We can all collectively raise a fist in triumph as the global fight against the sexual exploitation of children won a much needed victory earlier this month.
Off the coast of a northeastern Haitian resort, a crowd of young girls between the ages of 8 and 14 years old were hurried onto a fancy yacht where it is believed they would spend an entire night being sexually abused by men from Australia and the United States.
In reality, though, these child sex slaves were only a few short hours away from freedom.
For most people, ending the sexual exploitation of children is not an issue they confront on a day-to-day basis. While abhorrent, the relative secrecy of the trade means it gets little press in mainstream media. But volunteers with Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) are different. To them, it’s not just a global issue—it’s a personal one, too.
“You start to think, ‘OK, what if this was my child? How would I be? What would I feel?’ And it pulls you apart,” Pete, one of the undercover operatives, told Sunday Night.
That singular reasoning has motivated the organization, made up of ex-CIA and Department of Homeland Security personnel, to travel the globe and fight to end the exploitation of children. And last week, after months of preparation and investigation they won a much needed victory.
Undercover agents and police joined forces, resulting in the arrest of 9 human traffickers, and the rescue of 29 children from sexual bondage.
Last year, OUR volunteers began a long investigation to infiltrate and then dismantle one of Haiti’s child-sex trafficking rings. To do so, they posed as sex tourists who wanted to plan an elaborate party aboard a donated yacht and approached various known low-level traffickers for young girls to serve as their “entertainment.”
It took months, but they finally were able to make inroads into the Haitian trade, and connect with a few high-level pimps who agreed to supply 29 young girls, all from the ages of 8 to 14.
Crafty as the plan was, though, it took nearly a year before traffickers felt comfortable enough to make the deal.
Naturally, playing the role of a pedophile was difficult for some, even if their cause was noble.
“Part of it is a disgusting part, and that’s being one of the pedophiles, and I’m there to party, be one of the party goers and actually pretend that I want to have sex with one of these girls,” Pete, an Australian paramedic and undercover agent with the Operation Underground Railroad, told Sunday Night.
Vivian, another former detective and mother of two, whose role it was to keep the girls safe, said: “What goes through my head is the whole mother instinct; wanting to nurture them, give them a hug and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.'”
“What’s gut wrenching is I actually don’t know if it’s going to be OK,” she said.
There were ample reasons to worry. On top of the physical trauma these young girls received, traffickers have been known to kill their girls to avoid prosecution. If any word of the sting reached their ears, then the plan could turn bloody very quickly.
Undeterred by the danger, the trap was set.
Still, the volunteers were determined. They wired the yacht with cameras and recording equipment to capture the evidence necessary to prosecute the criminals.
When the day finally came, the traffickers led the girls to the resort and hurried them onto the moored yacht.
Luckily, they did not suspect anything was amiss. Still, their brazen attitudes were shocking. According to Sunday Night, they bragged and laughed about the girl’s ages and high-fived one another once they were on board. This was particularly disgusting for Pete.
But he also knew that justice would soon be served. Volunteers were able to film the entire encounter from start to finish and gather enough evidence to send the criminals to prison. They still lacked one last piece, however—the money transfer. The traffickers refused to make the deal aboard the vessel.
So, after agreeing on a price—$300 for each girl—they returned to the resort to make the exchange. But the traffickers were in for a surprise.
After the money changed hands, Haitian police and SWAT teams appeared carrying machine guns, and they demanded that everyone drop to the ground.
In total, nine high to mid-ranking traffickers were arrested that day, and 29 young girls were rescued.
The nine mid to high-level traffickers were arrested on the spot, and the young girls were now in the hands of the authorities.
It was not the end of their journey, though. From the boat, they were swiftly taken to a safe house where they were put under 24/7 guard. At the location, they received medical attention. Despite their victory, though, things seemed bleak.
As they arrived at the safe house, Matt Daron, the investigative reporter for Sunday Night who embedded himself with the rescue team, felt that the house looked like “the saddest places on Earth.”
Indeed, as medical staff looked over the girls, more examples of their difficult life became apparent. Some of these girls, even those as young as 11 years old, were pregnant, and others already had their own children.
Still, while the formative years of their lives were traumatic, there was still hope.
“These are the world’s forgotten children,”
Maria Atkinson, an American-born volunteer who runs a refuge for survivors of the sex trade in Haiti told Sunday Night. “They have been through more than we could ever imagine, and yet they find a way back.”
Now that they have been rescued, all the girls will be given the opportunity to go to school and heal their mental and physical wounds.
Significant work still remains. According to UNICEF, over 5 million children are sexually exploited every year in the international human trafficking trade. This is a global issue—not something endemic to the developing world, even though some people might still say it’s not their problem.
“It takes some engagement to say, ‘No, I’m more than just Australian. I’m part of this.’ Borders and boundaries mean nothing when you look into the kid’s eyes,’’ Pete told Sunday Night.
Unfortunately, it is too easy to ignore problems like these, since the children involved are usually abandoned or from struggling families. Willful ignorance of this problem has allowed it to fester and get far worse. But together, we can help end this insult to our collective humanity and protect our children.
If you would like to get involved, please visit Operation Underground Railroad to help save exploited children.