It's not hard to find children being sold as sex slaves. Since the earthquake in Haiti, the influx of Haitian children being kidnapped and sold into the Dominican Republic sex trade has been overwhelming. They are kept in small rooms with small windows and small hopes. Of course, not all children being trafficked in the DR, or the rest of the world, have been ripped from their families. Many still live at home, where their parents walk into their rooms jostle to them awake or call them in from playing with friends when it is time for them to meet a john.
Child trafficking is abhorrent. We feel there is a small part of us that should be able to smell the rot coming from anyone involved in something so tremendously bad. Surely, being in the same room as them would be difficult, carrying on a conversation and finding similar points of interest - absolutely impossible. Of course, we are wrong. The pimps have other jobs, look like you and me, and buy cakes for their kid's birthday parties. They are just people, not monsters.
Which is, of course, the most monstrous thing of all.
Operation Underground Rescue (OUR) pulls children from the tangled grip of that hellish reality. When they go into a country to rescue children, they do so in partnership with local and state government. Once the children are removed from the slave trade, they are put in the care of approved non-profit organizations that also work fully with local governments. When OUR's founder, Tim Ballard, asked if I would accompany the OUR on an operation to free children from sex slavery, I took one quavering breath and said,
Alan* works in the field for Operation Underground Rescue. He goes out, finds the sellers and prepares the situation on the ground for upcoming rescue missions. He befriends low lifes, visits strip clubs and generally immerses himself in the underbelly of the places he visits. By the end of the descent into ugliness, he has set up a sting. Usually this means staging a party where the pimps will bring the children, accept payment and then get arrested by local authorities. When Alan landed in the DR, he planned to spend ten days finding a criminal and setting up a party. It took two hours. By the time I had landed in the DR as an operative, there were eight pimps and 26 children scheduled for the party the next day.
Upon arrival, the kids would be taken into the backyard away from their pimps. The operatives in the backyard were told to keep the mood light, serve the kids soda and snacks, and to keep the children from the dealings going on inside. The men and women selling them would be kept in the living room, where Alan and Tim, posing as the purchasers, would laugh, negotiate and accept payment. Once the deal was closed, the police outside the building would be given a signal and they could come in and arrest the pimps and the undercover agents. The agents were to be released as soon as the criminals were removed from the scene.
The day of the operation was hot and bright. The team spent the morning finalizing mission details and getting the house ready for the party. I put decorations around the pool. I'd been struggling with a question all morning. Arms full of blown up balloons, I walked over to one of the men from OUR and tried to sound casual,
"So I know this doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but at the end of this will these little girls and boys know that I wasn't a bad guy?"
He looked at me kindly and shook his head,
"We have to stay undercover. They will always think you were just one of the many bad people in their lives. It's the hardest part of this job. Without question."
The balloons fell from my arms and floated down around my ankles. Some of them popped as they hit the heat of the concrete. Intellectually, I knew it didn't matter one whit who I was to these kids. All that mattered was that they were removed from their sellers. I knew that. But my head couldn't convince my heart fast enough to keep the tears off my face.
An operative opened the back door and told us the kids would be arriving in three minutes. I'd traveled thousands of miles to document the rescue of child sex slaves, but when they first walked into the backyard I felt too overwhelmed to observe much more than the feelings they evoked.
Can I tell you how rich life can be? Can we help you discover the worth that shines through your eyes? Did you know your voice is more powerful and more empowering than any one damn thing I could ever give you? Who did this to you? I'll hurt them. I'm so, so sorry. This is our fault. Westerners are the number one customer of the child sex trade, with Americans at the very top of that list. My neighbors, my citizens are the ones that have created this climate of enslavement. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I am so sorry and I know that doesn't fix a damn thing.
After a moment, my eyes and mind focused. They looked like the kind of kids you see waiting for the middle school bus. Some were confident and direct. They had been doing this for years. Some were scared and held hands while retreating into the nearest corner. They had been doing this for years, too. Two girls had been sold that morning for the very first time by their grandmother. She'd hit them out of the car and into the party. Many of them would not meet my eye, confused and wary of the only woman in the group. There were a few boys with elaborate hair dos and ready smiles. They all stood together and looked at us expectantly.
One of the operatives came from a family of performers. He gathered a group of girls together and asked if they could sing. They nodded yes, and started to clap and sing one of their favorite songs. Their voices rang out and bounced against the windows of the house. The atmosphere in the backyard swayed with the cadence of kid's voices and everyone began to talk and laugh. I played volleyball with a few of the girls. The kids started jumping in the pool.
The pimps sat in the house, negotiating the services and sale of each child. An operative came out into the yard and asked me to come inside. Tim wanted me to see the other side of the deal.
I went in and leaned against a wall, trying to appear only mildly interested in what was going on in front of me. Tim, Alan and the pimps were seated around a coffee table. There were three groups of sellers, eight people in total. Each group negotiated their deal separately. When one group was negotiating, the other two conferred and then come back asking for the kind of deal the other one had gotten. Tim would laugh, his blue eyes lively, and call to one of the men across the room for more money.
The room was loud with the smack of money against the slick surface of the table. Each hard sound was representative of one more child, one more sexual service purchased. On average, the kids were being sold for $150 each. The pimps were drinking and laughing and boasting about how young the children were they had brought. One woman, who looked about twenty five, exhorted the services of a pair of twelve year olds while shaking her hips and touching Alan's shoulder. He smiled up at her and counted more pesos out onto the table.
The oldest and meanest pimp there was a man named Felipe*. He worked alone. When he wasn't trafficking children he was hustling at resorts, selling coke and sitting in strip clubs boasting about the things he did to the kids he sold. He wasn't a tall man, but he was broad. When he looked at you, he turned on a smile and an offer. He had been paid and was getting restless while the other pimps finished their deals. He looked around and then walked over to me.
I shook my head, "Just English."
He grinned, "That's okay. I speak English, too."
He leaned a bit closer and I could feel his hand briefly on my elbow.
"So you like to party?"
Leaning in a little, I giggled,
"Oh, I love to party."
He was moving his hand along my arm when people in the room started shouting. While we were talking, the transaction was completed and the signal given. Police holding AR-15s were advanced into the room. Felipe pushed past me. I walked to the backdoor, but when I opened it, a cop was waiting there. He pointed his gun at me and shouted in Spanish. With my hands above my head, I retreated back into the room and followed the lead of both the criminals and operatives. Arms still extended, I kneeled down on the tile and then lowered myself onto my stomach. Police walked around the room, one grabbing my hands and twisting them behind my back.
The tile was white and newly cleaned. With my chin pushed to the floor, I watched the operation finish on its reflective surface. The police were leading the children out of the house and into the front yard where a bus waited to take them to a safe house filled with psychologists, food and potential. I was laid out directly in their path.At that moment, I hated myself. I hated that this was all pretend for me, that I could step out of their reality while they remained immersed in it. I hated that I was the last obstacle before they could walk out that open door.
Some of the kids cried as they approached. Sniffles and hiccups and the noise of sounds being kept behind gritted teeth. I could see the children in the shined surface below me. Arms crossed against their chests. Heads bent. Hands held. Their bare feet touched my skin as drops of water fell from them onto my legs and back and head. I know now that the moisture came from their wet bathing suits. But at the time, with my brimming heart, I thought it must have been full of the salt of their tears.
Want to learn more about the effort to liberate children from human trafficking? Head to Operation Underground Railroad Rescue to learn more.
*not their real names