In 2014, on a balmy February afternoon in the poverty-stricken country of Haiti, Timothy Ballard was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by local law enforcement. Lifting his head from the asphalt, he watched as the woman who just sold him two young children—a brother and sister ages 2 and 3—for $15,000 apiece was hauled away by police.
Little did the woman know that Ballard is a former CIA and Homeland Security agent who was working with the Haitian government in an undercover operation that would liberate 28 children from her “orphanage.” Little did she know that Ballard would go on to rescue more than 200 children from human traffickers in 2014 alone.
Ballard describes himself as a modern-day abolitionist and is doing everything in his power to educate the public about the little-acknowledged plague of human trafficking in society.
“We go about our lives thinking we have eradicated slavery, but it’s bigger than ever,” he says. “There are more slaves today than all the slaves in 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade.” In fact, human rights organizations agree there are at least 21 million victims of human trafficking in the world today, including 2 million children. Rescuing these children has become Ballard’s mission in life—a mission he believes is inspired of the Lord.
Into the Darkness
“I didn’t run into this line of work heroically with my sword unsheathed,” he clarifies. “I went in kicking and screaming.”
As a government agent, Ballard had been trained to fight terrorism, so he was surprised when his boss specifically requested that he help form a child crimes unit.
“I told him no,” he recalls. “It’s the one thing I wouldn’t do. It’s the worst possible thing anyone can see. Who knows how that would affect you?”
But his boss insisted that Ballard’s LDS faith would help strengthen him against the horrific crimes he would be facing.
“He felt my religious background would be a protection for me,” Ballard says.
After fasting and praying with his wife, Katherine, the couple felt strongly that the answer was “yes.” “The very reason I said no at first is the very reason we came to the decision to say yes—because we have children.”
So Ballard began his job as an undercover operative who assumed the role of pedophile or child trafficker. It wasn’t long after his first case, which led to the rescue of a 5-year-old boy, that he again doubted if he could withstand the emotional, psychological, and spiritual toll.
“This little boy was being violated in the worst possible way,” he recalls. “I was the first agent on the scene, and he jumped into my arms and wouldn’t let go. I came home that night and collapsed on the floor and cried like a baby.”
Ballard continues, “I told my wife, ‘I can’t do this.’ These children are being kidnapped and raped. There is nothing worse on earth. There is nothing worse in hell.” But he felt a powerful confirmation that this was what he was supposed to do. “I made a commitment to God and to that little boy that I would do everything I could, even if it killed me.”
So that’s exactly what he did for the next 12 years.
As a government agent, Ballard could only work cases if a US citizen was involved. “There are limited resources,” he explains. “I don’t fault the government—it’s just the way it is.”
However, Ballard’s frustration grew unbearable as he infiltrated child trafficking rings only to be forced to leave innocent victims behind.
“I’ve had cases where I knew where the kids were, but I couldn’t get them out because there was no US connection,” he says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
He continues, “I had several very profound spiritual experiences that made it clear to me that I was to do something more in this field. I started getting powerful feelings that my family needed to leave California and move to Utah, but we had no idea why we were supposed to go.”
So Ballard and his wife went to the temple for guidance. The next morning, in what Ballard describes as a “spiritual download,” he received a clear and undeniable answer: “Find the lost children.”
“I knew exactly what that meant. I was to find those kids who were out of our jurisdictional reach by starting a private, nonprofit organization. I didn’t know how, but something in Utah would lead to this.”
The family moved to Utah in the summer of 2012, and soon everything fell into place for Ballard to found Operation Underground Railroad, which specializes in rescuing children trapped in slavery.
“Before I left the government, I called all my contacts in other countries. I asked if they would still let me come in and operate privately, and they all said yes.”
So the father of six assembled a team of former Navy Seals, ex-CIA agents, and other operatives with unique skill sets. Despite not knowing where the money would come from, networking and word of mouth quickly led to enough donations to begin operations in January of 2014.
“Even as the money was dropping, I felt like Jonah—I wanted to run and hide. But it got to the point that as hard as it was to walk down this unknown path, not taking it became scarier. I became petrified at the thought of sitting down with the Lord and explaining why I didn’t do what He had asked of me.”
Ballard’s team consists of people of all faiths, but many are Latter-day Saints, including former U.S. diplomat and intelligence officer Matt Osborne, who serves as special projects coordinator. In fact, Osborne joined the Church a few years ago because of his friendship with Ballard in graduate school.
“Tim bore his testimony to me and planted the seed,” he says. “I investigated off and on for over a decade before I put Moroni’s promise to the test and got a response that was overwhelming.”
It was Ballard’s same conviction of heart that convinced Osborne to leave behind a stellar career in government to join Operation Underground Railroad. “There was something about what he said and the way he said it,” Osborne recalls. “At the end of the day, I can say I did this for the right reason—for the possibility of doing good. That’s what ultimately led me to jump.”
According to Osborne, having a team of people who sincerely desire to be humble and righteous has made all the difference.
“We pray constantly,” he says. “We pray for protection. We pray for guidance—to find the children, to find the honest government officials in other countries. It’s very difficult to know whom to trust.”
“Some of the most spiritual moments of my life have happened while sitting across the table from a child trafficker,” Ballard says. “I feel the Spirit with me in those moments of complete darkness.”
Operation Triple Take
Ballard’s team has found tremendous success on dozens of operations, but the crowning achievement of Operation Underground Railroad occurred on October 11, 2014, when, in cooperation with the Colombian government, they executed the largest-known human trafficking bust to date.
“We performed three operations within an hour of each other in three Colombian cities: Cartagena, Armenia, and Medellín,” says Osborne. “They resulted in the rescue of 123 victims and the arrest of a dozen criminals. The traffickers [in each city] were not connected, but we wanted to take them down at the same time so we could keep the element of surprise.”
Ballard, who served a mission in Chile and speaks fluent Spanish, participated in the Cartagena operation, just off the coast in the Rosario Islands. In a dramatic sting, he posed as an American businessman who wanted to rent a beach house and throw an elaborate party for his friends—complete with children for their “entertainment.”
Ballard had originally arranged for the traffickers to bring 20 children at $300 apiece. When he learned the traffickers wanted to build a child sex hotel on the island, though, he saw the opportunity to rescue 30 more. So Ballard asked a friend in the real estate business to pose as a potential investor.
“Mark* (name has been changed) is a successful real estate mogul. He can talk the talk, so we knew he would be perfect for this mission,” Ballard says. “I told the traffickers they would have to show us bigger numbers before Mark would be interested in investing, so the traffickers arranged to bring all the children they had to the party—even those still being ‘groomed,’ or prepared for life in the sex trade.” This included four virgins as young as 11 years old that came with a hefty price tag of $1,000 each.
The children were brought by boat to the island. With hidden cameras rolling, money exchanged hands, and a Colombian operative gave the signal for law enforcement to make their move. But there was a snag.
“Agents were supposed to storm the beach within five minutes of the signal, but it took 45 minutes for them to get there,” Mark recalls. “I thought, ‘What am I supposed to do now? It’s time for the party to start.’”
In an effort to stall the traffickers and keep them at the table, he started drawing up a business plan for their hotel. “Right at the top of the paper, I had written the cost of a child. It was sickening,” he says. “But it worked. By the end, they were arguing over who would get what percentage.”
Finally, 30 Colombian agents hit the beach and stormed the house.
One of the hardest parts for the undercover operatives is resisting the urge to comfort the children. Instead, they allow the children to believe they are pedophiles to maintain the integrity of the mission.
“When the takedown happens, we’re arrested along with the bad guys so we don’t blow our cover,” says Osborne.
In this instance, however, someone outside the team told the children that the operatives were the good guys, and as Ballard’s team left the island, they could hear the children cheering and singing and laughing. “It was very emotional,” says Osborne.
“There were Navy Seals in tears. It was a tender mercy that the Lord allowed Tim to have this connection with these kids on his last undercover mission.” (Ballard has since chosen to end his undercover work so he can bring more awareness to the public about modern-day slavery and raise donations for Operation Underground Railroad, but he is still deeply involved behind the scenes of each rescue mission.)
Three months after Operation Triple Take, Ballard returned to the streets of Colombia and began asking local traffickers if they could sell him a child for the night. “They told me, ‘Don’t you know? No one is going to sell you kids now. It’s too dangerous.’ We created a huge deterrent for the traffickers and scared off the sex tourism travelers,” he explains. “We rocked the whole country.”
Since October, Colombia has completed several operations of its own—and that is exactly what Operation Underground Railroad hopes every country will do. “We are not a vigilante group," says Ballard. "Our goal is to work with these governments and teach them what they need to know so they can do this without us.”
A Life of Freedom
The rescue missions don’t end at the arrests of the traffickers; a great deal of care is given to the children after they are freed.
“The most important part of the operation is the rehabilitation of the children,” says Osborne. “We partner with organizations who are skilled at that, and we screen reputable orphanages ahead of time, so when children are rescued they have somewhere safe to go. Unfortunately, in many cases, family members are the ones who have sold these children into slavery, so they can’t go home. We want to keep the safety net as tight as possible so the victims never return to that way of life.”
“Every child is precious,” he says. “We can’t solve this problem overnight, but by just saving one child, we can give them back the life that God intended for them.”
As for the tiny brother and sister Ballard “purchased” in Haiti in February 2014, the children’s parents couldn’t be located or identified. Ballard, who bonded with the siblings during the sting, couldn’t bear to leave them behind, so he and his wife spent four years going through the process to adopt them. They were finally able to bring the children home in the summer of 2018 and have been sealed in the temple as a family.
As a result of their lengthy adoption experience, Ballard and his wife, Katherine, have created a non-profit organization called Children Need Families. The organization works with adoption agencies, orphanages, and adoptive families, offering a grant subsidy to assist with adoption costs. Once families apply and are approved, a one-time grant is gifted to offset adoption fees, legal fees, and other related expenses. Visit cnfnow.org to learn more.
A Beacon for Change
To date, Operation Underground Railroad has helped to rescue nearly 1,600 children and to convict more than 700 traffickers. The organization has conducted rescue missions in several countries, including Haiti, India, Cambodia, Guatemala, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Thailand, and the United States. But according to Ballard, this is just the beginning.
“We have been getting requests from governments all over the world,” he says. “We have several cases pending, and we never know when we’ll have to jump on a plane. It could be tomorrow. But my wife doesn’t even complain—she knows this is what we are meant to do.”
“The only thing that stands between evil taking over this world is good people who face their fears and take action,” says Mark. “People who do nothing allow evil to flourish. I can’t sit back and allow atrocities to happen. I’m not going to allow my fear to stop me from doing what is right.”To donate to Operation Underground Railroad or learn more about the organization, visit ourrescue.org.
Lead image by Jed Wells. All other images courtesy of Operation Underground Railroad.
Be sure to pick up your copy of Tim Ballard's latest book, Slave Stealers.
Slave Stealers alternates between two riveting true stories of slavery—one in the 1800s, and one in 2012—weaving them together to expose the persistent evil of trafficking and sexual exploitation that has existed for centuries. Filled with heartbreaks and triumphs, miracles and disappointments, hair-raising escapes and daring rescues, this gripping book provides insight into this terrible evil and the good that can be done when caring people step up and stand in the light.