Red Light

The Day I Was Arrested For Human Trafficking I participated in a human trafficking sting last week. Read the first part of the story here.

It’s not hard to find children being sold as sex slaves. The poorer the country, the easier it is to find someone willing to trade in children in great quantity and at a low price. In the Dominican Republic the going rate for a night with a child is $150. Some places it is much more, others much, much less. Since the earthquake in Haiti, the influx of Haitian children being kidnapped and sold into the Dominican sex trade has been overwhelming. They are kept in small rooms with small windows and small hopes. Of course, not all children being trafficked 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.

Across countries, languages and races the process of procuring little girls and boys for a few hours, days, months or permanently is very much the same. Ask questions of a few of the right people, show an ability to pay, smile and joke while you talk about what you’ve done to kids in the past. Boast a little. Be comfortable. Be friendly. Don’t flinch. It’s not as hard as you would think. Trading in children is abhorrent. There is a small part of us that feels like we would be able to sense the smell of 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.

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, 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 four weeks ago, 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.

Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR, has created an organization that is as precise as it is compassionate. When OUR goes into a country to rescue children, they do so in partnership with local and state government.Once the children are rescued they are put in the care of OUR approved non-profit organizations that also work fully with local governments. The Dominican government was especially cooperative, providing police detail and increased insight into the local situation. The men and women involved with OUR have decades of combined experience in Homeland Security, ICE, the FBI, military and police work.  I used to think the A-Team was a figment of the fevered 80s. These people are the real A-Team, providing enough know how and creative thinking to put the fictional John Smith to shame.

The preparation in the house the night before the sting reflected their expertise. Cameras were placed in every room while the exits and floor plan were studied and secured. These were not cowboys out for a thrill. They are men who take the harm to children very seriously and are called to this work. There were some smiles and a few moments of laughter, but they were subdued. Tim and a team leader held a briefing on the operation before bed. We were each given assignments, discussed potential problems, were instructed on our exit strategy and placement during the sting.

Upon arrival, the kids would be taken into the backyard to the pool away from their pimps. I was assigned to the backyard along with three other men. Our job was to keep the mood light, serve the kids soda and snacks, play ball and 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. There would be other operatives in the room and one undercover Dominican cop. 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. Those of us who would be in the backyard were told to retreat by the outside stairs to a second story room while the cops took the house and secured the kids.

After the meeting, I took a shower to wash the travel and sadness off of my face and hair. When the water got cold, I got out and into my pajamas. My room had a balcony looking over the city and I took my notebook out there, intending to write. The humidity attached itself to my wet skin and the sounds of a city full of dogs, laughter and late nights came out of the dark. I stared out into the night looking for something I couldn’t name. When I didn’t find it, I went to bed.

I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next day was hot and bright and I tried to open my eyes wide enough to see the light. Two of the undercover operatives were bringing the pimps and a bus full of children to the house around one. The team spent the morning finalizing mission details and getting the house ready for the party. The oddest moment was when we took dozens of beer bottles to the upstairs bathrooms and dumped them down the sink. After rinsing them out, we filled them with Red Bull. Most of the operatives involved in the sting don’t drink, so this was a way to appear drunk and ready without actually consuming any alcohol. (By the end of the sting, I’d drunk three Red Bulls – that HAS to be worse for you than the beer that was originally in those bottles. But man, did I feel awake.)

I put decorations around the pool while the film crew finished their preparations. I’d been struggling with a question all morning and finally decided to trust one of them with it. Arms full of blown up balloons, I walked over 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 I would never see again. All that mattered was that they were saved. I knew that. But my head couldn’t convince my heart fast enough to keep the tears off my face.

One of the operatives opened the back door and told us the kids would be arriving in three minutes. We finished arranging snacks and then grabbed a few beer bottles. 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 and I began writing notes on the inside of my heart. 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. One set of girls had been sold that morning for the very first time by their grandmother. She’d hit them out of the car and onto our waiting bus. 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 had all gathered together and looked at us expectantly.

I don’t speak Spanish, so I started moving from the outside fridge to the kids, distributing soda bottles to anyone who would take them. One of the operatives came from a family of singers and performers, he gathered a group of girls together and asked if they could sing. They nodded yes, and started to clap and sing out 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 just inside, negotiating the services and sale of each child. They didn’t seem to notice the noise. The backdoor opened and my team leader called for me.

“Megan, Tim wants you inside.”

I looked at him for a moment and set down my beer bottle and walked in. When I got inside, he handed me red bull in a scotch glass and then walked back across the room. I leaned against a wall and looked on, 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 would confer 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 table was full of pesos. Right now, the currency exchange is 43 pesos to one US dollar. I had underestimated the time it takes to count out thousands of dollars in a currency so deflated. The room was filled with the excited laughter of the pimps and the smack of money against the hard surface of the table. Each hard sound was representative of one more child, one more sexual service purchased. 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 back at me and then got up and asked a few men who I was. Was I one of the men’s wives? No, just a friend, they said. He looked back at me and walked over.

“Espanol?”

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.

“You having a good time? Alan is great. He is having a good time.”

I smiled back and laughed.

“Isn’t Alan the best? He’s a good guy. I like him because he knows how to throw a party.”

Fidel’s eyes fixed on mine and his smile got a little wider.

“So you like to party?”

Leaning in a little, I giggled again,

“Oh, I love to party.”

He had moved his hand back to my arm when people in the room started shouting. While we were talking, the deals had been finished and the signal given. Police men holding AR-15s were advancing into the room. Felipe pushed past me. I walked to the back door, still sure I was supposed to follow my protocol and climb up those backyard stairs. When I opened the door, 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 we were laying one was white and newly cleaned. With my chin pushed to the floor, I watched the operation finish on its reflective surface. After everyone was secured, the pimps began to be led out, one by one, separated and handcuffed. My arms ached. One of the operatives across the room caught my eye and winked. Everything was okay. Operatives and pimps were still spread out across the room’s surface when the back door opened one more time. 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.

Some of them cried as they approached. Sniffles and hiccups and the noise of sounds being kept behind gritted teeth. They stepped over me and around me and on me. I was just one more obstacle as they made their way to a place where they would be given the option to choose a new life. At that moment, I hated myself. I hated that this was all pretend for me, that I could step out of their reality while the remained immersed in it. I hated that I was the last obstacle before they could walk out that open door. I hated myself for my inability to do more. 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.

One last post tomorrow to wrap things up. Until, then… Want to help? Be smarter than I was while laid out on that tile. Know that you CAN do more. Head to OUR and sign up to become an Abolitionist. With a recurring monthly donation of just $5,  you help fund new missions every single month. For the cost of a few diet cokes, you get to directly participate in and fund the freedom of children as young as two years old. Let’s abolish slavery, shall we? I know, I KNOW, we can make a difference. I’ve seen it. Now, let's get started.

*not their real names. Not even close.