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Illustration by Jim Cooke

Inside a Massive Anti-Trafficking Charity's Blundering Overseas Missions

Operation Underground Railroad claims to save child sex slaves. People on the ground describe disturbingly amateurish operations that could endanger those they're meant to help.
March 8, 2021, 6:15pm

The rescue mission, somewhere on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was not going well. The anti-trafficking charity Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) had arrived in a remote village seeking a missing child, acting on what founder Tim Ballard had promised was a solid tip from a source. A group from OUR’s so-called “jump team” had entered the village, pretending to be part of a medical team; real medical workers had been hired as cover and were providing actual care to people in the village while the “operators,” as they’re called, quietly surveyed the scene. But the missing child was nowhere to be found. And then, to the dismay of several people on the ground, Ballard produced his source: a psychic medium from Utah.

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The child in question was Gardy Mardy, a Haitian boy born in the United States who was nearly three years old when he disappeared from his father Guesno Mardy’s church in Port-au-Prince in December 2009. This was the catalyzing event that led to Ballard founding OUR several years later. By 2014, Ballard and his team of operators—a group he asserts is highly trained and skilled, and mainly comprises former members of law enforcement and the military—descended on Haiti to find Gardy, in the first of several operations. 

Two people who went on one of those missions independently related the same series of events to VICE World News; they requested anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive situation. During the mission where medical care was being used as cover, they said, Ballard, who worked for Homeland Security Investigations and claims to have been a CIA agent before that, had been relaying tips from his source. The person had claimed that many children were being held near this village, and that Gardy was among them. Ballard, both sources said, even called Guesno to tell him that his son was coming home, and summoned him to the village. 

Then, Ballard arrived in Haiti with his unexpected companion.

“Tim shows up with this woman, this very sheltered-looking soccer mom-ish woman from Utah,” one source told VICE World News. “And he’s being very defensive and won’t let anyone talk to her. After a couple days I figured out she’s a fucking psychic. That’s his fucking source.”

“She’s a fucking psychic. That’s his fucking source.”

A second person on the mission said that they, too, had been introduced to the psychic—both people remembered her name as “Janet”—and that her tip, perhaps predictably, did not pan out. 

(When reached by VICE World News, Janet said, "I signed an NDA so I can't answer any of your questions," and recommended we reach out to OUR. A spokesperson for OUR didn’t dispute Janet’s involvement, telling us, “OUR has partnered with Janet, who was referred to OUR by a U.S. law enforcement agency, for some of our top level cases. She has been very successful in helping our rescue efforts alongside our law enforcement partners. Her skillset has long been used by law enforcement and government entities in this line of work.” 

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The spokesperson also shared two links: The first was to an abstract of a 1993 paper from the journal Law and Order, which referred to the work of psychics in law enforcement investigations as "controversial," did not endorse their use, and noted that most large police agencies surveyed did not work with psychics, nor did the FBI at the time. The second was a Forbes profile of a different psychic medium who says she works with law enforcement.) 

Soon after Ballard arrived, the villagers became suspicious and increasingly upset as he began circulating through the village with a camera crew. 

“He’s not making decisions tactically,” one of the people who was present told VICE World News. “He’s making decisions like a reality TV producer. And so he starts running around the village like an idiot. The cameras are following him. He’s drawing so much attention to himself.” 

Have you worked for or with Operation Underground Railroad or a similar group? We would love to hear from you. Contact the reporters at anna.merlan@vice.com or tim.marchman@vice.com, or via Signal at 267-713-9832.

The villagers began to gather, some of them armed with old shotguns, and soon OUR’s crew learned that a rumor was circulating: There was a virus in the village, and the workers were there to figure out who had it. 

“They were yelling and getting riled up,” a person who was present said. “Tim got in the truck and buried his head in his lap.” Senior elders soon asked the medical team to leave. Several cars followed them out of the village to make sure they’d gone. 

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The day was a disturbing wash, and, in many ways, indicative of a larger pattern for OUR. While the group built its reputation on the image of highly polished, heroic rescues carried out by the best of the best, a VICE World News investigation suggests a different reality.  

While the group built its reputation on the image of highly polished, heroic rescues carried out by the best of the best, a VICE World News investigation suggests a different reality.

People who participated in and witnessed OUR operations overseas recounted blundering missions—carried out in part by real estate agents and high-level donors—that seemed aimed mainly at generating exciting video footage and that, in their view, potentially created demand for trafficking victims. A person who made it through what they described as slapdash training (and was offered a spot on the overseas “rescue” team, but did not join) said its leader talked about operators being sexually tempted by the victims they were supposedly out to save; he and an operator also said they were asked to pay for some expenses while abroad.

Experts and advocates for sex workers and trafficking survivors also questioned whether OUR's ties to a corrupt Thai police agency could lead to repression of pro-democracy activists, and whether it and similar NGOs truly help survivors or have been successful in identifying or dismantling trafficking networks. In all, these people told a story involving alarming amateurism that potentially endangers both those carrying out missions and the people they're meant to help.

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In response to a detailed request for comment covering every allegation made in this story, OUR’s communications team sent over two statements, which are reprinted in full below, as well as responses to several specific points. Repeated requests to speak directly to Tim Ballard or other senior members of OUR leadership were denied.

“We never saw Gardy or any other kid,” a person who had gone on the Haiti mission told VICE World News. “We never got close to helping anyone.”

While it never found Gardy, OUR has said that hunting for him led to innumerable other rescues. The organization and Ballard have said that they’re still searching for the boy to this day, and that in the process, children around the world have been liberated from traffickers. “Gardy’s story has led to the freedom of thousands,” OUR wrote in July 2020, announcing the sale of new FIND GARDY hats. 

OUR is now a celebrated anti-trafficking charity, claiming to have worked in 26 countries, with the stated aim of bringing together "the world's experts in extraction operations and in anti-child trafficking efforts to bring an end to child slavery." It brought in more than $21 million in donations in 2019, the most recent year for which tax filings are available, and has enjoyed the support of high-powered backers ranging from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to Glenn Beck to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, the top law enforcement official in the state where OUR is based. The image of armed men racing into dangerous situations to rescue sexually abused children has been a hit with OUR’s donors and with media outlets, which have run hundreds of flattering stories about its work. The New York Times quoted Ballard as an anti-trafficking expert even as a separate story was critical of some of OUR’s domestic partnerships, for example, while ESPN aired a glowing feature on the group as part of its Sunday Night Football coverage in 2018.

Despite the organization’s outward success, it faces an ongoing investigation by Davis County, Utah attorney general Troy Rawlings, as Utah’s Fox 13 reported last October. While Rawlings hasn’t publicly described the contours of the investigation, people familiar with it have told both Fox 13 and VICE World News that his office is looking into whether OUR has made misleading statements in its fundraising appeals. (Rawlings confirmed to VICE World News in an email that the investigation is “100% still going and vibrant/productive.”) 

In an investigation published in December, VICE World News found that Operation Underground Railroad had a demonstrable pattern of exaggeration in some of the stories the organization has told about its domestic rescue work. In one of the starkest examples, it strongly implied that it had participated in the rescue of a human trafficking survivor it calls “Liliana,” who in fact escaped her traffickers on her own. A series of public-records requests also found that while OUR often claims to partner with local law enforcement on trafficking investigations and rescues, the extent of that “partnership” is often a modest donation OUR gives the agency, which in return credits it in press releases about any investigation, rescue, bust, or arrest that used the money. 

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OUR has denied exaggerating anything. In one of two statements it gave to VICE World News for our previous story, it wrote that VICE’s “agenda-driven objective is to comb through years of information in an effort to find any, even minor, discrepancy, and to twist anything found into a negative portrayal of an honorable organization.” 

Meanwhile, OUR’s overseas operations, and the “jump team” it says conducts them, are the jewel in its crown: the subject of innumerable fundraising emails, interviews with Ballard, two documentaries, and Sound of Freedom, an upcoming feature film starring Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard. (The casting of an actor most famous for playing Jesus Christ is perhaps not coincidental; while OUR is not an expressly religious organization, it heavily employs the language and imagery of faith, and Ballard, a devout Mormon, has said he was directly called by God to "Find the lost children.") OUR routinely claims that its overseas jump teams are made up of former members of the military, CIA, and law enforcement who undergo rigorous training. 

They are the best of the best,” read an early blog post about the jump team on OUR’s website, from 2015. The post claimed that OUR’s training “is ongoing and consists of hand-to-hand combat and handgun instruction.” It also quoted a then-operator for OUR, Dutch Turley, a former Navy SEAL. “You have to understand your enemy from a mental perspective. We try to do it as often as we can,” he said. “We cover the mentality of the situation.” Ballard, who has said he works with about 100 contractors on overseas operations, has described jump team tryouts as "super intense" and said he probably wouldn't pass them.

But sources with direct knowledge of past operations describe a reality very different from what is portrayed in OUR's gripping online videos and in documentaries about the group, including around the time when the “best of the best” blog post was written. 

“They claim they have all these special operations guys and it’s complete and utter bullshit,” said one person with extensive experience working overseas with OUR.

While ex-military and law enforcement members—among them former members of special forces—have been among OUR's operators, they have by no means all been similarly credentialed. “They claim they have all these special operations guys and it’s complete and utter bullshit,” said one person with extensive experience working overseas with OUR. Like many people interviewed by VICE World News for this story, this person was granted anonymity both because they fear reprisal from OUR and because they operate in the anti-trafficking area and are concerned for their safety. 

Both this person and another veteran who has worked overseas with OUR said that in their experience, nothing OUR did seemed recognizably informed by professional military or intelligence practice. There was, they said—contrary to the process for operations laid out on OUR's website—no meaningful surveillance or identification of targets; no development of assets; no validating that people they sought to rescue had in fact been trafficked, or that people they were targeting were indeed traffickers; and no meaningful follow-up with people who had been rescued on the missions in which they took part.  

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“There’s basic safety stuff that should be in place, like knowing where the nearest hospital is,” one person who’s gone on previous OUR missions said. “None of that was in place.”

In a typical operation, as these sources describe it, OUR operators would head into a town in a country like the Dominican Republic and flash thousands of dollars at clubs and bars, saying they were there to party. (This basic method is consistent with what is seen in videos OUR has itself published and accounts of missions like this one by a writer for The Glenn Beck Program who went undercover for the group.)

“It's laughable to call what he did ops,” a veteran who worked with OUR overseas said of Ballard. “They’d go and just push for pimps to show up with girls.” If presented with sex workers of legal age, OUR would insist on younger girls—a method that several experts said could, when combined with a lack of intelligence-gathering and vetting, potentially lead to girls being trafficked who otherwise wouldn't have been.

“In my opinion that’s what he was doing: He was creating demand,” said one of the former military members who worked with OUR overseas. “Because you’d see the pimps show up with a weird mix of girls—young, but experienced—then there’d be a couple really young girls. It felt to me like they'd been roped in because Tim had flashed so much money.” 

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Typically, after arranging for the women and girls to be brought to them, OUR's operators would call local police, who would make arrests. The operators would then leave the country.

“They conflate sex work and trafficking,” said a former military member who has worked with OUR. “They’re making it worse.” 

“They’re making it worse,” said a former military member who has worked with OUR.

This is a common pattern for anti-trafficking NGOs working abroad, according to sex worker activists with Thailand’s Empower Foundation. Empower advocates for legalizing sex work—something to which OUR is staunchly opposed—and has for decades criticized human rights abuses perpetrated against sex workers by the government, police, NGOs, and clients. Three Empower organizers interviewed by VICE World News had not heard of OUR, which was surprising, they said, given the level of involvement the group claims to have in Thailand. That said, OUR are far from alone. 

“There’s so many of these organizations here I don’t know one from the other,” Mai Janta, a sex worker leader of the organization, told VICE World News, laughing. 

“From our point of view, they come into our workplaces and make a relationship with the employer as well as the police. If there are no underage workers they continually ask and ask for the employer to find them some underage workers,” Janta added. “So they create a situation where there are underage workers, where there weren’t before.” 

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Ultimately, several former members of the military left OUR in disgust over what they witnessed there, they told VICE World News. 

“Look, the developing world is rough,” said a former member of the military who used to work with OUR. “People are desperate. They do what they can. So you have a lot of 16-, 17-, 18-year-old prostitutes. They’re often young women who are willingly prostituting themselves. I’m not saying it’s okay. I’m not saying they don’t need help. But this is not Taken with Liam Neeson. These are girls in a desperate situation. They need a job and an education. They don't need someone to rescue them, some white guy from Utah.”

“I’m not saying they don’t need help. But this is not Taken with Liam Neeson. These are girls in a desperate situation. They need a job and an education. They don't need someone to rescue them, some white guy from Utah.”

“From my perspective, Tim Ballard and OUR are the Theranos of the NGO world,” they added. “Tim is a master marketer: good-looking, charismatic, he tells these stories, and so nobody really diligences him. Nobody took the time to check and see what his product was, could he deliver. This thing just grew to what it is.”

In response to detailed questions about its overseas operations, OUR issued the following statement to VICE World News:

OUR is not a vigilante organization and has never operated in a country without the invitation of our host government partners. We always coordinate closely with our host government partners to determine when, where, and how we operate. They are in charge of the investigations and operations at all times, and we follow their lead.

OUR does all we can to avoid creating demand, and informs suspected traffickers that we are not interested in them making efforts to find other victims. We are clear: they either have what we are looking for, or they do not. Additionally, we use a variety of undercover and operational tactics to elicit the information we need from suspects without entrapping or enticing them to commit a crime.

In the early years of OUR’s existence, there were a few instances where some working in our organization’s name did not adhere to our best practices and policies. We cut ties with these individuals and they no longer have affiliation with us. Our standard operating procedures for both operations and aftercare are clear: at no time are we to create demand for trafficking victims.

When William was a teenager, he would do magic tricks at the local mall and donate the proceeds to an anti-trafficking group. He went on to learn about the signs of trafficking and write reports for the police about potential trafficking situations. He couldn't believe there was such a thing as modern-day slavery, and he wanted to do something about it.

When William, whose name has been changed due to concerns about retaliation, saw a video created by OUR about what it called Operation Mundo Nuevo—a 2014 sting in which Ballard and undercover operators posed as johns in the Dominican Republic, working with local police to, OUR claimed, arrest eight traffickers and free 26 victims—he was enraptured.

“Halfway through the video, Tim looks at the camera as it zooms in and he winks,” William said. “I mean, the whole thing just sold me, and it felt like these people were stepping up where law enforcement failed.” 

William almost couldn't believe it when he got an email saying he’d been selected to train for OUR’s jump team. He’d filled out an application, but figured it was the longest of long shots; OUR often stresses that the team is made up of hardened professionals with extensive experience in dangerous situations. (Other times, however, the requirements are more lenient. “You don't need to be former military or law enforcement, you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes or a forensic investigator,” the organization wrote in a 2017 Facebook post soliciting volunteers for the jump team in Australia. "[Y]ou just need to be motivated with good intention to help bring a change to the lives of children around the globe.”)

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William had no relevant background in law enforcement, the military, intelligence, or working with survivors. When the email arrived telling him he’d been accepted, he said, “I was surprised, but I was super happy.” 

The first step, the organization told him, was to attend training in a nondescript hotel in a state far from home. (Travel and lodging, he was surprised to learn, were paid by attendees, though OUR arranged for a small discount.) When he arrived, he found himself surrounded in the lobby by “about 20 to 30 men, all crew cuts, cargo pants—basically whatever stereotype you have of law enforcement, they looked like it.” These were potential OUR operatives, there to compete for two spots on the jump team. 

One surprise was the presence of an elderly man whose participation, it turned out, was due to him being a significant donor to OUR. “I gave them so much money that they just let me come one time,” William remembered the man saying; he was also married to one of the OUR instructors. He lasted all the way through the training.

Among the first questions candidates were asked was whether they could financially cover the cost of a deployment lasting three to six months or more. William was taken aback, but learned that while OUR would cover expenses as he was actively working, it would not during mandatory time off, during which he wouldn't be allowed to come home.

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Before the training began, candidates were given a psychological examination. On his way to his, William passed a candidate exiting an exam, who said, “If you mention God, you're a shoo-in.” 

The actual exam was carried out by a disinterested-seeming man eating Chick-Fil-A. He asked William about his motivations, and whether he would be comfortable praying before missions. William said he threw in the phrase “trust in God” and was cleared; the whole thing, he told VICE World News, took about 10 minutes.

On the second day of training, candidates watched videos, like the famous one in which a man in a gorilla costume walks past a group of people passing balls the viewer has been asked to track. (The point of the video is to show how easy it is to overlook what's directly in front of you.) On the third day, they did a scavenger hunt, going around the city and taking pictures of small objects like salt shakers. Training activities included being given a random object and selling it back to the class. “A lot of our training," said William, "really just consisted of activities that felt like they were for kids.”

“A lot of our training," said William, "really just consisted of activities that felt like they were for kids.”

“Before I went to this training,” he said, “I was counting down the days. I was expecting a world-class training, because these are supposed to be the best operatives.” Instead, he didn't feel like he was learning anything, and certainly not like he was being prepared to rescue children from dangerous traffickers. William wasn't taught, among other things, basic self-defense, signs to look for in a trafficker or trafficking survivor, surveillance technique, or secure communication. Topics that were covered included how to compartmentalize your discomfort if you find yourself in a gay bar, and the instructors' many war stories, including one that involved someone being stabbed dozens of times.

On the final day of training, remaining candidates met the head of the jump team. He stressed how proud he was of them, and how proud they should be of themselves, for having made it through the training. He told them how important it was for them to represent OUR well. And then he told them what that meant.

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“Gentlemen,” William remembers him saying, “we're all red-blooded American males. We're visual creatures. So if at any time you may feel tempted to do something with one of the women, you need to tell us so we can get you out of there. Many men have come before and told me they feel tempted, and I respect them so much for it.”

“If at any time you may feel tempted to do something with one of the women, you need to tell us so we can get you out of there. Many men have come before and told me they feel tempted, and I respect them so much for it.”

Eight days later, OUR contacted William to tell him that he had made the jump team and should prepare to ship overseas. While he wasn't told exactly where, he knew it would be in Asia, and believed it would be in Thailand.

“I could not in good conscience go forward,” William said. “Not only did I feel I was extremely underprepared to go out as a private citizen with no training provided by OUR, what happened on that last day just completely shattered my image of them. And it was just something that I no longer wanted to align myself with.”

William's experience does not seem to have been anomalous. One former member of the military who worked with OUR told VICE World News he received “zero” training before going overseas, and some of the operators on OUR missions have been people without any special training, experience working with survivors of trafficking, or military experience at all.

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“There wasn't any intelligence-gathering training,” said Jimmy Rex, who went on nearly a dozen missions for OUR.

Rex bills himself as “The Social Realtor” and as an "entrepreneur, realtor, coach speaker and mentor.” He has over 60,000 followers on Instagram and a regular podcast on which he interviews “exceptional people living extraordinary lives.” (Tim Ballard was among the first.) Rex ended up on nearly a dozen OUR missions along with a group of friends who were also realtors and investors. These included prominent Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Hutchinson, who through a representative declined VICE World News’ request for comment.

The group acted as both operators for and financial backers of OUR, Rex said.

“We all paid our own way for everything,” he said. “I personally raised over a million bucks.” The group, he said, was well-off and passionate about rescuing children. “We all are pretty wealthy. We were gonna donate it one way or another.” 

Rex said that while his training was minimal—“I went to one training they had, it was one day of training. That was it. I don’t remember what it consisted of”—he and his friends did a different sort of preparation before embarking on missions. “They put me into some Krav Maga training," he said. "I had to do that for six to eight months before I could go on any ops. I ended up going on 11 ops total.”

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Rex said that his lack of military experience wasn’t an issue, from his perspective or the organization's. “When you’re undercover, it’s not about your ability to be able to like—we weren’t, like, hacking computers and shit,” he said. “It’s about your social intelligence.” (OUR has said something similar; in its appeal for jump team volunteers in Sydney, it wrote that applicants should be possessed of “Situational awareness in high visceral environments” and “Superior interpersonal and liaison skills in order to build strong relationships with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds,” but did not stress the need for any special experience working with victims of sexual violence.)

Besides Rex, real estate brokers seem to have figured heavily in the world of OUR’s operators. In 2016, a Los Angeles broker named Andrew Tashajian told a real estate publication that he had gone to Haiti with OUR and bargained for the release of trafficked children. 

“I was literally negotiating, just like I negotiate on a real estate deal,” he told the publication, recounting, the author wrote, “one instance of haggling with traffickers who demanded $60,000 in payment for two children. They eventually settled on $30,000.” (Tashajian did not respond to requests for comment from VICE World News.) 

OUR has also brought numerous celebrities on missions, including The Walking Dead's Laurie Holden, Tony Robbins, and Glenn Beck. The organization has written, “No one goes on a mission without training, even celebrities.” And in a YouTube video released in October, Ballard defended the practice, telling viewers that raising awareness is part of ending slavery: “It’s strategy. We’re very selective about when we do it. We make sure the person is as safe as possible during an operation."

A former member of the military who went on OUR missions, though, audibly scoffed at the idea of taking people with no special training on missions: “What you just said sounds to me like Tim,” they said, when Rex’s comments about social intelligence were repeated by a reporter. They confirmed that many early OUR missions were undertaken by wealthy backers of the organization.

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“Before I showed up, I started hearing from employees that Tim, on his early jumps, was with a bunch of buddies, moderately wealthy white guys from Utah,” the person said. “They all had egos.”

For his part, Rex says that Ballard ultimately stopped calling him and his friends to go on missions, but that he doesn’t bear him or the group any ill will: “I really love Tim and I have a high respect for him.” That said, he added, “He’s terrible at judging who to stick around.” Rex and his friends, he said, were loyal and committed. “I love the cause," he said. "We were so willing to do what he needed.” 

In recent years, OUR seems to have tamped down on the number of real estate brokers, minor celebrities, and aged donors going on missions. It emphasizes that it partners with local police and law enforcement, and that every operation is carried out with respect for local laws and customs. This creates its own tension, though: Not every country’s political environment is the same, and at times, OUR’s work with state-backed security forces may be doing more harm than good. 

One particularly striking example is Thailand. OUR claims to have deep roots in the country, and pointed to a recent case in which it reportedly assisted in a bust of a modeling agency that was exploiting children as an example of its work. According to the staff biography page on OUR’s website, Thailand is the only country where OUR has a full-time aftercare specialist. The organization said in a recent Facebook post that it has a “country director” in place named Art, who accepted an award from the country’s Department of Provincial Administration on OUR's behalf, and has claimed to work in “every one of the 76 provinces” of Thailand.

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Experts who spoke to VICE World News, however, were skeptical.

What the organization’s claimed presence in “every one of the 76 provinces” of Thailand actually seems to mean is that OUR provides money and computer training to the Royal Thai Police, an infamously corrupt agency that does, by definition, work across the country. The quality of that training is unclear, as are the uses to which it is put. Thailand was a military dictatorship until recently; its 2019 elections, while ostensibly free and fair, were widely seen as serving to prolong the military’s hold on the country’s governance. This raises clear ethical issues around giving its national police force access to intelligence technology. 

Empower, the sex worker advocacy organization in Thailand, is particularly disturbed by this aspect of OUR’s work, members told VICE World News.

“Helping the police in Thailand means helping with the criminal training,” said Thanta Laovilawanyakul, one of the group’s sex worker leaders. "The Computer Crimes Act here is being used terribly against the [pro-democracy] movement, so it’s confusing why they want to do that.” 

“We are forced to question whether the Thai government could be using the digital skills that they’ve been taught by American law enforcement and perhaps groups like these to monitor and harass the protest leaders?” added Liz Hilton, who is a member of Empower and was for many years an organizer and English-speaking liaison. “Some of those arrested are also children. A 16-year-old boy has been recently arrested. When they’re giving police these skills and equipment, do they know what it’s being used for?”

“When they’re giving police these skills and equipment, do they know what it’s being used for?”

Empower says that more than 50,000 sex workers have been a formal part of its operations over the years, and that members include sex workers from Thailand and migrant sex workers from Laos, Myanmar, China, and Cambodia. Its members are often extremely familiar with the various rescue operations that come to the country intent on “saving” trafficked women and girls; many organizations, working with local police, have conducted raids on massage parlors, legal brothels, and other places where they work. Most of these groups hail from the U.S., United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, said Janta, and often have a clear religious focus. 

“They say they’re helping but really want to change your religion and your job,” she said. 

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(“Often, adult sex workers were trafficked when they were younger, and/or are being trafficked as adults. Because of this fact, many adult sex workers are not participating willingly and often don’t have a way out of the life,” said an OUR spokesperson. “For example, under U.S. law, minors under the age of 18 cannot legally consent to engage in sex work since they are not considered developmentally mature enough to make such decisions. Some seek to legalize adult prostitution, a stance that OUR does not support. We believe that due to the lucrative nature of the trade, allowing traffickers and pimps to operate freely would lead to higher rates of human trafficking—of both adults and children.”)

An NGO manager familiar with Thailand, who requested anonymity for both safety reasons and to speak freely about the anti-trafficking world, told VICE World News that OUR has a uniquely bad reputation in the country. That is in part, they said, because OUR operated without a government license when first working in Thailand.  (An OUR spokesperson said, “Under the Thai government’s direction, OUR obtained an official license to operate there. OUR is not required to have a license in every country, but we always operate under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement.”) 

“On the ground, none of us—and I speak on behalf of the entire Thailand anti-trafficking [community]—none of us works with them.”

"They worked without a license for years,” the person said. “This is why they were not invited to any meetings; no one was able to legally work with them." Even now, they added, “On the ground, none of us—and I speak on behalf of the entire Thailand anti-trafficking [community]—none of us works with them.”

The NGO manager also said that while American law enforcement agencies have offered useful assistance to law enforcement abroad, they are skeptical OUR has that level of expertise.

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"All the foreign agencies, especially the Americans, come in with specialists. If you are going to do law enforcement training, it needs to be approved by law enforcement. It can't be Johnny from Missouri who just joined the NGO teaching a government agency on how to conduct investigations in their country.” Being part of an established legal system is crucial, they added: “The more you muddy those waters, the more you create an environment where it makes it difficult for everyone to conduct proper, legally-aligned investigations. You’re just there for yourself.” 

Southeast Asia in particular has long been a draw for anti-trafficking groups wishing to conduct heroic and much-publicized rescues. Some of those groups have fallen apart in considerable—and quite public—disarray. The Australian group Grey Man was founded in 2005 by men who claimed to be former members of the police and special forces, and garnered a wealth of glowing press coverage for its supposedly heroic commando missions to rescue trafficked children. In 2012, the organization booted out its head, Sean McBride—who also used the name John Curtis—after it was revealed that he had exaggerated details of his rescue missions, an allegation he denied. While the organization said it would focus on repairing its credibility and relationships with local law enforcement, Grey Man now appears to be defunct. 

Other groups have also run afoul of local customs, law enforcement, and government. A Christian group from California, Agape International Missions, was ordered to leave Cambodia in 2017 after participating in a CNN segment which claimed that Cambodian mothers were trafficking their daughters. As the New York Times reported, “the Cambodian government accused Agape of exaggerating the current extent of sex trafficking in Svay Pak, a village north of Phnom Penh that had been notorious in the 1990s and early 2000s for brothels that sold sex with children.” Agape International apologized, acknowledged that the women in the segment depicted as trafficking their daughters had been ethnically Vietnamese, not Cambodian, and were ultimately allowed to remain in the country. OUR said in a November press release that it is working with Agape International in Cambodia, praising what it called “their amazing work” and noting that the two groups had been partnering for the past five years. 

Some of the controversies around other anti-trafficking groups are still unfolding, in what may be the start of a moment of reckoning for how U.S.-based anti-trafficking groups operate abroad. A Colorado Springs-based group called The Exodus Road, which has long worked in both Thailand and the United States, is currently facing criticism from a group of ex-employees, who alleged in an open letter that senior leadership had ignored the sexual assault of a staff member by other staffers, financial mismanagement, racism against Thai staffers, and other serious issues. (The Exodus Road denied the charges in a statement to the Colorado Springs Indy.) 

Beyond individual organizations, the entire raid-and-rescue model has fallen out of favor with responsible anti-trafficking organizations, said Julia Macher,  the director of the Freedom Collaborative, a project of Liberty Shared, an anti-trafficking group that uses legal advocacy and partnerships. Freedom Collaborative was built to solve the problem of anti-trafficking organizations not speaking to or collaborating with each other; it’s a program designed for them to share information, experiences, and best practices. 

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“When I started to connect with the existing anti-trafficking organizations in Asia, several organizations operated raid-and-rescue models,” she told VICE World News. “Since then, we have seen a changed awareness of the rights violations and harm that raids often entail. Much research has been published demonstrating how these types of rescues are severely undermining the agency of trafficked persons and disempowering the individuals the involved organizations are claiming to help.”

“Much research has been published demonstrating how these types of rescues are severely undermining the agency of trafficked persons and disempowering the individuals the involved organizations are claiming to help.”

In 2017, Freedom Collaborative helped publish a Code of Conduct for foreign NGOs involved in raid-and-rescue operations in Southeast Asia; among other things, Macher said, it pointed out that missions “required government authorization, cooperation with local law enforcement agencies, and protection of all involved stakeholders.” OUR has not signed on to this document. 

The curated image that groups who work overseas have created—the heroic, undercover, high-octane model of rescue—has also created subtler problems. It can be difficult, for instance, for groups working in the United States to interest potential volunteers in the more prosaic but also more helpful day-to-day work of helping trafficking survivors find meaningful recovery and self-determination. Instead, they often have to fend off enthusiastic would-be donors and volunteers who only want to engage in the more cinematic versions of anti-trafficking work they’ve seen depicted via groups like OUR. 

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“Even private foundations and donors get into the topic because they think of the quote unquote sexy version of it,” a person familiar with the anti-trafficking world, who asked not to be named to freely discuss their work, told VICE World News. “They want to kick down a door and save a girl out of a cage.”

Another person, who has worked with anti-trafficking groups internationally, told VICE World News that while anti-trafficking NGOs have the potential to do good work in developing countries, the desire for heroics often blinds even the most well-intentioned of them. 

“NGOs that are responsibly run have great potential and often provide very useful insights from grassroots levels that would be otherwise inaccessible to police,” the person, who asked for anonymity for reasons of both privacy and security, said. “Well-run NGOs work hand in glove with law enforcement agencies to help them understand emerging trends and identify people at risk. When it works well, it’s hugely positive.”

The problem emerges, this person said, “when that’s not sexy enough,” and insist on things like “undercover extractions, black ops, etc.” Or else, they added, when they try to set themselves up as a surrogate for local police; organizations often argue that local police are corrupt or lack the capacity to do the work. 

“The answer is to do something about corruption and capacity, not to create your own parallel police force,” they should. “They should, by design, aim to make themselves unnecessary.”

These organizations, experts noted, also operate in a difficult, liminal space in terms of international diplomacy. Lou deBaca—formerly Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons under President Obama and director of the Office for Sex Offender Monitoring Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking under both the Obama and Trump administrations, and currently a lecturer at Yale Law School and a senior fellow at the MacMillan Center—said that American NGOs are sometimes mistaken as being backed by the U.S. government. “Just because they’re Americans or American missionaries, does not mean they’re actually representing the U.S. and U.S. interests,” he told VICE World News. “That is a very tricky place where we end up finding Operation Underground Railroad.”

“Just because they’re Americans or American missionaries, does not mean they’re actually representing the U.S. and U.S. interests.”

People who sincerely want to help trafficking survivors, deBaca added, should use the skills they already have. 

“If somebody is an accountant in their daily life, volunteer with the local anti-trafficking service provider who actually has clients who could really use financial literacy classes," he said. “There are so many ways in which we can become involved that end up assisting survivors on their journey and centering the story on them rather than on our commitment to or our revulsion for their situation.” 

DeBaca added, “I would hope that at some point the fever breaks on some of this and what’s left behind ends up being a commitment to working on behalf of trafficking victims.” 

In response to detailed requests for comment sent by VICE World News about the reporting in this story, OUR sent, in addition to its other responses, the following broad statement:

Operation Underground Railroad's (OUR) mission is to help rescue and protect victims of child sex trafficking and exploitation, bring their perpetrators to justice, provide survivors with life-saving aftercare services, and raise awareness of this worldwide scourge.

OUR strives to be a force multiplier, working closely with law enforcement globally to understand how to provide the needed tools and resources, within the confines of each country and agency structure, to safeguard children from harm and bring predators to justice while delivering optimal outcomes and tangible impact.

In carrying out this mission, OUR, has sought to comply with all laws that regulate non-profits since its inception in 2013. We have remained highly focused on our financial stewardship of donor funds and being transparent about OUR's use of the great financial support we receive from our donors. If asked, OUR will cooperate fully with any official inquiry into its operations.

We are proud to help play a part in giving better lives to children around the world. Keeping child predators away from our children is paramount and we will always support legal efforts to protect children.

OUR's future seems, by all appearances, to be bright. Sound of Freedom, the film about the founding of OUR starring Jim Cavizel and Mira Sorvino as Tim Ballard and his wife Katherine, has been screened in theaters and awaits broad release. Celebrity backers like NFL players Corbin Kaufusi and Josh Allen enthusiastically promote OUR's work. And the public's continued fascination with QAnon and related conspiracy theories about pedophilia and child sex trafficking—from which OUR has publicly distanced itself—has led to huge interest in, and funding for, groups vowing to combat them. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, OUR has continued to raise money on the back of its claims about international work. Its social media feeds are constantly alight with stories of its latest successes, and in a recent email blast, the group boasted that its operators “continue to work in the COVID-19 environment, as literal warriors in a global battle." Trafficking, it says, is “arguably far more devastating than any virus.” 

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Empower members said that for their part they haven’t seen OUR, or any other group, in Thailand during the pandemic. “We didn’t see them,” said Laovilawanyakul. “But we could’ve used their money for this time. They could have spent some of their money helping people get through COVID.”  

Janta of Empower told VICE World News that well-meaning donors could have a greater impact by considering what sex workers themselves might need. “Instead of donating money to anti-trafficking orgs in the hope that it will help after something bad has happened, think about support for us all to be more secure and able to defend ourselves,” she said. “Scholarships, apprenticeships, family payments for mothers, support for teenagers who have left home.” Losing the ability to make a living has dislodged many women and girls from their villages and forced them into journeys as migrant sex workers.

“If us and our families are secure,” Janta added, “we can defend ourselves and build our own lives without the need for rescue.”