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How a ‘Ragtag Group of Volunteers’ — Including ‘Walking Dead’ Star — Brought Down Major Sex-Trafficking Ring & Helped Rescue 55 Victims

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"I spent 12 years as a special agent, undercover operative for the United States government, doing this, and learned how to do it."

Photo via Nightline

BOGOTA, Colombia (TheBlaze/AP) -- Authorities have broken up a major sex-trafficking ring in Colombia that used drugs to force underage boys and girls into prostitution, the chief prosecutor's office said Tuesday.

The operation resulted in the arrest of 11 Colombians in the cities of Armenia, Cartagena and Medellin and the rescue of 55 sex-trafficking victims, one as young as 11.

The prosecutor's office said some of the young people were drugged with ecstasy and cocaine. The ring operated out of clandestine sites and massage parlors, frequently relying on taxi drivers to bring in foreign clients looking for underage sex, prosecutors said.

During the raids, an 11-year-old girl broke down in tears, saying she had been sold for $1,000 because she was a virgin, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a statement.

Colombian officials acted in conjunction with U.S. law enforcement authorities, who arrested a man in the United States who allegedly traveled to Medellin to have sex and film himself with underage prostitutes.

Two U.S. nonprofit groups dedicated to eradicating sexual exploitation of children, Breaking Chains and Operation Underground Railroad, assisted with the case.

Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, was part of a sting operation that apparently caught alleged sex trafficker named Marcus Bronschidle on video bartering over the price of sex with young girls. Ballard is also a former CIA agent and former U.S. Homeland Security investigator specializing in child sex trafficking cases.

Tim Ballard Tim Ballard, shown here pretending to be under arrest, is the founder of a group that put together a massive child sex trafficking sting operation in cooperation with Colombian authorities in Cartagena, Colombia. (Photo and caption via Nightline)

“I spent 12 years as a special agent, undercover operative for the United States government, doing this, and learned how to do it. The problem was that the vast majority of the kids that we would identify, we couldn't save. They weren't U.S. cases,” Ballard said.

In Colombia, sex traffickers must be caught exchanging money for the young girls in order to be prosecuted. Prostitution itself is legal in the country.

“It’s going to be about $200 to $300 for the evening, for a child,” Ballard reportedly told Bronschidle in a conversation captured on video.

In order to catch the alleged sex traffickers, a "ragtag group of volunteers," including filmmakers and even CrossFit instructors, hatched a plan to throw a "bachelor party" as a cover and wired the entire house with hidden cameras. 

More on the massive sting operation from ABC:

Ballard’s team features a ragtag group of volunteers, some off-the-books operatives and one former Navy SEAL, but many just regular civilians. There are two CrossFit instructors from Utah, a door-to-door salesman, and even Hollywood actress Laurie Holden, who starred in “The Walking Dead.”

A group of filmmakers, led by Chet Thomas and Darrin Fletcher, have been following them, documenting the missions on hidden cameras for a new film, "The Abolitionists" and gathering evidence to hand over to authorities.

 [...]

On the day of the party, Ballard’s team got the house ready. They even hung a sign outside with balloons, like a teenager’s birthday party, so the traffickers wouldn’t seem out of place bringing young girls into the house. Once the girls arrived, Holden’s job was to keep them occupied by the pool area while Ballard and the undercover officers worked to catch the traffickers on tape exchanging money. Colombian authorities quietly hid, waiting for Ballard’s go sign to move in and bust the party.

Then the sex traffickers started to arrive with the girls. Unaware that hidden cameras are rolling or that police were waiting, Bronschidle, one of the sex traffickers, talked up one of the girls, who he said was 14 and was ready for “everything.” Ballard, still undercover in his role as the best man, waited for him to make the move that would put him away in prison and save the girls.

All the victims are now in the care of Colombia's child protection agency. The Colombian defendants face between five and 20 years imprisonment if convicted.

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