The Caribbean –
5 Minors Rescued – 1 Trafficker Arrested
It was obvious right from the very beginning that the suspected trafficker was greedy, ambitious, and inexperienced. And it was ultimately, what led to her downfall and the rescue of five girls between the ages of 14 and 17.
Operation Underground Railroad had initially come to this lush Caribbean country at the invitation of the American Embassy and the country’s government authorities. They were establishing a working relationship with the national police in order to conduct undercover operations and rescue children from sex trafficking as O.U.R. does wherever it goes.
An advance team from O.U.R. had come to scout out the resort areas of the island and gather intelligence. Three suspected traffickers were identified, each with his own cadre of young girls to offer the western tourists. “These traffickers readily give up personal information: real names, cell phone numbers, pictures of the girls, and where they live, because they don’t suspect anything. We’re not locals,” the team leader said.
Three traffickers translates into three different trafficking networks, each with his own group of business associates, girls and clients. Of greatest concern was that some of these girls were not only for sale for the evening; they were “for sale” for sale as in, “You give me $10,000 and you take the girl forever.”
This was more than enough to have the government support a rescue operation. A date was set with the national police and O.U.R. started mobilizing the rescue team. Unfortunately, the O.U.R. team returned to the country only to discover that not all of the preliminary work had been completed. “They had not done the lead work ahead of time. They had not gotten the court orders, they hadn’t gotten the judicial orders, they hadn’t gotten judge approval for us to actually move forward,” said the team leader.
Operation Underground Railroad is not a vigilante group and will not move forward without everything in place. “We do everything we can to lay the groundwork ahead of time and to prepare, but when we get down there we’re in their hands, ultimately, we’re in the hands of the foreign government,” the team leader explained. In this case, the foreign government told them to return in two weeks and they would have all the paperwork completed and be ready for the rescue and arrests.
It was Friday. O.U.R. had been expecting more team members to arrive the next day to help with the rescue. Now everything had changed and the rescue team was put on hold. Stuck with no way to leave the island until Sunday, the team leader asked the host government, “Can we at least meet with the traffickers to talk about maybe giving them some money, seeing the pictures, seeing the actual girls, and can we introduce one of your undercover operatives as our taxi driver or as our middleman, something where when we leave, the traffickers will trust that this trusted local is with us?” That way the traffickers can continue to deal directly with the local, thinking he is just some fixer/middleman/gofer, when really he’s a federal police officer. The national police gave the green light and the plan was set for the next day.
A Fourth Suspected Trafficker
Then plans took a sharp turn – again. A fourth suspected trafficker, a female, reached out to one of O.U.R.’s undercover operatives. “Because of human nature and greed and rumors, the word started spreading around this town on this Caribbean island that there were Americans looking for a good time,” said the team leader. The woman said she could provide five young girls – one of them a virgin.
O.U.R. took this information to the government, hoping to add her to the other three suspected traffickers that they anticipated arresting in two weeks. Unfortunately, with the limited resources of the government they told them, “We aren’t able to add her now. We think we’re at a maximum with the number of kids that we are planning on saving from the three networks. We think that’s going to be the limit of what we can take.”
There is nothing more disheartening than knowing kids are being trafficked and not being able to do anything about it. The national police did, however, agree to let O.U.R.’s undercover team set up a meeting with her and verify that she did, in fact, have children to sell.
It’s Saturday morning. The meeting is set for noon at a local restaurant. O.U.R. flies in the head negotiator. He wants to meet in a less public place but the potential trafficker assures him she will come by herself and then, “I’ll take you back to my house where we can meet with the kids.”
“Matt” plays the role of the rich guy from the U.S. “My security was there, my undercover operatives. They have been on the island working as the middlemen. So I fly in from the U.S. I have not been seen on the island. I am a new face. And I brought a couple guys as my bodyguards.”
“So we show up to the restaurant and our undercover operatives go in to find the woman. Meanwhile, I stay in the car with my bodyguards. Well, then my undercover operative comes back five minutes later and says, ‘the suspected trafficker is in the restaurant and she brought the girls with her.’” At this point a decision needs to be made. Leave and avoid a public scene or go meet with her and see where it leads. Matt chooses the latter.
“We go in and sure enough, there are very young girls seated around a table, five of them – very scared girls. I think, ‘this is the real deal here, this is true.’ So we sit down and we immediately buy the girls some lemonade, some orange juice, some water and tell them to open up the menu and they can have whatever they want. “
“The woman begins to explain to us where she had gotten these girls. She said she was from a poor, poor town outside of this tourist area about 15-20 miles away, very uneducated. She tricked the parents of these five girls saying that she was just going to take them into town to buy some food, look around, take them to a movie maybe.”
“She’s explaining this to us and then we start talking about the prices and she says, ‘Well, each of these girls is very young.’ She gave us the ages: 14, 15, 16, and 17. And she said that the youngest one, the 14-year-old, was a virgin, and she was more expensive. She would be $500. But, the other girls were not virgins but had only been in this, so to speak, for just a month or two, so they’re almost virgins and they were going to be about $300 each.”
Everything was going just as expected for an undercover sting. The only problem was the government had not given them permission to move forward. There is no police backup. There is no one to make an arrest. There is no one to take care of the girls. Matt had gone in looking for information and got a whole lot more than he’d bargained for. Now what?
Matt describes the scene. “I’m focused on her. My bodyguards are around talking to the girls. At one point I then take a half turn and just survey the environment, make sure everything is good and I notice that our presence is drawing a lot of attention. That it looks really, really bad. That you have essentially five, six big, white guys, Americans, talking with young women, young girls from this country, ethnically, local girls.”
“People were starting to whisper and look, including a couple who I see take out their cell phones and begin taking pictures. So I immediately said, ‘You know what—this isn’t good, we need to get out of here.’ So I whipped out a stack of local currency, put it on the table and said, ‘Ladies, eat whatever you want. Finish your drinks.” I told the waitress, “This covers the bill.” Then I took out some money and gave it to the trafficker so I could hook her greed, and then I said, ‘Thank you so much, we’ll be in touch.’ And we got out of there right away.”
Operation Underground Railroad trains its operatives to “always go with your gut sense.” In Matt’s case, it just didn’t feel right. He could sense that things were getting out of control and that they needed to get out of there right away and they did. It was the right decision.
They later learned from their connections with one of the other traffickers, who may have had ties with the local police, that within 10 minutes after they left, the local police came into the restaurant, arrested the woman and took the kids in for questioning. Since O.U.R. was working with the national police, the local police would not have known they were working undercover. Had they been arrested as well, they would have had to blow their cover in order to get out of jail.
As it played out, this incident strengthened their undercover relationship with the other potential traffickers. All the operatives maintained their cover as western sex tourists and they managed to have the suspected woman trafficker arrested and the five girls rescued. Actually, the arrest and rescue can be largely attributed to the concerned people in the restaurant who were brave enough to get involved and call the police.
If everything had gone according to plan, this never would have happened, because the national police had determined they would not arrest this trafficker due to limited resources.
However, things got very tense for the O.U.R. jump team. Following the arrest, the local police began looking for Matt and his bodyguards. “This was probably the most scared I’ve been on any of our operations thus far,” Matt said. “We monitored the situation and figured out we were safe staying at our hotel. We kept the federal police officer with us at all times, just in case anything happened.”
As scheduled, Sunday morning O.U.R.’s jump team got on the plane headed for home. Following Saturday’s incident, Matt had arranged for O.U.R.’s aftercare partner to take care of the five girls that had been taken in for questioning. They were later returned to their parents who were, indeed, unaware that their children were being trafficked. Though traumatized, the girls, as well as their parents, are now a little wiser about the world and the evil that goes on in it and can take additional precautions to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
The woman was interrogated and taken to jail for a minimum of one year pending her trial. A number of witnesses at the restaurant heard what was going on and can testify so she won’t be doing this again.
As far as the three suspected trafficking networks are concerned that were identified earlier, they are being watched and will be taken down at a later date. No one will escape. And the children will be rescued and receive the care they need. It is only the beginning on the Caribbean island and Operation Underground Railroad will be right there to ensure more children are not exploited.
Written by: Cheryl L. Karr