriving up homemade goodlies like pumpkin cheesecake and lemon bars, and holiday music was piped in overhead.
At first glance, it’s hard to believe that Ballard would pass for a hardened criminal in an undercover sex sting. His thick blonde hair, blue eyes and relaxed manner of speech — occasionally sprinkled with surfer slang — belie his California roots. Ballard and his team, made largely of former special agents, are acolytes of the Crossfit gym craze and could make an intimidating bunch, but Ballard's effect is less Daniel Craig and more affable Tony Horton.
Ballard grew up in the Pasadena, California, suburb of La Canada, California; he’s the second of six children. Tim’s mother, Melanie Ballard, thought Tim would grow up to be a lawyer because, even as a child, he was obsessed with the idea of right and wrong: "He was the conscience of the family, he sees right and wrong as very black and white," she said.
Looking back, his mother sees a few clues to what would become his crime-fighting career: When he was in preschool, he insisted on wearing a Superman cape on all occasions — even to bed. At some point, someone gave Tim an FBI cap, and that rested on his bedstand for years, a childhood aspiration perhaps for the undercover career he would pursue as an adult.
"He had that vision of himself as being somebody who would go in and save people," she says.
People close to Ballard describe him as extraordinarily driven and intense, and his resume is that of someone with discipline and laser focus.
He graduated from Brigham Young University in Spanish and political science with a 4.0 GPA and then went on to win an exclusive scholarship at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he earned his master's degree in international politics summa cum laude.
While in college, he met his wife Katherine, who he courted and married within a span of four months. Today they have six children. He eventually wrote two books — one on American history and one on Abraham Lincoln — while he was studying and working full time by waking up at 4 a.m. to write.
When he left the CIA for an undercover position with the Department of Homeland Security, he looked forward to a career in anti-terrorism, which he was trained for. But he was placed in the child-crimes unit. He was indignant, and at first declined. He talked it over with his wife and accepted the assignment, feeling like it was what he was supposed to do.
Thus began Ballard's career chasing down some of the world's darkest criminals.
"There's this image that I ran into this heroically, but that wasn't the case." He relates to people who "don't want to know" about child trafficking, he says, "because I didn't want to know."
"I have kids and I would rather that they be dead than kidnapped and sex-trafficked," he said. "That alone tells you how horrifying it is. I can't look too hard without seeing my own children's faces in those victims. It is a dark place. There is a tired place in my heart that never recovers."
Ballard is known for his affection toward his six children, and his own child-like sense of playfulness. Todd Reynolds is Ballard's childhood friend and is now his brother-in-law and chairman of the board for OUR. He said that Ballard loved to play tricks on his sisters and his friends, often waiting patiently for an hour or more to ambush them: "No one is surprised that he ended up working undercover," says Reynolds.
What was surprising was that Ballard ended up in such a dangerous and dark field, says Reynolds, because Ballard is not an inherent risk-taker, something that might not be obvious because he is so outspoken and passionate about the cause.
"The story that doesn't get told is him going into the trenches and pulling these kids out of hell, and going into the trenches of his own soul to do it," says Reynolds, who notes the sacrifices Ballard makes in terms of security and time spent with his own family.
"There have been times when I could have jumped into doing something more noble, but the reality is I haven't done it," Reynolds said. "Tim did. He has legitimate integrity, and it's remarkable."
Part of the mission of OUR is to shine a light on the ugly issue of slavery in order to root it out. Ballard believes that raising awareness will help people rise up against modern slavery the way that they have in the past.
One of Ballard's great heroes is Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a depiction of black life under slavery that caused public outcry.
"It wasn't Lincoln who ended slavery, although he was there and he was willing. It was the people who rose up, it was the underground railroad, it was Frederick Douglas and Harriett Tubman, it was people who said 'look at the scars on my back, this is happening,'" Ballard says.
"Until the people rise up and force governments to do a better job, it won't change, because it's too hard to look at."
OUR's cause got a big boost when the organization was approached by filmmaker Gerald Molen, producer of "Schindler's List," earlier this year, to make a documentary. Molen's team has rolled film on most of OUR's operations since then, and the documentary, "The Abolitionists," premieres at Sundance next month.
Ballard's hope is that the movie will raise more awareness. Stowe was ignorant, he says, until she crossed into Ohio into slave territory and couldn't believe what she saw. "'Uncle Tom's Cabin' ended (slavery) when people opened their eyes," says Ballard.
Ballard chose to break his cover to be the face of OUR to spread the word, but though he no longer works undercover, he is still involved in the planning of every mission.
Part of what keeps him going is his own family, and a protective instinct as a parent. He and his wife are now in the process of adopting the 2-year-old boy and his 3-year-old sister that Ballard purchased as part of a sting in Haiti. The childrens' parents couldn't be identified, and Ballard lost the heart to turn them over to a reputable orphanage. After Ballard purchased the boy, he held the toddler during the car ride back to the city, and the child held him, he said, as though he knew Ballard was his rescuer.
Ballard doesn't shield his own children from his work too much. At the cafe, Ballard's daughter, 5-year-old Delsie, is playing games on her father's iPhone. "Delsie, what does Daddy do?" asks Ballard.
The child reluctantly looks away from her game. "He rescues kids," she replies matter-of-factly.
"From who?" Ballard asks, testing her comprehension.
"From bad guys," Delsie answers, unfazed.
When the family prays together, Delsie doesn't forget her soon-to-be family members. "We say please bless our new brother and sister," she says. "Please bless that they can be safe and be in our family."
OUR has plans for operations in Mexico, Haiti, Brazil and India next year, if they can raise all the funding. But Ballard sees OUR as just one highly trained, very outspoken part of a much broader solution that will take others like him.
"There are millions of slaves," he says. "And we can't get them all."