In this episode of Slave Stealer, Tim Ballard and Mark Mabry talk about the first trip to Colombia that did not go according to plan. Despite this setback, which is portrayed in "The Abolitionists" - coming to theaters Monday May 16th - the team goes back to rescue those kids...and saves even more of them. Tim also explains how the film addresses the misconceptions that people might have about the legality of O.U.R's operations, and he also discredits false claims that others in the anti-trafficking community have made about the organization.
Welcome, welcome, one and all, to Slave Stealer Podcast. This is Tim Ballard here with Mark Mabry.
And today is a special day. We are ramping up for the release of "The Abolitionists." "The Abolitionists" is a documentary film executive produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Gerald Molen who did things like "Jurassic Park," "Minority Report," "Rainman" and "Schindler's List." He teamed up with FletChet Entertainment, Chet and Fletch, who are brilliant producers who have given themselves to this thing. And they said, "Tim, we heard your story. We want to follow you." He said, "That's great... I can't have a camera crew following me around." They said, "Nobody will notice we're doing it," and that has been the case. So, that movie is coming out May 16th in over 600 theaters across the nation, and we're super pumped because that will exponentially increase the amount of people who give a damn about child trafficking. And that is what we want.
Now, what I wanted to ask Tim about today - we'll get more into the movie later - but what I wanted to talk about is the first mission because this thing, it starts out and you're craving this moment of joy right off the bat. And we run into a failed mission and I want to know more about the failed mission, some back story for people that go see the documentary and they're like, "Ok, that was painful." Talk to me about Operation Genesis and why it's relevant to your success today.
Yeah, it's... You know there's...it's an important story. It's an important story. It's our first operation. It's really the first time we're going in, and there's a lot of pressure on us, right? I mean, people have donated money believing that we can actually rescue kids. Now that's a lot of pressure. Now that we've rescued hundreds and hundreds of kids - possibly thousands if you consider the fact that we have close to 200 people in jail because of our operations - it's easy. We can take a breath and say, "See? We're doing it. Help us." But in the beginning, right, it's stressful. And we only have enough money as an organization to do a couple of ops. These operations have to be successful or we're done. We're out of business. We're not going to get another chance.
So, we go in there, we do everything by the book. We sit down... And this highlights an issue. Our government's ready to rescue kids. Five years ago, Operation Underground Railroad, I don't believe, would even work because the governments that we're working in weren't ready to rescue kids. They didn't have laws in place. And I truly do credit the Trafficking in Persons report for pressuring governments to create legislation to combat this problem.
That was George W. Bush, correct?
George W. Bush signed it and Congress created it...and the U.N. and other organizations bringing it to light as well, making it an issue. And countries have just recently - really in the last couple of years - created the proper legislation.
So here we are in Colombia, testing their laws for the first time. They made the laws, but now it's like, how do you enforce it? So they're nervous. They're nervous and they invited us down. They set the date and here we go. We find the bad guys, we engage the bad guys, they show us the kids, we meet them on the beaches of Cartagena. We've got five, at least five, bad guys. We've got over 20 kids, we've seen their pictures, we've seen them. Everything is ready to go. Everything we're doing is by the book and we're letting the prosecutors, the Justice Department, tell us, "Do this, do that, do this, do that."
We're all set up and ready to go. I have one final meet at about noon at a convenience store. This female trafficker brings these two little girls, an 11-year-old and a 10-year-old, and shows them to me, like, "They're going to come to the party and they're going to do X, Y, and Z..." She got real graphic. I'm like, "Perfect." I remember thinking... I remember looking at the little girl and, like, hoping I could send like an ESP-type message to her, you know, like, "I'm a good guy, I'm a good guy. When you see me again, it's going to be over." And I was... It hurt me to have to send her back for just a couple of hours.
Because who knows what happens...
Because in a couple of hours, we're going to rescue her. But just those couple of hours were killing me. Like, but just in two hours, it's going to be done. She won't be sold in those two hours, so we'll get her back. A lot of tension, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of excitement: rescue these two little kids.
And this is... You're a brand new charity at this point.
Brand new. It's our first operation.
A lot riding on this one.
Oh yeah. So we go back to the house, set everything up. The traffickers are delivering the kids, they're on their way. And we get a call from the justice - from the prosecutor's office - saying we're not going to take...we're not going to sign the warrants to sign off on the operation.
And we're just like, "WHAT?!" You see in the movie. There's a scene in the movie that people who know me well know that I'm absolutely...this is me falling apart when the phone call comes in. If you watch carefully, you can see my corroded artery and you can see my breath increase and I get dizzy, and it's not an act. Like, my wife said, "You're not acting - that's you." I'm like, "Oh yeah, I was going through hell in that moment." I'm yelling at this agent, the Colombian agent. I'm saying, "What about these kids?! You can't turn them in, back into the streets. What are you doing?!"
And they never gave me a reason why they didn't sign off on it, you know, because we did what they told us to do. We didn't come too early, we didn't come too late. We reported every hour, every day, what we were doing. And everything was good, but at the end of the day, they were nervous. Something that they had done, or maybe they had misread something... And they never told us what it was, but they weren't ready for whatever reason. And we had to tell the traffickers... We had to make up a story like, "Hey, listen, the cops came because we were playing the music too loud and now we're scared because they saw us here. We can't possibly bring kids here because what if they're looking at us" or whatever. So we told them, "We'll come back another time - we'll call you."
It was just absolutely devastating. If you watch the film, you see, we fix the problems. We come back a few weeks later, we rescue all those kids and we actually get to rescue more kids because we had more time to dig and stuff. So it ends really really good, and really intense moments that you see in the movie, but what was interesting...and I'm glad they show this failure. It's important because it shows something about us. It took a history professor to tell me. He said, he said he watched the movie, this history professor at Brigham Young University...
Matt Mason. Great professor.
...Matt Mason. And he said, "I loved the movie." And he said, "You know, my favorite part was that failed operation." I was like, "What? That was, like, the worst part." He's like, "No, that was the best part of the operation because what that did was it shows everybody that you guys are a legal organization that works legally." And he made all these analogies back to the original Underground Railroad and the abolition - the case of abolitionism - the different cases and the different attempted rescue operations where they would work outside the law, and that stirred up a lot of controversy. But it shows that we work within the law.
So, run that through for me. Let's say Colombia says, "No, you can't go get the girls." You go anyway. You make the bust.
We got a lot of people who told us we should have done that.
What would've happened?
Well, you don't know what would have happened. There's been cases where people successfully pulled it off, like one of our informants, Batman, says in that moment: "This is why I operate black," because he used to do that in Mexico. He would go in and buy the girls without working for the police, take them, throw them in a van, kidnap them from the kidnappers, and take them to a shelter.
Doesn't that just create a vacuum, though? If you can't take out the bad guy, you're just putting five more girls at risk.
Totally. Totally. Because all that does is that trafficker's going to go pick up another girl, right? And then you don't have the government supporting it. You need that for the rehabilitation and for the prosecution and, frankly, for the credibility.
So what it does is they'll find out about it and then we're done working in that country, and we lose credibility as an organization. We need to follow the laws. The whole point of saving these kids is not just to save these kids, but to teach the governments how to save the kids after we're gone. We've got to stay with them, be patient, let them figure it out so when we do it again, it's successful.
I have been waiting for this moment because, in my three years of working with you now at this point almost, since Operation Voodoo Doll, there's only a couple times where I've seen you completely rattled. But there's one thing that has rattled you more than anything I've ever seen, and it was...over the course of months, this was under your skin. And that was the editorial written in the Huffington Post. They called you a vigilante. They called you all sorts of things. I don't even know if we name her in this thing - you can if you like - but does this part in the film, a little bit, answer that question of whether or not you're a vigilante?
Oh, absolutely. One hundred percent. Someday we can talk about the trafficking philosophers.
Well, we can go there for a second right now.
Those who sit back, those who sit back outside of the trenches and write books and articles with very little understanding of what's going on on the ground. This woman, this scholar - whatever she is - we had emails back and forth between Matt Osbourne and her. And it so clearly revealed how ignorant she was to what is happening on the ground. I mean, just incredible, like...you're the expert people are going to? I hope not too many people are going to you because you don't understand what's going on on the ground. You know, you might understand laws and that's wonderful, but my guys are in the trenches and these kids are being rescued legally, lawfully: people are going to jail. This is an example of how ludicrous her argument was.
And we hear from other people too: "Oh, you can't work in Colombia because they're all corrupt. They're all corrupt there. CTI has been known for corruption. There's been corruption in those agencies so you shouldn't work with them." Wait, wait, wait, what?Name me an agency where there hasn't been corruption: FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, you name it. Every single one of those have had their Aldrich Ames or their different people who've been arrested and imprisoned for corruption.
The problem is, they don't seem to focus on the victims. There's victims that are being controlled and sold. We can rescue them, legally, lawfully - put their captors in jail.
And quickly. And effectively.
That's right. It's almost like they would rather not... I'm not speaking for them - I can't, I don't know what's in their minds - but it's almost like they'd rather them not be rescued because then they can sit back and continue to philosophize over...
And get paid to speak about the problem.
Right, it's like... It reminds me of, in "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis, where the philosophers didn't want to go to heaven because if they went to heaven and found out the truth, then no one would need them to philosophize about whether there is a heaven or a hell or where you go and what's... And that's the world they seem to live in. When people are actually doing something about the problem, they create arguments that are not true. Everything they said about us was absolutely false.
Are you able to share some of it? I mean, they published it so... What bothered you the most? What one line in that crappy editorial...?
Um, I think the way it was ended. It said something like, "The organization, like its founder, is illegal, immoral and arrogant." I was just like... What was interesting was...you know, immoral? How about trying to block a child from being rescued from slavery? That seems pretty immoral. Illegal? I think libel and slander is illegal. I think it's illegal to lie about people, ok? Arrogant? After we read the article, we reached out immediately to the author and said, "Let's get on a phone call so we can talk." She responded - to her credit, at least she responded - and said, "I won't get on a phone call with you." "We will pay you. We will buy your tickets, plane tickets, and you can bring anyone of your choice to our offices, and we'll open up our case files and show you how we operate." She refused that flatly. And they continued with their attacks. Arrogant? Who is arrogant? "I refuse to even look at the truth; I don't want to look at it because I want to be right."
And at the end of the day, there's kids on the other side of this thing. There's kids who are enslaved and their only hope...and there's kids right now - I can think of some right now. There is a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old girl right now (in a country that I'm not going to disclose right now) that my guys intervened. They were selling these kids into the United States to be sold as prostitutes, to be sold as sex slaves. I know this girl's name; I've seen pictures of her; we're going to go rescue her soon. We're going to buy her, and then liberate her, ok?
That little girl's only hope of survival and liberty is Operation Underground Railroad. These people, like this author, would, if they could, turn a switch. They'd turn us off, ok? And based on what? Based on what? That we're a vigilante group that's illegal? How are we illegal when we are signed up as informants or deputized by these agencies that we work for? It's funny, any law enforcement agency...if you talk to the best cops, the best agents, and ask them, "How do you become a great agent?", they'll tell you their top one or two things will be get great informants.
You have great informants. That's how you make cases.
And you are an informant.
We're an informant. What's an informant? An informant is someone who has the ability to access information, access bad guys, access crime in a way the police can't. And so they hire the informant. Operation Underground Railroad: we're just superstar informants. We know how to access the bad guys, whether it's going on the dark net with the software we built, whether it's going physically into these places - onto those beaches, onto those street corners. We know how to get there, we know where to go, we know what to ask. We are your super-informants, and we don't charge you anything. And we don't have criminal records because all my guys have background checks. And I've worked with most of them for over a decade, right? So we are super informants.
And yet, instead of calling us informants or deputized operators, legally and lawfully working for and by invitation of these government jurisdictions, you're going to call me a vigilante? At the cost of what? Hurting me and hurting our efforts to rescue these kids? That 10-year-old girl, that 12-year-old girl that are waiting to be rescued? You want to do that? You want to be that trafficking philosopher that does that? Shame on you. Shame on you for someone who claims you're in there for the cause.
Now, are there organizations out there that rightfully could be accused of vigilantism? Absolutely. Have these authors, writers, scholars seen those groups? Probably, almost certainly. Well, be careful, because not every group operates that way and this woman knew nothing about us. Nothing at all. And yet she wrote this scathing, scathing report full of lies. And then when she was called on it and we proved her wrong again and again... And someday I might release the emails. I don't know if I will or not, but...because sometimes it's better to just to let sleeping dogs sleep, right?
And the article had no comments and probably no traffic, but the one eyeball it did get was yours, and it put a burr under your saddle pretty good.
Yeah, well it...
As we've heard for the last five minutes.
It's sick and grotesque is what it is.
And I think she is going to see the movie - probably, she's gonna write again. What's she going to write?
I don't know. I don't know how humble she is.
If she cares about truth and cares about kids, she would have taken a phone call with us and let us explain it. But instead, every time she took the opposite approach. She even went so far as to accuse us... So, there is a piece in the film that was released by ABC News - Nightline - because they shared footage with "The Abolitionists," but they were there on the ground during this particular operation where the trafficker Marco is selling kids. And she accused us - this is after we engaged her - she emailed us and she said, "I think that's false footage. I don't think that's a real trafficker."
Dude was an actor.
Yeah, well, that was the implication. Because she said, "Because a trafficker would never use the word 'minor'." During the movie, you'll see, he says, "I got nine minors I'm going to sell you," ok? So he must be a false trafficker. He's false, it's false. It's false footage.
Because she's spoken to a lot of traffickers on the ground...
Apparently she knows what every one of them will say. Two million kids being controlled by how many millions of traffickers. She knows each and every one of them and how they operate. Well, here's the truth. So we had to go back and say, "Interesting. The footage you're referring to is ABC Nightline... Have you heard of them? They've been around for a while. They were on the ground with us. Are you telling me that they created this footage? Is that what you're suggesting, Madam Scholar?" And second of all, we sent her the date of birth and the criminal record as appears on all open source - like Intelius and these other search engines, you know, that you pay for background checks and so forth - and said, "Look at his photos, look at his mug shots. It's the same dude. Here's his name, here's his criminal record..." Bop, bop, bop, bop, everything.
And then we explained to her, the reason he said minor was because before that he would refer to the minor children he was selling as chickens. He uses a code name, a code word. Because her accusation was that a trafficker would never use that word - they would use other words, code words, whatever. They would never say 'minors' and incriminate themselves like that. Well, he was starting to be smart by calling the kids chickens. And the prosecutor said, "Look I don't want the chicken defense where he says chickens are 20-year-olds, right? You gotta get him to say 'kid', 'minor', something." So, if you watch the movie, Batman's talking to the guy, and he said, "How many..." - he took the chance and it paid off - he says, "How many minors do you have?" That was intentional! It was a gamble because he might have been like, "Why are you using that word?" But he caught him in a moment, and you see, Mark, he was like, "Serious minors? I got *boop* ten" (or whatever he says). Boom! Nailed him!
What it shows is how closely we're working with the prosecutors: how much they care about the case, how legal it is, how concerned about rules of evidence, entrapment, that they wanted to make sure that there's no question that in this man's heart he knows he is selling children for sex.
I was on an op with you recently where the D.A. was hiding in the closet, listening and watching the whole thing go down. She's become an expert witness.
That's incredible - you're doing it right. Um, I think that that failure... When people see it in the movie, it's going to break their heart, but what it is doing is solidifying your position - Operation Underground Railroad's position - as a force, a legal force, and a template for anyone that wants to go and do this.
That's right. It lays an example. This is so important that you do this legally and lawfully, that you get yourself signed up as an informant. The other accusation is that, "Oh, we work with corrupt law enforcement." Well, the law enforcement officers we work with, including in the Colombian case and all the other cases we worked with, were agents and prosecutors who were referred to us by the U.S. embassy who has been on the ground. Usually, it's their vetted units: agents who have been vetted, background-checked, polygraphed by U.S. entities. And they say...they've passed them off as trustworthy partners. If you can't work with them to save kids, then there's no hope to save kids.
If this author, scholar, whatever her… You know, if she wants to sit back and say, "You shouldn't work with this agency because...", then you're just saying, "Kids, there's no hope. Enjoy your life of being raped for money." That's what you're saying to them. If I can't work with a vetted unit, the best that that country has to offer... I'm going to work with them, and you know what? These agents, the very ones that she accused of being corrupt? We cried together. We wept together. And we called and told them: "Hey, I want you to know, this woman who claims to be a scholar - the world leading expert on trafficking - she just called you all corrupt. You should know that." They were irate. They get paid peanuts to do their job, and they do it because they care about victims. They care about kids. And it's sad. It's so sad because you've got to ask who's in this fight to save kids and who's in it to make a name for themselves.
You know, one of the rip-your-heart-out parts in this movie, from my perspective, was when you're talking to him on the phone, and he says, "I'm embarrassed for my country." And you really felt it. I think what you said today will give some serious context to that statement. And so, thank you, man. That was your treatise on failure and the value and the beauty and the lesson of the failure in the movie. And so...take us home, man.
You know, get on board. We're figuring out a formula. Have we made mistakes? Of course we have. Have we learned? Of course. If we haven't, then we're constant failures. Everyone has to fail and get back up. But we've never acted illegally. We've never acted immorally, and we have not acted arrogantly, as the accusation alleges. I think that the movie speaks for itself and teaches that lesson, and so people should have confidence to get on board with what we're doing and find the organizations. There's other ones out there that operate legally as well. Find those, get on board with them, and let's create more of them.
Awesome. Thank you.