PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It was Super Bowl Sunday. Across America, people were having parties, eating hot wings and watching the big game.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, a group of Americans docked a yacht outside a small resort for what appeared to be a pre-game party on the beach. But their minds were not on football; they were on children.
Timothy Ballard and his team at Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking, worked undercover pretending to purchase young girls for sex. A Super Bowl party was the perfect disguise to lure in suspected human traffickers.
“They were so grotesque,” Ballard said, “talking about 10-year-old kids and what they were going to do; talking about them like they were selling computer parts.”
Ballard said the men sold him 20 minors as young as 11 years old and nine 18-year-olds — all of them trafficked for sex. “These kids were the subject of child pornography, videos that were being distributed outside of Haiti. Some of the kids had been branded as property,” he said.
When police arrived, they arrested nine men from three separate human trafficking rings and liberated 29 victims.
Ballard's team has been conducting missions like this in Haiti for more than three years. They originally went to the country looking for Gardy Mardy, an American born in St. George, Utah, who was kidnapped outside an LDS church building in Haiti shortly before his third birthday.
OUR's very first bust rescued 28 children from an illegal orphanage where kids were being sold. Ballard said he was humbled by Guesno Mardy's reaction when he told him his son was not found in that initial attempt. He remembers the father saying, “If I have to lose my son so that your team could come and rescue these 28, that is a burden I am willing to bear."
The search for Gardy led to more busts throughout Haiti and into the Dominican Republic. “We've rescued over 100 kids just on that island,” Ballard said, “and we're on that island because of Gardy.”
Guesno Mardy is now a regular volunteer on the OUR team, serving as an interpreter and a liaison with Haitian police, but his satisfaction is bittersweet. He runs an orphanage in Haiti where some of the victims rescued by OUR now reside.
"When I think about it, myself caring for other people's kids and knowing that my own child is at the hand of criminals, not being protected or loved, it is painful,” Guesno Mardy said. “But I understand it is part of my trial on this earth and I bear it."
Guesno Mardy and his family have shed a lot of tears over the last seven years. Gardy would be 10 years old now.
“I'm just hoping and praying that we'll find him alive, in whatever condition that might be at the moment. I'd be happy with that,” Guesno Mardy said.
With each bust OUR makes, Ballard remains optimistic they will find the first child they set out to save.
"We continue to look for Gardy. We'll never stop,” Ballard promised. “What we’ve realized is the more that we look for this little boy, the more time we spend on this island, the more kids we end up rescuing."
Since its inception a little over three years ago, OUR has rescued more than 600 victims in 15 different countries. Ballard said they’ve also helped police arrest about 280 traffickers and pedophiles.