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SALT LAKE CITY — A former agent for the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security said he has more freedom to bust bad guys as the head of a Utah-based charity.
"There's a gap that's not being filled," Tim Ballard said. "It's because kids we're finding, the vast majority of the kids that we find, fall outside the purview of the United States Government."
In Operation Underground Railroad's most recent sting, Ballard's team worked with the Colombian government to free 123 sex slaves, some as young as 11 years old.
"What they did was, they recruited these kids by luring them into the idea that they are going to be models," Ballard said. "They even convinced their parents that they were going to be models and send money back."
Ballard posed as a broker for a large group of American sex tourists. As several accused traffickers thought they were about to make a major payout, dozens of Colombian law enforcement officers moved in. Undercover cameras captured the sting, as well as the deal made before the party. The video and audio will serve as evidence in an upcoming trial.
"You have to sit there and smile in the face of evil," Ballard said. "I mean, these guys talk like they're selling a car."
Even tougher, Ballard said he and his team members have to stay undercover through the operation. Children may never known that they were there to liberate them.
"They eventually see you and say, 'There's the next monster,'" Ballard said.
You have to sit there and smile in the face of evil. I mean, these guys talk like they're selling a car.
–Tim Ballard, former agent for the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security
It's a scenario he had to live with before as a government agent. But for the first time in 12 years, someone accidentally let the children in on his secret, breaking the team's cover after the bust.
"I was able to for the first time have an interaction with these kids, them knowing we were the good guys," Ballard said. "Some of my jump-team guys are crying. These are tough guys who start crying as these kids come up and start saying, 'Thank you.' "
Ballard seeks out former law enforcement officers like himself to build his teams. He said recruits are already trained in undercover work. Those efforts are supported through donations.
"This problem's not going to go away until people see the reality of what it is," Ballard said. "There are two million of these kids being exploited. If you include the adults, there's over 10 million exploited sexually."
While the problem may seem insurmountable, Ballard said he's already seen evidence that Operation Underground Railroad's efforts are working. It happened as an undercover team started to investigate an area where they had previously organized a sting.
"(The locals) said a couple of months ago these Americans came down and they were all arrested and 32 kids were saved. And now no one is selling kids here," Ballard said. "You don't even know how many kids you actually save. You know how many you pulled out, but the deterrent effect, it's countless."