Operation Underground Railroad: Carving a niche in the U.S. and abroad

Operation Underground Railroad

Who is your Superman? Is it your parents, or a teacher from long ago? Perhaps a sibling or friend who stuck up for you when you needed help.

For children lost in a cruel world of child sex trafficking, Tim Ballard is their Superman.

It seems to be a role for which Ballard, a BYU graduate, was destined.

“He would always wear a Superman cape,” said Tim’s mom, Melanie.

Coincidentally, as a child, he also had an FBI hat hanging on his bedpost. So, it’s safe to say Tim Ballard is a man destined to help people.

His latest efforts include Operation Underground Railroad, a foundation focused on rescuing and retrieving children trapped in sex trafficking rings in all parts of the world.


A 12-year veteran Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security working undercover at home and abroad for the Child Sex Tourism Jump Team, Ballard’s job was to infiltrate trafficking organizations that were selling children. He was also a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and served a stint at the CIA as well.

“We had success but we got to the point where we couldn’t save all of the children that we knew we could save. That’s why we started this program,” explained Ballard.

“We can kick through the red tape and just move.”

According to a study published by the Polaris Project, human trafficking is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world. It is estimated that over 100,000 children are currently trapped in a human trafficking situation within the U.S. and millions more abroad.

Despite recent legislation such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000, child sex trafficking still generates billions of dollars worldwide each year.

According to an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, the areas particularly troublesome include South and Southeast Asia, areas around Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, Haiti, and Central and South America.

Ballard left his government position in January 2014. In part, because of the frustrating circumstances often stalling their efforts to save the lives of children. While Ballard doesn’t promote an anti-government stance when it comes to enforcing trafficking laws, he does recognize the advantages a private organization can offer.

“The private sector can often be more effective in successfully dealing with this issue. There are no limits or delays waiting for approval. It offers more flexibility. Governments are calling us now because we can arrive quickly to any location. They recognize that we can do things that they can’t do -- we can move in ways they can’t move.”

Operation Underground Railroad is not a government-sponsored foundation. However, cooperating with local governments and the US embassies is standard practice.

“The response is always totally positive,” said Ballard. “We want to come in through the front door. We work WITH them.”

“This problem,” explains Ballard, “has only recently been dealt with. Even our government didn’t start creating laws about this issue until 2000. Other countries have followed suit in creating laws, but just recently. Now, they have laws in place but don’t know what to do next.”

Limited resources and staff within these governments is also an issue.

“It really requires a change of perspective,” said Ballard. “They (local law enforcement) have to respond to a dead body, for example -- reactive crimes that they must respond to. But rescuing children is a proactive response. You have to go out and look. They rarely have the time or resources. So, that’s where we come in. Here are your laws -- how about we try these out?”

While the majority of missions to other countries is covert, it is not uncommon for local sex traffickers to seek them out for a possible sale.

“Typically, since we appear like traffickers, people will approach us with info or children. The local police are always involved,” said Matt Cooper, chief of staff for Operation Underground Railroad.

Once the children are retrieved, Matt, Tim and the team find out if the children have any family. They also utilize trustworthy orphanages to help and house displaced children.

Since its beginning in January 2014, Operation Underground Railroad has rescued nearly 100 children. They do it by relying entirely on private donations. It’s a rather impressive track record, and it has caught the attention of a number of political leaders and another name that most Americans will recognize.

“When Tim approached me about his mission of rescuing the children and going out getting them, said Elizabeth Smart, “I just knew I wanted to be on that end.”

In the summer of 2002, Elizabeth Smart made headlines when news of her violent abduction at knife point spread across the nation. Later, her name became synonymous with courage and survival when she was found nine months later. Since that time, Smart has been a beacon of strength in developing and supporting programs that teach, support and empower children.

“I’ve been on the receiving end, and I know how badly I wanted to be rescued so to have that opportunity to reach out to these children and to help rescue them, I just knew I want to be there.”

“We are the jump team,” said Cooper, when describing the unique key to their success. “If we get information, we can be there tomorrow. We will go anywhere and everywhere to save a child.”

For more information on the success and history of Operation Underground Railroad or donation information, please visit www.ourrescue.org.