Chasing the Slave Traders: A Law Enforcement Perspective on Operation Underground Railroad

This week's Foreign Policy carries an unusually racy story: Assistant Editor Tom Stackpole 'embedded' himself with an outfit that, in apparent homage to the secret network that helped smuggle American slaves out of danger, calls itself Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). But the twist is a modern one: OUR has its sights set firmly on victims of child sex trafficking and their exploiters. It's a boys' own adventure with all the requisite motifs. The heroes are all hyper-masculine and chisel-jawed. The victims are very young and very beautiful. The perps are foreign, swarthy and snarling.

OUR was founded by self-proclaimed "Man of God," former CIA and Homeland Security official Tim Bollard. The Foreign Policy piece focuses on rescue operations conducted by OUR in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Last year the group attracted favorable publicity for its involvement in a similar sting in Colombia that reportedly broke up a major child prostitution ring. OUR's modus operandi is simple. The organization receives allocated funding to conduct a rescue. A team flies out to the selected country and makes contact with local law enforcement. An elaborate sting follows: Bollard and his friends pose as sex tourists. They actively seek out those who can supply young girls for a 'party.' The girls and their pimps arrive. Local police swoop in. The pimps are arrested and the victims are handed over to social workers. All this is filmed so the person who funded the recue can watch, in real time and from the comfort of his or her office or home, where their money is going. (Sometimes supporters can even participate). After arrests are made, the OUR team makes a quick exit, never to return.

Unfortunately, it seems that Stackpole, a seasoned journalist who should know better, got caught up in the drama and excitement of being on a real, live rescue mission. For example, he explains that Bollard and his partners trawl bars announcing their desire for "exotic" (i.e. underage) partners. But he hastens to assure the reader that they are careful not to entrap potential targets. Courts in the U.S. and many other countries would have a hard time making that distinction and in most jurisdictions such actions could constitute a defense to criminal liability. Stackpole also fails to explore the ethical and legal minefield of OUR live-streaming their operations to benefactors overseas. From the perspective of a victim's right to privacy, such actions are reprehensible.

And from a criminal justice perspective, there are even more pressing concerns about the OUR approach. First, the entire premise of its operations: that local law enforcement will take over when the dirty work has been done is dangerously naïve. Why are police in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia not arresting child sex traffickers if they are so easy to find? The simplest explanation is law enforcement complicity in such crimes. Agreeing to cooperate with OUR is a win-win: local cops get to keep an eye on what's happening and ensure OUR doesn't stray into their turf; they also gain international kudos for taking on the traffickers.

Foreign Policy's analysis fails to ask the most basic question of all: we know that child trafficking is a huge problem in the United States. Why is OUR not operating here? For that matter, why are they not raiding the brothels of Amsterdam or London? The simple reason is that, lacking any legal capacity to undertake such operations, Bollard and his rag-tag team would be arrested on the spot. And any court in any of these jurisdictions would not hesitate to throw out a case that rests on the evidence of an OUR-type raid because of the failure to meet even the most basic standards of supervision and accountability. It's no surprise that the organization and its fellow travellers limit their activities to countries burdened by dysfunctional criminal justice systems that for their own reasons -- or perhaps in response to pressure from the U.S. government -- agree to cooperate.

OUR's operatives are not sworn law enforcement officials. Contrary to Ballard's boasts about his long experience hunting slave-traders, they do not possess the current training and experience necessary to conduct such sensitive operations. The targeting of low-level offenders (recruiters and pimps) also reveals an alarming lack of understanding about how sophisticated criminal trafficking networks must be approached and dismantled.

The exploitation of human beings for private profit is an outrage, whether it takes place in the United States or in a poor country far away. The temptation to do something in the face of such villainy can be overwhelming. And the lure of the quick fix is often very difficult to resist. But the task of eliminating human trafficking is not amendable to such an approach. It requires hard work; a tolerance for incremental, sometimes almost imperceptible success; and an unwavering commitment to justice and the rule of law. Bollard's operations say much about the man: they are arrogant, unethical and illegal.