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Operation Maya

Operation Maya

The Operation That Almost Never Was

16 Rescued – 9 Arrested

Everything was planned perfectly down to the last detail, but as events unfolded, not everything went according to plan. It was, however, a series of unplanned events that led to more victims of sex trafficking being rescued and greedy traffickers arrested than previously anticipated in this Latin American country.

The Opportunity

The rescue operation began several weeks ago, when a few undercover Jump Team members from Operation Underground Railroad were approached by a man who eventually became known as the “Fabricator.” He obviously thought these were American tourists looking for a good time, and he was excited to talk about what he could offer them. He had pictures and prices and was ready to make a deal. It almost seemed too easy for the O.U.R. Team.

Building the Case

At this point the team leader shared the information and intelligence with the country’s law enforcement and judicial authorities. O.U.R. had already been working to establish this relationship for a long time and was eager to move the case forward. All the evidence pointed to the takedown of a sex trafficking ring, and the authorities loved it. “This is fantastic. Let’s move forward,” they said. And then the case fell apart.

Falling Apart

It turns out that the “Fabricator” was making up the entire story. O.U.R. operatives discovered the pictures of the girls he claimed to be able to provide for the American tourists were, in fact, photos from the Internet. He had also insisted that the undercover operatives pay a deposit before any further arrangements be made. O.U.R. refused to gamble with donor money; the deal soured and everyone walked away disappointed. The “would-be” trafficker was upset that he didn’t see any money. O.U.R. operatives were saddened that the case had fallen apart, and host government authorities were frustrated that the suspected trafficker was able to just walk away.

Rebuilding the Case

However, the O.U.R. Jump Team was not ready to give up just yet, and they returned to the country a few weeks later, which happened to be just a few days before New Year’s. They followed secondary leads they had gained during their first visit, and the new suspects turned out to be the real deal. They not only had pictures, but also were actually able to show their victims to the O.U.R. operative. The traffickers were ready to party.

One trafficking network consisted of two men who worked in tandem and the other was a single guy who had connections. The O.U.R team leader reached out to the Latin American government again to see if they would be willing to take another chance. “He said, ‘If you guys are still ready, we’re ready.’”

To allow the country O.U.R. is working with to get credit for the arrests, and to keep our operatives safe, the host government provided the Jump Team leader with a way to report the traffickers.

“They gave me an anonymous tip line, like a hot line with a phone number and email address. So I emailed them (the police) and said, ‘A few of us were in town minding our own business and these guys came up and asked us if we’d like to have a good time and party with young girls. They showed us several pictures of very young girls. We said we didn’t want any trouble with the cops.’ Per the host government’s request, I sent that email and that was enough for their prosecutors and police to start building a case.”

The government took over the case from there, but still needed O.U.R.’s undercover team involved since we were the initial point of contact with the traffickers and had the skills and experience to convince the traffickers to bring their victims. If local officials were to directly engage now, the traffickers could become suspicious and shut everything down. The plan was to have a sex party under the guise of a 16 year-old’s birthday party. The government approved the house where the party would be held and put the final touches on the operation. Everything was going according to plan… or so they thought.

The Party

“On the morning of the operation we thought we would help take down two trafficking networks,” noted the O.U.R. Jump Team leader. “Two networks total, each of them bringing about six girls.

“However, about an hour before the operation our advance team, who was in near constant contact with the traffickers, started getting texts from these guys saying, ‘Oh, I’m bringing a friend to control the girls, or an associate is coming who is bringing more girls.’ So they started bringing more people who wanted more money.

“This brought on the most dangerous part of the operation, the last -minute introduction of additional traffickers. We’d had several meetings with the traffickers we knew. Then, on the day of, they informed us they were bringing additional friends, so to speak, additional traffickers and additional girls. So, we’re not going to say no.

“All of a sudden people showed up that we didn’t know. That was a bit alarming, that and the fact that they brought drugs. Some of them were obviously on drugs. That was clear. They were just acting a little bit more erratic and their total demeanor changed.

“So all of a sudden I’m racing to feed this information to the police so they would be prepared for the total number of arrests and rescues that would be needed. Names, what they’re dressed like; because we met the traffickers at a pre-determined location about five minutes from the party.

“Then the traffickers showed up to the house. Our team welcomed them in, and everything was well planned. We moved the girls upstairs with one of the female jump team members so they would be sheltered from the police break-in and multiple arrests that would take place. There were no men upstairs to traumatize them anymore. We had chips, pretzels, soft drinks and music playing to try to calm them a little bit and we directed the traffickers all the way to the back patio on the ground floor.

“We sat them in a semi-circle around the table facing away from the front entrance so they would not see the police come in. I sat on the other side. Imagine me as a black jack dealer, passing out money while the traffickers sat around the table. We’re going over everything. The predetermined sign for the police to enter, once we had everything in place was, ‘Let’s have a tequila.’

“After a couple minutes we had everything ready and I called for the tequila. Two undercover police were on the patio acting as waiters and to provide additional security. About two minutes later – which to me seemed like two hours – the police entered in a perfectly choreographed manner, sending one team upstairs to protect the girls, a second to arrest the real traffickers, and a third to arrest the entire jump team and keep up the ruse that we were the bad guys.”

The Rescue

“There were 16 girls in the upstairs room, seven of which were minors. Some were the younger sisters of the traffickers, according to police, and many appeared very nervous and unaware of why they were at the party, as some had been tricked or forced into coming. When the police came in the girls appeared very, very scared. One began to hyperventilate. Fortunately our Jump Teams travel with a medic on hand who went upstairs and saw that the poor girl was nervous and scared so he broke character a little bit and pulled out his medical bag and began to calm her down. He told her she wasn’t in trouble. That’s also what the police told the girls. They kept saying ‘You’re not in trouble,’ trying to calm them down because they were scared.

“Meanwhile, the other victims, started talking to police and the country’s equivalent of child protective services, and shared information on the traffickers and their network. The victims made it clear that they were tricked into being there and did not want to be forced to perform sex acts. They were told they were going to come to a birthday party. We only heard that the day after from the Latin American authorities.

“The great thing about the post-rescue rehabilitation plan is, because we already had our in-country network of rehabilitation contacts in place from an earlier O.U.R. rescue, they immediately got in contact with the authorities and were ready to assist the minute these girls got out of the custody of child protective services.

The Arrest

“A total of nine traffickers were arrested, three were actually adolescents themselves, 17 years old. They were the brothers of some of these girls. The six adult traffickers are in some pretty tough legal trouble. They have been placed in two months of pre-trial detention.

“The rules in this country state that if you’re over 18 you can prostitute yourself if you want to, however, a third party cannot prostitute you or profit from your prostitution. The fact that these guys brought these girls to a sex party and stood to pocket money for exploiting the girls will be a big problem for them.

“That’s why our Latin authorities asked us to make it very clear on the envelopes in which we put the money, you put the number of dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, they wanted us to write clearly in Spanish, ‘For Manuel. For Carlos,’ etc. and ‘Thank you for the six girls. Here’s the price.’ What the Latin American authorities didn’t want was that later the traffickers would say, ‘No, no, no. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I didn’t know why I was at the party and what the money was for.’ ‘Well, here it is in black and white. Here are your names and the thank you very much. ‘“


“It’s always a fine line that we walk in these situations, not knowing whether or not we will be able to pull off a rescue, so it’s a credit to our advance team who refused to give up, and when the first suspected trafficker failed to pan out they continued to ask questions. And that’s what got us into the two and eventually three networks that we took down,” said O.U.R.’s Jump Team leader. Before the operation O.U.R. secured top cover to be able to go into these tourist areas to see what traffickers would offer us.

According to O.U.R., “The beauty of it for the government is that they don’t have to expend any resources until we have a case for them. We do all the prep-work and use limited donor funds for maximum effectiveness.

It’s a tricky business developing relationships, finding the right partners and rescuing the children from the grips of greedy sex traffickers. And it doesn’t always go according to plan no matter how much you prepare. Fortunately, as a result of the experience and training O.U.R. Jump Team members have, even though things didn’t go according to plan, everything ended up successful, with the bonus of additional traffickers arrested and girls rescued. Go Team O.U.R.!

Written by: Cheryl L. Karr


The Worth of a Girl in India

The Worth of a Girl in India

Hindu Temple
Hindu Temple in India

It’s been several weeks of dangerous undercover work for O.U.R. operatives in brothels, bars, and on the streets of India, but the work is beginning to pay off. Three sex traffickers have been arrested and the undercover investigation is continuing.

The following are excerpts from an interview with one of the undercover operatives working in South Asia:


INTERVIEWER: How do you find child sex slaves in India and how do you rescue them?

INVESTIGATOR: An investigator, who I’ve worked with before in South Asia, and I, joined local NGOs or Non-Governmental Organizations in India: Indian Rescue Missions and ARZ (Anyay Rohit Zindagi)*. The first one works primarily in Goa and then the other one works in Mumbai.

We spent the first few days investigating brothels. There’s a particular red light district called Kamathipura. It’s one of oldest red light districts in history and definitely in Asia, so it’s been operating for thousands of years. It’s just been culturally accepted.

We went to at least six brothels in Mumbai trying to identify victims. We didn’t identify any minors at that time, and in India 18 and under is considered a minor. In Southeast Asia, it’s 16 and under, in Cambodia it’s 14 and under, so it varies from country to country.

We also investigated dance bars. Dance bars are different from strip clubs in the United States. These girls are in full clothing, sometimes western clothing or traditional Hindi clothing with saris. There’s a band playing and they stand in front of the stage holding a lot of money in their hands, which is the tips they’ve received. If there’s a particular girl someone is interested in, they talk to what’s considered the controllers or handlers.

We did identify minors there. The intel that we gathered, the images that we gathered, the footage that we gathered, we turned that over to the local police. We have a great working relationship with them and they are planning to act this week as far as raiding and shutting down those dance clubs.

Under-age Girl at Dance Club
Under-age Girl at Dance Club

During this investigation we did identify about 30 percent of the girls as minors. Each club is different. They range from five to 25 girls per club and on average two to seven of the girls were under the age of 18.

INTERVIEWER: How do these girls end up there?

INVESTIGATOR: Some of these girls end up there by choice. It’s hard for us to think about “do I sell my body just to have something to eat? Do I sell my body to feed my child that night?” So a lot of girls end up there because of their social-economic situation. A lot of them just don’t know any better.

They may be in a rural village and they are approached by a trafficker or a handler saying, “Hey, you come to the big city and you can be a singer or you can be in a Bollywood movie. You’re beautiful.”

They do it because they want to earn money to be able to send it back home, or a lot of these girls just want to go to school. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard from these girls that they just want to go to school, not necessarily college or university. They just want to go to high school and this is a way for them to pay for it. I think all too often that’s the majority of the cases.

So they see this as an opportunity to get paid and go to school and eventually get out of India and go to the United States or to Europe. So, they are typically coerced. They’re promised a lot of things, a lot of false promises.

And once they’re in there they become indebted to the trafficker or the handler and they owe them a certain percentage of what they make. And it’s never enough for them to be released. So they are always under restrictive movement. They are always under control.

Regardless, you know, they keep promising the girls that ‘if you make enough money, if you save enough money, or you keep enough of your cut, then you’ll be able to go to school or you’ll be able to get out of debt bondage.’ But, they never let them go. Eventually, these girls become so seasoned that it just becomes a choice and a career for the rest of their life.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the girls that are brought to the temple.

INVESTIGATOR: In a part of central India they have a ritual where the girls are brought by family members to the temple, right before they hit puberty and begin their first period, to be washed with holy water by a priest.

The family can now say, ‘My daughter has been blessed. She has been washed in the holy water.’ This now makes her holy and sacred so she can then go back to the village and men are allowed to have sex with her. This is considered a blessing on the man by the Hindi gods and the family sees this as revenue, as a way of making money.

As an undercover operative spending time there and witnessing some of these girls, these victims, is difficult. Some of them have been recovered. We saw a project where they are now learning how to sew, which makes them valuable to the community because they can make clothing and sell it, so it gives them a value. They’re able to bring something to the community other than being just a temple prostitute or “devadasis”.

INTERVIEWER: Is this considered a religious ceremony?

INVESTIGATOR: It is considered a Hindu religious ceremony.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s not considered wrong?

INVESTIGATOR: No, it’s not. It’s just culturally accepted. With that said though, this comes from typically a rural part of inner India where a lot of the older practices and ideas are still in place. But, when you get to the larger cities, there’s a majority of India, even in recent years, where women are receiving rights, for instance, the right to vote. There’s been a big change, a big trend in India wanting to change from some of their older ways and adopting some more traditional western ways, especially in regards to human rights when it comes to women and children.

Older Indian Women
Older Indian Women

INTERVIEWER: What can O.U.R. do to help these families?

INVESTIGATOR: I think one way is through education. How O.U.R. is involved with our local NGO partner in India is a good way. There are three pillars of anti-human trafficking: Prevention, Intervention, which typically O.U.R. does, and then Aftercare and O.U.R. is a part of that too. We do all three of those but primarily intervention and then making sure the girls are rehabilitated after the rescue. The rescue really begins after they’ve been taken out of that situation.

So O.U.R. can help by partnering with NGOs and possibly funding education for these girls. It’s a small amount of funding for some of these projects. And the reason why I mention this sewing project is that when I visited this project and saw the sewing room and talked to some of the girls there, some of the girls aren’t victims.

These are young girls in the community that, if they weren’t learning this skillset and learning how to sew and make clothing, more than likely, they would be used for a temple prostitute. But this puts a value on them to the community, where they’re bringing in revenue, where the family doesn’t feel, “well, financially, we don’t have enough money.”

There’s a balance there between their social-economical situation and their faith. I think the family, if they have a choice, would not sell their daughter to bring in that revenue. Despite their faith, I think they wouldn’t do that. This sewing project is teaching the girls that they have potential, so it’s the prevention aspect. And then it also gives the opportunity to the women who have been recovered and are previous victims of the situation to find value in themselves.

When we look at a rehabilitation process, we have a thought process that we’re used to, our western thought process, and the luxuries we have around us, however, something such as a hundred dollar sewing machine and being able to make a small amount of money creates tremendous value to a girl or woman in India.

Some of the girls, who hopefully will never become victims, know how important a skillset is because, for them, especially in the Hindi religion, there’s not a lot of value on a woman. She doesn’t serve a lot of purpose in the community. Usually, it’s just for sexual purposes or for work or for kids, so when you give them an opportunity or you teach them a skillset like sewing, it gives them a purpose of self-worth and then worth within the community because it’s actually generating revenue.

A lot of times when we see human trafficking or sex trafficking or even labor trafficking, we think of these big monstrous cities like New Delhi or Mumbai where it is really prevalent, but the problem starts, a lot of times, in these rural areas where it’s extremely poor. It’s poor in the big cities, but it’s extremely poor in the rural areas. Again, the education is less than it is in some of the bigger cities so the people have a tendency to be a lot more vulnerable to being coerced or manipulated or even intimidated into the circumstances of being trafficked.

Note: This is an on-going investigation and details concerning arrests and rescued girls will be discussed when it is safe to do so.

Edited by: Cheryl L. Karr


*ARZ = Anyay Rohit Zindagi (an Indian NGO, non-profit)

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