An Editorial Opinion by Operation Underground Railroad
– Today Amnesty International (AI) announced its plan to support a new policy that calls for the decriminalization of the sex trade, resulting in widespread ire from many of its staunch supporters, including many Hollywood celebrities.
AI is a wonderful organization whose primary mission statement is to fight injustice and promote human rights, but it appears to view the multi-billion dollar sex trade as a legitimate business that needs to protect its “workers” by supporting the legalization of prostitution. AI believes it will be fighting injustice against sex workers who are discriminated against. In reality, this new policy will have the opposite effect, particularly in the area of child sex trafficking.
With millions of children stuck in its grasps, sex trafficking is a monstrous crime against humanity, and it occurs every day around the world. I have seen its victims, innocent and afraid, and its perpetrators–pure evil with a smile. I recall a recent experience in Colombia with a sex trafficker named Carlos.*
Carlos smiled at me with darkness in his eyes.
“This is the Princess,” he said, “she is twelve years old, a virgin, and she can be yours for one thousand U.S. dollars. I leaned in and looked at the photograph on the cell phone in Carlos’ hand. It depicted a fully dressed girl that looked to be about eleven or twelve years old. Carlos assured me that upon payment her clothes would be taken off and she would be mine for the night.
Images of my own daughter, close to Princess’ age, immediately flashed through my mind. I felt sick, but after more than a decade of working these heinous investigations, I had learned to smile through the nausea and act overjoyed at the offer. I looked around and saw that the seasoned Colombian undercover police officers at my side, along with the U.S. undercover operators I had brought from my team, were also smiling through the pain, convincing Carlos that we were the “real deal.” We were traveling tourists from out of town, with money, who had come to Colombia to engage in sex with children.
We left Carlos and his thugs at the beachfront restaurant with handshakes and hugs, and a promise that we would return shortly to purchase Princess and the other girls and boys Carlos controlled. As we loaded into our vehicles, we made another promise to each other and to those enslaved children–we would get them out of slavery’s darkness.
The memory of this recent experience on a remote Colombian beach fills my mind as I read AI’s misguided plan to support the legalization of the sex trade. Why is this plan misguided? Because it is the very criminalization of the sex trade that can protect victims like Princess and prosecute beasts like Carlos. By decriminalizing prostitution, AI and others who support this policy put at risk the very people it was created to protect–women and children–and rob justice from those that have been victimized by this vile business.
There are already far too few tools to protect the innocent, and one of those tools is governments’ ability to enforce laws against the sex trade. We should increase the tools available to protect the innocent and mete out justice to the criminals, not take them away.
AI probably has its heart in the right place, and probably believes this new policy will protect the innocent while maximizing the liberty of those adult clients and adult “sex workers” that want to enjoy the mutually beneficial and harmless transaction of consensual “sex for money.”
Let’s break down this train of logic. In Amnesty’s resolution, “Draft Policy on Sex Work,” 1 it argues that pimps and johns should be free from government interference and be permitted to exercise their autonomy. The argument is based on the idea that those being sold want to be sold, because it is their chosen profession. While certainly some have made that choice the idea dangerously ignores the backstory of those who “choose” prostitution. We must consider how many of these men and women were enslaved in the sex industry as children and now as adults who don’t see any other option. Is that a choice? We must also consider the enormous number of prostitutes that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and numerous sexually transmitted diseases. We must also acknowledge statistical confirmation that a disproportionate number of prostitutes are survivors of rape and child sex abuse. Do we really think that any of these men or women happily dreamed as children that one day they would grow up to sell their bodies for sex?
But, for the sake of argument, let’s suspend reality for a moment and assume that most prostitutes are happy, willing, un-coerced sex workers. In its new policy, AI argues that if pimps can’t run their businesses legally then, not only are sex workers denied an honest wage, but it threatens the rights to “health and public health interventions, in particular HIV prevention.” This, of course, is not a new argument. The idea is basic: by legalizing prostitution, governments can regulate it. Prostitutes can get tested regularly for HIV or other STDs and be certified by the government as “safe” sex workers. They can be provided condoms by the state as well as other health promoting protection. Perhaps most importantly, by bringing government into the sex industry, government officials can separate the proverbial “wheat from the tares;” that is, they can help and support those pimps selling consenting adults while keeping a close eye and pointed gun upon those who would traffic or otherwise sell children for sex. Indeed, Amnesty is very clear that its policy will continue to criminalize child exploitation and child trafficking. Seems like a perfect solution, but it is not!
Shortly after saying goodbye to Carlos at the beach, my team of undercover operatives, along with the Colombian police, were back in his dark presence. He and his thugs showed up at a rented vacation home with dozens of girls to sell for sex. My team, led by a Colombian special law enforcement unit, were posing as the johns. As the girls arrived, my eyes met Princess. No more than twelve years old. My heart broke. Again, I saw my own daughter’s innocence in her frightened eyes. But we had to pretend to be pleased with what we saw. We began the negotiation with Carlos for these young girls, many of whom Carlos claimed he had recruited at the age of nine. Most of them had been lured out of their homes on the ruse that they would be trained as professional models. But they were kidnapped and sold for sex instead. He wanted one thousand dollars for the virgins he had been grooming –he had four of them, including Princess. He was selling the others for less money. Of the over 50 girls and boys he brought, 29 were minors. The rest were adults (barely). Groups that support the legalization of this trade might label them “sex workers.”
And here is where this model completely breaks down, logically and pragmatically. The legalize-and-regulate approach does not work because people like Carlos are running the businesses. Carlos was certainly not the first pimp I had dealt with, nor was this sting operation the first I had helped put together. I’ve seen the pattern play out dozens of times. Pimps like Carlos control girls of all ages. If you want adults, he’ll serve you. You want kids–no problem. Some might want to believe that the world is full of ethical pimps that will only sell consenting adults. However, for those of us in the trenches every day, we know that the term “ethical pimp” is an oxymoron. I’m not suggesting that all pimps sell children. But, in a business where premiums are paid for children and virgins, it’s naive to believe that most pimps will leave the children alone.
Indeed, nobody would love this policy shift more than Carlos. Why? Because it protects him. Amnesty’s policy dictates that sex workers have the right to hire “security or support staff” to organize and to access protection.” This new policy also calls for the right of “brothel keeping.” This is sweet music to Carlos’ ears. This policy legitimizes Carlos as a businessman and legalizes his business. Make law enforcement his friend, and he will happily show them his adult sex workers. He will proudly demonstrate to them with a smile how he provides his sex workers with state purchased condoms and HIV tests.
But Carlos will never show his new government friends his parallel business – the one where Princess is chained, sold and raped. Even better for Carlos, most developing nations will barely have enough resources to regulate the legalized sex business, leaving even less opportunity to look deeper into Carlos’ other activities.
Having worked with dozens of law enforcement units in developing nations, I believe that their lack of resources will reduce the legalize-and-regulate approach to a government form where boxes are checked and a smiling “compliant” Carlos is left to his own devices. A false sense of security will surround law enforcement efforts, and trafficked children will remain in even deeper darkness and with even less hope of rescue. And that government form that Carlos will submit to officials will not reveal how many of his adult “sex workers” are graduates of his “modeling school” where they matriculated at age nine.
Fortunately, there is solid empirical data that backs the conclusions made from my more anecdotal experiences. In 1999-2000, the Netherlands and Sweden passed laws, respectively, that took very opposite approaches to prostitution. The Netherlands legalized it and tried their hand at regulation. Sweden, on the other hand, criminalized the acts of pimps and johns, while not penalizing the prostitutes themselves (a measure which appropriately helps officials see prostitutes as victims not criminals). The results were very telling. Prostitution in Sweden dropped by 41% in the first five years while the price for sex dropped as well. Pimps like Carlos found it quite easy to present their legal sex businesses as a shield and protection for their illegal operations. Furthermore, because of the lenient policy in the Netherlands, sex tourists swarm there, making it a high profitable region for pimps, who will happily sell sex to them, legally or illegally. Award winning New York Times journalists Nicholas Dristof and Sheryl WuDunn concluded the following from their study of the differing approaches. “The Bottom Line?” they wrote, “Customers can easily find an underage Eastern European girl working as a prostitute in Amsterdam, but not in Stackholm.”2
Are there pimps out there that only sell willing adults? Sure. Are there prostitutes out there that truly want to do this and enjoy the profession? Sure. But, while I’m not uncompassionate to those who believe it is their right to engage in the legal sex trade, I fear those who make the argument ignore Princess. Perhaps because I’ve seen dozens of Princesses, or because I know there are millions of Princesses trafficked in the world today, I refuse to forget her. I will prioritize her rescue from Hell far, far above the sexual desires of adult men and women who want to buy and sell a “quickie” in a cheap hotel room. Are not children our most precious resource? Should not their protection be our first consideration? Again, Amnesty says in its new policy that law enforcement should protect trafficked children and arrest child traffickers. But the tragic irony is that this plan would effectively obstruct law enforcement from doing just that.
After Carlos took the money for Princess and her fellow victims, a Colombian SWAT team entered the rented house and quickly and efficiently arrested Carlos and his minions. (My team and I were also “arrested” in a pre-planned ruse to keep our cover. On the heals of the arrests, an army of social workers, including therapists from state and private institutions, entered the scene and took control. They began the long healing process with the victims. Due to a misstep in the aftermath, someone told the victims that the American tourists were actually working with the police. Tears filled these young girls’ eyes as they applauded us and said thank you through screened windows, even as we were hauled off in handcuffs. The adult women were rightfully not prosecuted, but instead, were offered the same rehabilitation being applied to the children. (While I can’t support the legitimization of pimps, I do applaud Amnesty’s efforts to ensure prostitutes are taken care of properly and offered aid where needed).
Months after this and several other operations we conducted in four different Colombian cities, I was walking side-by-side with my Colombian counterpart down a street known for prostitution. Acting our seasoned roles as sex tourists from out of town, we engaged several street vendors who, months earlier, would have introduced us to sex traffickers. But this time it was different. Instead of encouraging sex with children, the vendors warned us. “Have you not seen the news?” they cautioned us in hushed tones. “Have you not heard about the many American tourists and Colombian pimps who were arrested? Don’t try to have sex with little girls, man. Nobody will sell that to you here anymore.” We walked away from the scene and I looked over at the Colombian undercover agent at my side. Tears filled his eyes. Once we were in the clear, he turned to me and exclaimed, “It’s working!
Indeed, law enforcement action works! Crackdowns work! Criminalization of pimps and johns works! Legalization proponents might argue that these crackdowns are still possible, even encouraged, under their policy. But their policy will create, enable and legitimize far too many “Carloses” for law enforcement’s already scarce resources. This new policy will unintentionally create far too many dark lairs where Princesses can be hidden and further abused. Furthermore, this policy will now create swarms of sex tourists coming to enjoy legal sex, unintentionally creating the perfect environment for pedophiles to slip in the back door, undetected, and abuse children. And finally, the policy inherently will add to law enforcement’s already over-filled plate by requiring regulatory enforcement of the now legal side of the business. This, of course, affords even less opportunity for law enforcement to go after child sex slavery and other cases of forced prostitution. Sex slaves will remain enslaved. In fact, their slavery will now be more secure than ever.
Sadly, Amnesty International thinks that they can dance with Carlos, and thus make the world a better pace. But this dance would just as soon sell their own 12 year-old daughters down the river to child rapists for a few hundred dollars. When it comes to protecting the most precious among us, you don’t dance with evil. You eliminate it.
*Names have been altered 1. Amnesty International, “Draft Policy on Sex Work,” available at files.ctctcdn.com/54482ed201/46da8bac-36d7-4a59-b9e0-fd79blaec409.pdf 2. Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 31-32
Timothy Ballard is the Founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). Ballard began his career at the Central Intelligence Agency where he worked cases dealing with terrorism and Latin America. He has spent over a decade working as a Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security where he was assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team. He has worked every type of case imaginable in the fight to dismantle child trafficking rings. Ballard has worked undercover in the United States and in multiple foreign countries to infiltrate child trafficking organizations. In this effort he has successfully dismantled dozens of these organizations and rescued countless children from sex slavery. He is an expert at managing Internet investigations, particularly those dealing with file-share networks where pedophiles and traffickers go to trade in child pornography. Through the establishment of O.U.R., he has trained hundreds of law enforcement officers at home and abroad in best practices to liberate children from sex slavery. Ballard has been featured on many national news outlets to discuss his efforts to combat child trafficking. He has appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, The Meredith Vieria Show, CBS Nightly News, ABC Nightline, and CNN Headline News, MSNBC, the Glenn Beck Program as well as many local news shows. Ballard graduated Cum Laude with a BA in Spanish and Political Science from Brigham Young University. He went on to graduate Summa Cum Laude with an MA in International Politics from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.