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The most difficult part of going undercover is pretending to be friends with people who rape children. In this episode, Dan Clark welcomes Tim Ballard, a former CIA Operative and the Founder of Operation Underground Railroad. Operation Underground Railroad focuses on rescuing children and eradicating sex trafficking throughout the world.
In this episode, Tim shares his life and reasons behind starting this incredible organization – telling hair-raising stories from some of the hundreds of covert missions he has conducted and why and how we can get involved!
Tim Ballard Shares His Life And Reasons Behind Starting Operation Underground Railroad
This is an interview with Operation Underground Railroad Founder Tim Ballard. In this episode, Tim Ballard, former CIA Operative and Founder of Operation Underground Railroad focused on rescuing children and eradicating sex trafficking throughout the world, who shares his life and reasons behind starting this incredible organization, telling hair raising stories from some of the hundreds of covert missions he has conducted and why and how we all can get involved.
Tim, welcome to my show. I cannot wait to hear your story, which teaches how we can think and do what you do.
Dan, thank you so much. Your words are so kind. I’m honored to be on the show with you.
Tim, let’s talk a little bit about your background and how you were inspired. What uncovered this passion to focus on child trafficking, how you got involved in and were truly inspired and guided to start Operation Underground Railroad?
First of all, when I was working for the government in the early 2000s, we were targeting the pedophiles who were in receipt of the child pornography or child rape videos which more accurately depicts what it is that they are receiving. I was so overcome by the fact that we get these bad guys but we couldn’t find the kid in the pictures. Many of the pictures at that time, at least are coming in, were foreign children.
Finally, I had the opportunity to be part of a rescue operation of one of the kids from the video who he intercepted by a child pornographer who was kidnapping this child from Mexico, bringing them across the border. Seeing this child that I recognized in the images completely changed my paradigm and perspective. I thought, “That’s it.” This kid ran to my arms. She was crying. She’s five years old. I always remember the first words she said to me that no five-year-old should have to say. She said, “I don’t belong here.”
I thought, “What is going on? How do I change my mission to finding the kids?” That led me on a crazy adventure pushing the limits of the government jurisdiction to try to go in and filtrate these trafficking rings throughout the world and that led me to Columbia and Haiti. Those are the two countries that I was working in, pushing the envelope. I got myself into two situations in both Haiti and Columbia. About 2012, I went down, maybe under not honest reasons. Meaning I knew I was looking for these kids but I went under the guise of doing training and consulting a little bit. If a crime takes place overseas, that has nothing to do with a connection back to the United States. We don’t have jurisdiction. I couldn’t be okay with that.
I pushed the envelope and in Columbia, for example, I’d put myself in a situation where I was going undercover and may mess up the bait. I was supposed to be doing training but I made myself the bait in a pretty significant sting operation. I did the same in Haiti during the same year. We went down there looking for a little boy who had been kidnapped. It brought me to a point where I had to decide if I continue working on these cases. If I chose that, that would mean that I’d have to quit my job because I couldn’t sustain what I was doing. They didn’t have the jurisdiction that the US Government requires for me to work under that power.
In those two cases in 2012 and 2013, I remember going to my wife saying, “What do we do? I’ve made myself the bait. There’s a real kid at the end of his line” This little boy whose name was Gardy Marty was kidnapped from his church where his father was the pastor in Haiti. I’ve gone too far. For my wife, it’s simple. She said, “If there are kids on the other end that you can’t rescue if you don’t quit, then the answer is simple, you quit. Whatever happens, happens but go get those kids.” That was the beginning of Operation Underground Railroad. We ended up rescuing over 120 kids in the Columbia case, believe it or not, in 2014. We never found the little boy in Haiti.
Each of these has crazy stories but we never found the little boy yet but rescued over 100 kids looking for them, including 2 children that my wife and I ended up adopting. The story in Columbia, Dan, you’ll be happy to know it. There’s a feature film that I’d love to show you. This was Fox-produced featured film starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino that was released.
It tells the whole story but that was the beginning of Operation Underground Railroad. We were in 2 countries in 2014 and then we’re in 26 countries replicating that model, infiltrating and working with law enforcement to rescue children from trafficking. To date, we’ve been able to rescue over 4,000 and had our 2,000 arrests. Things are going well from those very humble uncertain beginnings.
There’s one of the key questions I love to ask my audiences and anyone who’s in an influential position, when we need someone like you, Tim, who has the full support of your wife. As a power couple, how do you convert a passion to serve, a passion to find meaning into your life, into this greater purpose that inspires you to quit a secure job and focus on service before self? What triggered in you that allowed you to step up and take yourself to the next level and serve your fellow men and women?
There are two triggers. One, there’s one thing to see in the videos but when I saw that kid and he ran to me, my life changed right there forever to think that there are that many kids. Any of us have children or no children, students, nieces and nephews. There’s nothing sweeter than that innocence and to think that is being abused. That was the first trigger for me and what changed my life.
The second one happened in December of 2013 when I was having to make the decision. I was about to turn my gun and badge in and go for this. That first trigger, unfortunately, should have been but in my weakness, I forgot for a moment. I thought, “What am I doing? I have six children I have to take care of.” Statistically speaking, I have about a 5% chance or less that this non-profit is going to last more than a year. We’re also privatizing the rescue of kids, which has never been done before. What makes me think I can do this? It’s all of these what-ifs and doubt.
I started again and the second trigger lit me up. I had to go back to my wife again. She said to me, “You have two paths before you see this. There’s one path of going off on your own to a rescue kid to build this non-profit. How does that look to you?” I said, “It looks dark and scary. I can’t see anything.” She said, “What does the other path look like?” “It’s secure. I get to retire when I’m 50 with a pension and benefits until I die, a federal employee.” She said this to me that changed my perspective. It was the most important trigger.
She said, “Imagine that you have a meeting with your maker someday. You’re going to die one day, sit for your maker and he’s going to ask you what you did at this crossroads.” When I did that, she then said, “Look at those two paths. What do you see?” All of a sudden, the secure path looks scary as all get out. I didn’t know what I would lose or what blessings might not come to me because I chose not to pursue these innocent children who I knew we could rescue. The other path, though still, I couldn’t see, looks warm and light. It was amazing what she did to me. She led me through this scenario.
I encourage people to do that with whatever they’re confronted with because all of a sudden, you see the world as it is and not the fear that sometimes clouds our judgment. After that, there was no turning back. I turned that badge, that gun in and off we went. Sure enough, we were blessed and grown. It was one of the most powerful things that my wife taught me in December of 2013.
Practice makes perfect. All of that physical preparation is absolutely necessary when going on missions.
We’ve been able, privileged and honored to participate in your fundraising galas and get involved in that part of it. We always have an opportunity on that special evening that black-tie affair that attracts the who’s who of any industry of any community. I love to hear the story about why and how you came up with the name Operation Underground Railroad. Tie that into our American history so that everybody understands the mindset and heart set behind the beginnings of your organization.
That name was not casually placed. It was very deliberate. To tell that story, I have to go back to the early 2000s when I was asked to go to an undercover school. I was selected and asked to go to an undercover school to learn how to become a trafficker or a pedophile so that I could infiltrate these groups. I was scared to death like, “How am I going to pretend to be something so grotesque?” When I got through the training, it’s the undercover school back East.
I went through my first scenario. I was going up against one of the top undercover operators in the US Government who was role-playing. He was playing the role of a general smuggler. He didn’t know my story. Everybody goes to him with a different story that the trainers give them. Most of these guys are there to learn how to go undercover, the drug trafficker or arms smuggler but I was the only one in that group that was given this crazy assignment.
I go before this guy. There are cameras in the room and two-way mirrors. They’re going to assess me to see if I can do this. This guy has no idea what’s coming. I sit down with them. I started bringing up the subject in this role-play scenario of children and buying children. This guy turns green, almost stands up, and says, “Out of roll,” which means cut. He talked to the guys in the mirror, “What are you doing to me? I have a daughter. This is grotesque.” He walks off the so-called set. One of the instructors come up to me. He said, “Tim, I’ll be honest. We’re cutting edge here but we’re the first.”
Back in 2001, 2002, when this was happening, no one was talking about trafficking and knew what it was. It wasn’t on the radar and here I was in this high-end training. We were writing the curriculum. There was no curriculum, so I turned to the last time slavery existed in abundance. I thought, “This is slavery. I know that but what we’re talking about are these children who don’t own their bodies and they’re being sold.” I started reading every book I could in place of any present curriculum. I was reading books on The Underground Railroad and Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, who became my hero.
It was from that history that I learned what was required, everything for how to do undercover operations and how to utilize the media to bring awareness to a cause that there’s no awareness of. All these problems that the early abolitionists, especially those in the 19th Century, were dealing with. They solved. That’s how it ended and how they got enough momentum. Those early abolitionists became my teachers. I used them throughout my career. When I started my foundation, I knew right away. I don’t know what it’s going to be called but it has to be connected to these heroes of mine who taught me to do what I do. That born the name Operation Underground Railroad.
In every other guest on my show called power players, I focus on the three Ps. I believe that to be a power player. You have to have a passion. Your why is bigger than your why not. You have to have the correct preparation with the mindset that it’s not enough to say, “I will do my best. We must succeed in doing that,” which is necessary. You got to have enough passion and also live to continuously pursue that passion.
The next question is, will you share 1 or 2 of your most hair-raising experiences and talk about the preparation that goes into planning one of these undercover operations, the physical training, hand-to-hand combat and mental toughness? Take us through that phase of the preparation before you go on one of these missions.
All of that physical preparation is necessary and it’s practice makes perfect. You have to go through every scenario in hand-to-hand combat. What if someone comes at you with a gun or knife? That’s the past to second-hand knowledge that you react to. There’s no way to do it but to learn it and then practice. That’s not even the most difficult part of going undercover. Truly the most difficult part hearkening back to that instructor is what he went through in a role-play scenario.
I sit down, be able to talk normally, be happy and act like you’re friends with these people. That is hard. You’ve seen the images already of these guys raping and selling children. You’ve got to be their friend for two months, sometimes as long as it takes to get all the evidence and identify the children. It’s one of the most hair-raising experiences. We’ve been in dangerous situations going up against armed people.
I’ve had guns pointed at me in my undercover capacity, not knowing what to do and how to get out of it. Those stories are countless but the most difficult moment I remember was I was working a case and we were a week or so from doing the rescue of the children and my stomach aches. Every time I’m talking to these guys, I’m hanging out at their house. I’ve got a wire on if ever they discover that I have that. You’re dealing with that but it’s the stomach-turning element of these children like where are they, how long do I have to talk like this and pretend that I want this. It breaks you down.
It breaks you down hard and creates a lot of mental strain and things you deal with for years. I remember sitting across the table in Latin America a week away from an operation. One of these traffickers reaches across the table and holds up a picture of this little girl that’s about seven years old. She described how he had been raping her, what it feels like and how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t even get into the details. I remember thinking, “I’m going to either die now or I’m going to stand up, grab this guy and throw him into the ocean.” We were on a yacht. It’s that mental darkness that is more difficult than the physical.
There’s the healing from that. You hopefully get the kid. In that case, we did get the child and the guy did go to jail. Trying to come down from that, you come home and you’re a mess. PTSD is a real thing and all of our operators have some of that. That is the most dangerous thing, more than guns and knives. The more dangerous thing is how you could mentally be broken and that’s where faith and family are. For me, those are my cleansers and saviors. Also, having a wife that believes in what I’m doing, can be there, support me, have faith and a God that there is redemption for these children and there’s healing. If I didn’t have those things, I would either be long gone or probably would’ve died somehow. That’s the secret most people don’t recognize about this work.
You’ve triggered something in my past. I was the guy in the Reagan White House between 1983 and 1989, who took Mrs. Reagan’s Just Say No Program, a positive choice program to all 50 states. I would speak to 3 or 4 high schools every single day, so 140 days of school days a year. You do the math between ‘83 and ’89, I spoke to about six million teenagers in thousands of schools. I had an experience that I’ve never forgotten that you reminded me of, Tim. I got through doing my best in the high school assembly and we’re laughing, crying and talking about time management. If you’re doing something positive, you won’t have time to do something negative.
I gave it my best and visited a classroom. As I was walking down towards the classroom, I passed another classroom. The door was open and the teacher was saying, “You didn’t believe all that motivational crap, did you? Come on, let’s get serious.” He was completely unraveling everything I tried to do to fire these kids up in an hour-long assembly.
It’s not too far of a stretch for me to remember you telling stories about you putting your life on the line and assembling this amazing team of real-life undercover superheroes and you rescuing the kids only to find out that those you had arrested somehow bought their way out of jail or bribed the judges. Can you go to one specific experience where that happened? Related to the pursuit, the last P, it didn’t matter. You knew that you did your best. On top of that, you went back to see what else you could do to make sure these folks were rearrested. Do you remember the story you were telling?
Here’s a crazy story. This was in Haiti. Haiti’s a country most people don’t want to work in for that very reason because of the corruption. You go through this whole thing. You can arrest somebody. If they get out of jail, that’s going to be a black mark on your reputation and company because the whole story won’t get out. Someone will be like, “You failed. You must’ve done a bad job.” No one wants to work in Haiti for that reason or other countries that have a problem with corruption but this was a unique case where it goes back to that little boy I mentioned.
One of the reasons we started Operation Underground Railroad was to find this little boy. His name is Gardy. That’s why we were there. We were in pursuit of him. We found this other trafficker. We had nine traffickers. We had about 27 kids if I recall correctly. I remember the day before the operation thinking, “I don’t know if we’re going to do this.” I went to the boy’s fathers and suggested to them. I said, “I don’t know if I want to do this. This is big that these guys are high-end. They’re wealthier folks and they’re going to pay their way out of jail.” He said, “Tim, that might happen but if you give up now, you’ve given up on my son.”
I knew he was right. He told me about this contingency plan that he had in case that happened. We went ahead with the operation because I knew he was right. Giving up now is giving up on his son forever. It was a successful operation. The bad guys went to jail. The kids were liberated. Within a week, I get a phone call in the middle of the night. It was in Washington DC. I’ll never forget it was at 2:00 in the morning. I take out my phone and hear some guy in broken English and a very thick Haitian Creole accent telling me, “I know it was you. We’re coming after you.” I didn’t let anyone have my cell phone except a few of the police.
There, I knew what had happened. My phone number got out for one reason because the corruption did take over. I called the father of the boy. I say, “It happens. I know.” He says, “Let’s implement the contingency plan.” I said, “That contingency plan if we do that, it’s the most dangerous thing that I’ve ever done.” He says, “Yes but it’s the only thing.” We filmed every part of his operation from the second we met the traffickers on through the arrest and the whole thing.
You’re outed. You’re no longer undercover. They know who you are.
Our cover was blown but we have the truth. They had to fabricate the judges they paid off and fabricate the truth about what happened. They made up a story. We have the truth completely irrefutable because it was on camera. We planned to go to Port-au-Prince. This was a contingency doing a press conference and all the footage to the media. I said, “We’re dead.” He said, “It’s true. The Rotary call the Port-au-Prince. They’re going to host this for you. They’d tell you that for sure, they can get you safely to the venue but after your venue, they can’t guarantee that you can get back to the airport because you don’t know how high this goes.”
“One more thing, the media won’t come unless you bring a famous Haitian with you.” I said, “What? Who’s a famous Haitian?” He gave me a list. The top of the list was a Congresswoman. First Congresswoman whose roots are from Haiti and the first Black GOP Congressman of all time. They said her name was Mia Love and there she is on the list.
They said, “You’ve got to find her, Tim. You got to see if she’ll come with you because if someone like her doesn’t come, their media’s not going to come.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Do you know that I only know one Congresswoman and it happens to be my Congresswoman, who happens to live about 3 miles from my house and it’s Mia Love?”
They said, “What?” They had no idea. It was this providential moment. I have Mia’s cellphone number, so I called her. I said, “Mia, I’m going to ask you something. As a friend, I would advise you to say no to what I’m going to ask you but as the CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, I’m still asking you to say yes. This is super dangerous but I don’t know what else to do.” She didn’t even bat eye. She said, “I’m in. Let’s go.” We go down there and lay it all out. Mia stands proud. She speaks fluent Haitian Creole. She got the attention.
Some shifty guy was standing in the back of the room. I had my eyes on him. He approached us as we were walking out. Dan, we’re walking out looking for the gunfire at this point. We busted out who. We don’t know how it goes. This guy walked up to me and said, “I’m from the President’s Office. The President wants to see you first thing in the morning.” I said, “We’re dead. We’re gone.”
I don’t know if he is the president’s guy. We waited in the morning and this entourage pulled up. It looks legit. We prayed over it and said, “What do we do?” “Let’s go for it.” We jumped in and sure enough, they took us to the Presidential Palace. Even as we were rolling in the Palace, I was still suspicious like, “Are we going to be thrown into a dungeon? I don’t know what’s going to happen.” The President met us. Mia got right in his face, busted out her Haitian Creole and told him, “You can’t let this happen in your country. These are real children.” This guy stood up and said, “Whatever you want me to do, Congresswomen, I’m going to do.”
That moment he committed to issuing arrest warrants with the truth that he possessed and sure enough, we were able to go back in the coming weeks and months and re-arrest those and others. We rescued other children who we didn’t know existed before we had the opportunity to re-arrest the traffickers. It was the main story and it is about persistence. How far are you willing to go? You can always find an excuse to say no to anything. There’s always a reason to say no. Being persistent and finding the reasons, even in the face of death, was something that my team, especially in this case, former Congressman Mia Love, was willing and able to do. With that, children were set free from sex slavery.
Get outside yourself and love your neighbor. It’s key to success.
It breeds the old story about the starfish. There are many hundreds of thousands of children. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. How many do you think are involved?
We think there are millions every year.
Someone could say, “Tim, give up. You can’t possibly save the world and make that big of a difference in your response.” It’s made a difference to that one. Let’s wind down our time here, passion, preparation, and pursuit of that passion. What I’ve done with all my other guests is to focus on Professor Randy Power. She was famous for acquainting the speech title last lecture. I want my audience to have one Tim Ballard takeaway. If you had one day to live and could consolidate one message to the world, what would it be?
Get outside yourself and love your neighbor. It’s key to success. One of our single biggest donors is Tony Robbins. He taught that principle. He’s taught it to me and even deeper ways on a personal level that the secret to living is giving. It truly is a truth. When you give of yourself, first of all, you’re helping someone, which is important. You are serving God and man in that way. In my mind, the science behind giving is crazy. To me, given it’s God induced in design.
When you give of yourself, what you get in return immediately, your body releases the chemical reaction and cocktail of this beautiful oxytocin, serotonin and all these things that then provide you with crazy attributes that anyone wants. Everything from creativity, optimism to courage, things we all need. God blesses you right away, even through the science of the physiological parts of the body. To give is not only you’re serving others, but you’re serving and allowing yourself to do greater things. That’s it. Love one another and believe in that principle. It makes all the difference. It makes you a happy person.
My guest has been Tim Ballard. I want to have you on again. I went to Erbil, Mosul and Curtis Stan and got a little street bike. I want the world to know that you’re up rushing in Operation Underground Railroad that you founded and it’s focused on sex trafficking but with the good work you’re doing with Glenn Beck Foundation, going to the Syrian border and refugee camps, you truly are an angel on this earth. You and your wife are a power couple. That ties right into how I usually conclude.
I love to say this with all due respect to you and what you’ve taught us, Tim. We all need to remember, when you finally decide to be a power player, the power play begins in you. Until next time. It’s Tim Ballard. He eloquently inspired us to do. Quantify your takeaway and go make a power play. I loved what you said, Tim, quoting Tony Robbins, the secret to living is giving. Thanks so much. I appreciate you. God bless you and your family.
Thank you so much, Dan. I’m glad to be on the show.
About Tim Ballard
Tim Ballard is a anti-human trafficking activist and author. He is the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) and a board member of The Nazarene Fund and Slavery Free World. His work includes the development of software and internet investigations specifically to infiltrate file-share networks where traffickers exchange child pornography. Ballard has assisted in the training of many law enforcement officers in these procedures. Additionally, he has also testified before the United States Congress and has recommended procedures and practices for rescuing children from trafficking rings. Ballard has credited his organization with rescuing thousands of trafficking victims, although his numbers have been disputed, and O.U.R. has been criticized for a lack of transparency and exaggerating stories. In 2020, Tim Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad were the subjects of several investigations.