Undercover in Bangkok: ‘Walking Away Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done’

Undercover in Bangkok: ‘Walking Away Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done’

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Jason Buttrill, Head Writer/Researcher with ‘The Glenn Beck Program’, about the human trafficking horrors he witnessed in Bangkok.

I recently traveled to Thailand with Glenn Beck to see firsthand the work Operation Underground Railroad is doing to combat human trafficking. More specifically, to see the children who are being bought and sold on a black market that can only be described as pure, unadulterated evil.

I’ve been to most of the corners of the world during my life. I’ve seen pretty much the worst the world has to offer — from my time as a military intelligence agent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to my time as a researcher covering the atrocities ISIS has left behind in Iraq. None of it compares to what I saw one Sunday night in Thailand.

The following is an account of what happened, as best I can remember it. But I have to warn you — this isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re going to be disgusted and angry. God knows I was — and still am. But there is good news: Heroes are out there on the front lines.

Sunday 8:00 PM • A Remote Village in Thailand

I link up with one of agents from Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) — let’s just call him Bob — and make the long drive out to a remote village. Bob is an impressive dude. At around six feet and 220 pounds of muscle, I pity the fool who tangles with him.

But Bob is more than just a tough guy. Bob is a highly competent professional and a true believer in the cause. He cares for children with conviction, and that’s a trait common with every operator in OUR. They’re willing to trade their lives, if needed, to save a child from slavery and bondage. That is exactly Bob’s demeanor as we pull into the “rally point.”

The Rally Point and Plan

The rally point is a safe location just outside the village where we gather information and gear, as well as get briefed on what we were about to do. The target is a small strip of road within the village rumored to be trafficked with children in multiple brothels. I listen as Bob bluntly lays out the scenario. This is not a safe environment. There are some very bad dudes taking advantage of some very innocent kids. Westerners don’t frequent this part of Thailand, so we’ll stick out. Our height alone will make us suspect.

Our cover is as two lost tourists looking for a good time. If we manage to talk our way into one of the brothels and confirm that underage kids are inside, we can take evidence to the Thai police. The problem is locals turn away anyone not from the village — Thai and foreign alike. If you don’t live there, it’s a no go. Bob explains how we’ll first do a drive by of the entire street. If he estimates the danger as manageable, we’ll park and approach the brothels.

Go Time

It’s roughly 8:30 p.m. and the single lane streets in the village are pitch black. Tiny lights from within shanty houses provide the only illumination. Bob turns down the target street and lowers both our sun visors so they provide some cover for our faces. Pretty soon, the brothels come into view, as well as the prostitutes hanging out on porches and in doorways. There are at least eight or so visible brothels, but probably more hidden away. Halfway down the street is an outdoor market and bar where a group of men drink heavily, blitzed out of their minds. We mentally make note of their numbers, estimating about 10 to 15 men, a potential problem, but one we ultimately decide is manageable. Bob gives the okay and parks down the street.

We begin our walk down towards the string of brothels and immediately get into character, beginning to joke around and act like typical, naive tourists out for a good time. We’re smiling and laughing, but simultaneously calculating everything we see.

Two Curious White Guys

At the first brothel, we approach four prostitutes hanging out on the front porch — all barely look 18. It’s difficult to gauge how old they are, but the goal is to charm our way inside and get eyes on what’s inside. Intel collected by OUR describes children of extremely low age on display in the back. These kids are typically kidnapped and sold into slavery. As Bob begins talking to the girls, I’m now less worried about our safety and more concerned about our success. It hits me like a Mack truck that kids’ lives are at stake here, and we can’t screw this up.

The girls are very friendly. We try to converse with them, but the language barrier is holding us back. It becomes pretty clear they’re speaking with us — two white guys — out of curiosity rather than seeing us as potential clients. An older woman inside whispers something to girl number four and she relays that to girls one through three. All conversation stops. They bury their eyes into their phones and refuse to look up. Failure number one.

Heading down the road, Bob surveys the surroundings. Pretty soon we hear a commotion coming from the drinking men. White people don’t come out here, so this must be an odd change in their nightly routine. Some look hostile, but the majority seems more amused than anything else. We keep tabs on them as best we can, and they for sure keep an eye on us.

FaceTiming Madam

Approaching the next brothel, we hope for better results. Bob’s like a machine, perfectly in character while I try to keep up. Like the last brothel, there are about four girls sitting on the porch. I can see through the front door a bit, and there’s a blue light illuminating the interior with hardly any furniture inside. Again, there’s an older woman inside sitting at a small table. She looks to be conducting business on a cell phone and doesn’t seem to notice us at first. These girls are also very friendly and giggling nonstop, making fun of us more than anything else and having fun at our expense. The older woman inside hears the commotion and walks out.

She’s FaceTiming with someone on her phone and holds the camera up to show the person on the other line our faces. While Bob is trying to communicate and gather information, I glance over at the group of men getting trashed and notice they’re watching us intently. This isn’t looking good.

Eventually the girls decide they’ve had enough “fun” and the older woman gives a similar whisper to one of the girls, everything stops. One of the girls gives me a cold stare and then buries her face in her phone. Failure number two.

Bob and I agree the safety situation is getting worse, and we’ve clearly outstayed our welcome. The playful banter has ceased. The drunken men on the street are eyeing us and yelling, and someone has seen us on the older woman’s phone. Time to leave.

I feel extremely deflated, knowing kids are inside living a nightmare, powerless to stop it. Bob on the other hand is business as usual. This is how surveillance and investigations are done, day in and day out. It’s not always sexy. You’re not always kicking in doors and rescuing innocents every day. It takes time and OUR is on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I have no doubt their operatives will bring down that street of horror.

9:30 PM • Somewhere Two Hours From Bangkok

Bob drives while I struggle to stay awake. It’s been a brutal two days work, with just a handful of sleep. I get a text from Tim Ballard, head of OUR, who informs me that two of his deep undercover operatives are working on several big leads. He invites me to tag along. Soon after, I get another text with an address. Two hours later, I say goodbye to Bob and book it on foot through the streets of Bangkok. I head into the seedy underground of Bangkok and the freaks are out to play. Most of the people in this area are prostitutes and Western men looking to pick them up. It’s disgusting.

James Bond

Now 11:45 p.m. or so, I think I’ve arrived at the location to link up with OUR’s undercover operatives. Let’s call them Agent James and Agent Bond — and let me tell you, their namesake would be very proud. These guys are legit. I’ve worked with human intelligence teams in the Middle East, and these two guys could easily lead any of them.

James greets me and gives a quick briefing on the night. Fifty meters up the street is a group of African prostitutes who promise to deliver a 15-year-old within a minute. I get into my assigned character, playing a role that perfectly fits the story they’re running. Thinking I would only be observing from a distance and getting camera footage, this was a bit of a surprise to me, but I was excited for the opportunity to help. I was also looking to have some success after the earlier “failures” with Bob.

I follow James to the group of prostitutes, immediately surprised that many of them speak English, making negotiating much easier than before. James transforms right in front of my eyes, becoming a jerky American looking for underage girls. As promised, the leader of the group motions a little girl over to us. She is also of African descent. The innocence in her face shows she’s not like the others. She wears skimpy clothing and a ton of makeup — just like the others — but keeps her head lowered the entire time, cowering. She stares at her high heels, clearly inexperienced, and hobbles off balance as she walks. Not once did she look the other prostitutes, or us, in the eye.

James keeps the story running, gathering all the information he can and leaving with everything needed to continue the investigation and move on to the next phase. I’m blown away by his skill.

We turn and walk back about 50 meters to our original meeting point. I think we’re done, but he immediately begins briefing me on the next operation. His partner Bond is working another group around the corner, down a seedy back alley. They had worked a source earlier in the day and arranged for the trafficker to bring proof that he had underage kids for sale. He agreed, claiming to have a 12-year-old and a couple of 14-year-olds.

Under the Influence

The plan is the same. I am to play my role, but this time James tells me to sit next to the 12-year-old girl and talk to her while he gets intel from the trafficker. My first thought is, Oh, hell no. There is no way I can pretend to be one of these monsters preying on little kids. It must be the feeling any undercover investigator or operator goes through initially. I had never experienced it before. All of my experience has been in the military, catching enemy combatants and terrorists. This is completely different.

As we walk closer I begin to see the little girl and immediately get a sick feeling in my stomach. She is clearly on some drug, resting her head on a table. James taps her shoulder to wake up, sliding a chair next to her and motioning me to sit down. I want to throw up. She speaks a few words of English, similar to how I speak Spanish: yes, no, hello, thank you. I try to stay in character while, at the same time, say things that might make her feel better. From my right ear, I can hear James negotiating with the trafficker, who explains he has many more kids as young or younger than the 12-year-old sitting next to me. Apparently he could have brought more — but they have school. I almost lose it right then and there. Win the Battle and Lose the War? Plans of action shoot through my mind. This guy was tiny, as were his bodyguards. I could snap their necks in a heartbeat, and we could rescue this girl and she’d be safe. My adrenaline is pumping . . . fists are clenched . . . leg muscles are ready to shoot out of the chair.

My attention is diverted as Bond starts hooting and hollering across the table with two more girls this trafficker has brought in. My nerve is breaking, but his is strong. Did he notice me folding? I never ask him, but I’m glad he got vocal at that moment. It makes me realize there are two more kids here. Not only that, but MANY more back at a secret location James is learning about. I feel helpless, so I continue small talk with this poor girl.

James finishes and motions for Bond to get up. We begin to walk away and the trafficker grabs me by the arm: I got you covered. Many, many more kids. I take one last look at that girl, turn around and walk away.

Walking away was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m not speaking in hyperbole. Walking away changed something inside me that I don’t think I’ll ever get back. It’s gone for good.

Baby Steps

James and Bond explain how this was a crucial meeting, an opening salvo in a long process of gathering information and intelligence to build a case. They held their nerve, as I almost didn’t, and the lives of countless children are at stake. James received a treasure trove of information, one more crucial battle in this long fought war.

The night goes on as I follow James and Bond through the darkest, seediest alleys in Bangkok. I watch and listen as they approach potential traffickers. They are clinical. The way they get information from people seems almost effortless, they’re that good. They get at least one more lead from a madam that brought a 14-year old-girl to show to us. She is dressed like a veteran prostitute while simultaneously clutching a teddy bear.

Our night ends around 2:30 a.m. James and Bond hop in a cab, but I decide to walk back to my hotel. I need time to process.

I thought I had seen and known evil throughout my many travels. Turns out, I knew nothing. This was evil in its purest form. This was the worst humanity has to offer. As I write, I’m still struggling to get the image of that little girl out of my head. She remains in a remote, secret location among many more child slaves. But I know something her captors don’t: OUR and their Thai partners are on their trail. The goal? The liberation of every single child involved in this depravity and the evil men responsible to be thrown in jail. I’m counting the seconds.

 

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