A few weeks ago, while scanning a few articles in a print copy of Foreign Policy, my go-to magazine for all things outside U.S. borders, I chanced upon a piece about human trafficking.
I began to read about how a group of Americans in Acapulco posing as sex tourists are really part of something called Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). The piece traces how they’ve invited some pimps and their girls over for an afternoon of fun when suddenly the local police rush in and arrest all the bad guys.
It’s gripping narrative and fun to read. Then the author spins us some background, how “strange bedfellows -- feminists who opposed sex work, politicians from both political parties, and right-wing Christians -- allied behind the cause of defeating modern-day slavery.” A few paragraphs later, it introduces Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR and how he got into the sex trafficking busting business. Then:
Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work. “The other option was to face my maker one day and tell him why I didn’t do it,” he says of his decision to start combating crimes against children. Ballard insists that religious belief isn’t a requirement to join OUR but notes that the staff members often pray together. If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he says, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” (In a February interview with LDS Living magazine, Ballard was more candid about his faith: He said he launched OUR after being instructed by God to “find the lost children.”)
Responding to the call for a moral crusade, a handful of private organizations have adopted what is now widely known as a raid-and-rescue strategy: identify where people are being sold for sex, send in police to haul them out, and arrest traffickers.
Today, OUR has a full-time staff of 12 people and a stable of trained volunteers, most of them Mormon. They include former military and intelligence officers, nurses and Army medics, cops and martial arts instructors. From small offices in Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Anaheim, California, OUR has coordinated more than a dozen raids in Latin America and the Caribbean. It claims to have saved at least 250 trafficking victims, including 123 -- 55 of whom were children -- in three stings coordinated across Colombia last October.
Screech of brakes. What did the article say? Mormons?
Sure enough, activists from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be newbies on the stop-the-trafficking front, but they’ve already made quite an impact and they’re good at bring in the funds as we see here:
Simultaneously, OUR is making a public splash by amplifying the drama of its tactics and the ways people can support the group’s cause without ever busting into a brothel. A documentary movie, called The Abolitionists, has been screened privately in select U.S. theaters, and a proposed TV series about OUR is currently being filmed. The organization’s “give a Lincoln, save a slave” campaign, which like the term “underground railroad” conjures noble notions of 1800s anti-slavery efforts, asks people to become “abolitionists” by giving $5 a month. Supporters can sign up to receive text-message alerts “when children are saved.” If they’re big funders, they can get front-row seats: The tech executive watching the Acapulco operation gave more than $40,000.
I called up the March/April issue of the LDS magazine referred to in the article and found many more comments about how Ballard’s faith inspired him -- and other Mormons -- to go into exposing trafficking and doing dangerous undercover work that precedes a successful sting operation. The piece is loaded with references to prayer, God’s direction and even the Mormon prophet Moroni.
So, why couldn’t the Foreign Policy reporter get even half that amount of quotes? Was his source wary of talking about faith with a secular magazine? Or did the reporter not know which questions to ask?
The reporter -- Foreign Policy embedded an assistant editor along with OUR to report on their doings -- does point out more LDS connections including Mormon actors and actresses who’ve come on board plus its merger with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, named after the then-14-year-old Mormon teenager who was kidnapped in 2002 and held for nine months.
The story details the good and the bad about organizations that specialize in dramatic rescues and whether they work long-term in saving young people from the streets. But I wanted to hear more about the Mormons. In a way, OUR’s work is the antithesis of an LDS mission. Instead of sending teams in to save the natives, these are Mormons who are insuring that a lot of the natives will end up in jail. The kids are referred to social service agencies run by the governments of the host country.
But why, one wonders, is OUR doing its own thing instead of combining forces with International Justice Mission, a Virginia-based anti-sex trafficking group that conducts raids similar to OUR. Is OUR able to milk money out of Mormon donors that IJM and other agencies like it can’t get to? And are LDS contacts overseas tipping OUR as to children they personally know are trafficked? What kind of Mormon network is operating here? Are a lot of staff and volunteers at OUR people who ran into children being sold for sex when they were on the mission field?
Come to think of it, this piece has more religion ghosts than a haunted house.
I’m also curious why the OUR folks are allowing the magazine to run photos of the major players. Don’t they think that traffickers will see the piece online and blow their cover sooner or later? And are they aware of the spiritual and yes, sexual dangers in this occupation, as outlined in the book God in a Brothel?
Please understand: I’m glad the article ran. Foreign Policy needs more pieces like this that bring in the God element. I just would have liked to have known more of the spiritual back story and the relationship -- or lack thereof -- between this group and other faith-based groups in this tragic line of work.