Watch CBS News

One man's mission to rescue child sex-trafficking victims

Colombian authorities, in conjunction with an American non-profit group, were able to break up a child trafficking ring
Undercover agent helps bust up Colombian child sex ring 03:05

Last weekend, police broke up a major sex-trafficking ring in Colombia, which has become a destination for tourists looking for sex with boys and girls.

The police had help from an American who went undercover to rescue the children.

Tim Ballard has one mission: to track down child traffickers. Four months ago Colombian authorities asked him to investigate a tip that children were being sold there as sex slaves.

American Tim Ballard helped authorities in Colombia bust a major sex-trafficking ring, saving 54 children. CBS News

"Within a half hour this individual walks up to me asking me what I'm here for, what I want and within minutes he tells me that I have kids here as young as 11 years old," Ballard says.

A former Homeland Security agent, Ballard now heads up Operation Underground Railroad, a non-profit group that rescues trafficked kids. After that first meeting, the Colombians asked him to put together a sting.

Operation Underground Railroad spent months planning -- renting a house, rigging it with hidden cameras to document the crime, coordinating with Colombian authorities and negotiating with the traffickers.

"How they find these kids is they lure them in by pretending to have a modeling agency," Ballard explains. "They target them at nine- or 10-years-old and they were telling us that at about 11, they're ready for sex. They're ready to be sold."

What is it like to look into that kind of person's eyes?

"It's horrifying and this is why: Because I have to smile in the face of evil," Ballard says.

Less than 24 hours after the operatives landed, the suspected traffickers arrived on the island and the final deal with the undercover team began.

Fifty-four boys and girls, aged 11 to 18, were ushered in for what had been billed as a sex party. They were given candy and drinks and told to wait in a small room.

"This little 11-year-old boy, I remember, he asked... one of my operatives for some cocaine," Ballard recalls with tears in his eyes. "He said, 'They usually give me something because I'm really scared. To kind of numb myself.'"

By the time the deal was done, the alleged traffickers were set to make $25,000.

That transaction was never completed.

American Tim Ballard helped authorities in Colombia bust a major sex-trafficking ring, saving 54 children. CBS News

Twenty-five Colombian special operatives stormed the party, arresting five suspects -- four men and one former beauty queen -- all charged with child trafficking.

The victims, 29 of whom are under 18, were evacuated, given medical exams and placed in a rehabilitation center where specialists are working to undo the damage.

"Right before we got on the boat, we walked by the room where the kids were and a couple of the kids came up to the screen," Ballard says. "And they put their hand up on the window) and I go to touch their hand... and I see that there's liberation now.

Liberation, one child at a time.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.