FEATURE – An undercover international human trafficking mission to rescue enslaved and sexually exploited children and adults proved a success Oct. 11 and may be, according to sources involved, one of history’s largest human trafficking rescue operations to be conducted in one day. Photojournalist and St. George News columnist Dallas Hyland participated in the mission.
Three simultaneous operations based in Colombia in the cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Armenia resulted in the arrest of 15 perpetrators and the rescue of 123 people – 55 of whom were children.
In the city of Armenia, Colombia, just over the mountain range from Bogota, Colombia, Hyland, along with a team of agents with Operation Underground Railroad, a privately funded group dedicated to eradicating the sexual exploitation of children, executed the mission known as “Clear Hope.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, Attaché Office in Colombia, and the Colombian Attorney General’s Technical Investigative Corps Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit assisted in the operation.
“It’s my understanding that I’m one of the only reporters ever to go in on the negotiations on the front end and pose like I did,” Hyland said. “I became sort of a dual role, an integrated part in OUR’s operation, as well as a cameraman and sort of a frontline reporter. This particular trip was advantageous because it enabled me to get really close to something that is a good story that needs to be told by way of an existing operation. I can’t tell you how fortunate I felt and (expletive) scared at the same time.”
A role to play
Hyland said he got involved with the operation while working for a production company shooting a documentary film called “The Abolitionist,” which centers on sex trafficking and Operation Underground Railroad – also known as OUR.
“They were shorthanded camerapeople,” Hyland said, “so they asked me if I would consider coming down as a B-roll camera person and I said ‘yeah.’ That’s basically how I got into it.”
The camera crew left for Colombia on Wednesday, Oct. 8. The actual bust took place that Saturday and a premeeting with the perpetrator took place Thursday night. That’s when Hyland said his roles crossed over.
“I started working out as a cameraperson for the production side of it with the understanding that I could maybe do a story while I was down there,” Hyland said. “So my foremost job was to be a cameraperson for ‘The Abolitionist’; the story and being a reporter being second.”
On Thursday, Hyland was asked by a principal of Operation Underground Railroad if he would consider wearing hidden cameras and posing as a bodyguard for two American businessmen who were looking to purchase children in the sex trafficking trades.
Hyland wore a camera hidden in the lapel of his backpack and one hidden in his sunglasses.
“I think the advantage to having me there wasn’t that they needed a backup bodyguard – that was just the cover because I looked that part – but that they would have cameras that were covering the whole transaction,” Hyland said, “including the undercover agents and the perp. It was probably advantageous to have an outside camera view, which is what I did.”
Humans for sale
On Thursday night, Hyland and the undercover agents met with the man who would broker 37 children – 31 girls and six boys – for roughly 14 million pesos.
“He came down and met with us and sold us 37 children like some people sell mattresses,” Hyland said.
On Friday, intelligence surfaced that suggested the sex trafficking broker was getting spooked and that he was talking about not bringing the children. There was talk of scrubbing the mission.
“However,” Hyland said, “on Thursday night when we met with him, he was showing us pictures on his phone of clearly minor children engaged in sexual acts and it was very damning and so it was presented to the prosecutor that we should go through with the mission.”
OUR rented a villa outside of Armenia where the sex trafficking broker was to bring the children and the sex-for-money trade would occur.
“It was a farming area very close by to some coffee plantations,” Hyland said. “It was gated like most homes there are. There was a staff of people living there – a housekeeper that lived in a second portion of the house with his wife and daughter and then three women came and cooked and cleaned all day long while we were there – none of them having any idea what was about to go down. I think they were a little bit surprised when they came home Saturday afternoon to hordes of cops and Colombian military.”
On Saturday, Hyland said, he was positioned at the gate, what you would call “on point,” to let the perpetrators in. There were two CTI agents with Hyland posing as waiters and waitresses.
Six guys were to play the excited American businessmen who had been brought down by the key business players who set up the deal to engage in sex tourism.
“It was unknown at that point: Was he going to show up at all? Was he going to show up and try to rob us? Was he going to show up in force and try to take us by force? Which would have been a bad decision because there was like 30 armed CTI agents on the property,” Hyland said. “Or is he just going to show up and do the deal? But I was just right out front feeling very vulnerable.”
The trafficker arrived and brought two accomplices, Hyland said, including, he said: “one guy, who I don’t know who he was – if he was involved with (the sex trafficker) or if he just picked the wrong day to back his friend up – and then the girl that came along with him was either his girlfriend or his wife. She had a black eye and we think that she was probably one of his recruiters and one of the people that groomed the girls to participate and behave well in that environment.”
The girls were in the back with the six men posing as American businessmen while the deal was being closed.
“When the deal closed, when the money had exchanged hands, handshakes were given and then I knew that we had a countdown period where the doors were going to break down,” Hyland said, “and even though I knew what the signal was – Liliana ordered a drink – and the call was made and I knew it was coming; I mean, I knew the door was going to get kicked in and the perpetrator was going to be taken into custody but nonetheless, it still scared the (expletive) out of me when they all came in.”
While the sex trafficker was being arrested at the villa, his home was raided by authorities who found “a brothel and a treasure trove of child pornography,” Hyland said.
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the Colombian nationals, according to a press statement from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. If convicted, the defendants face between five and 20 years imprisonment.
As of Monday, Hyland said, his OUR principal contact confirmed that 15 perpetrators have been arrested as a result of the sting; four were minors and were sent to juvenile court and 11 were adults.
It’s a wrap
The bust all came to a head at about 5 p.m., and the crew had a 9 p.m. flight out of Armenia, Colombia.
“It was understood that CTI was going to escort us to the airport,” Hyland said, “and then it was kind of mildly declared that we needed to hurry. Some of the Colombian military showed up to provide cover and protection and it was just kind of like it was a rush to get out of there and I think it was largely because they deemed that the place was unsafe. We had just kicked somebody that may or may not have had organized crime affiliation and there were two other busts that went down that day successfully. So the crime world of Colombian had gotten a swift, you know, kick in the nuts.”
Hyland said the teams hurried to get video to CTI for their evidence and then jumped in a van and were escorted by trucks and motorcycles and guys with machine guns.
“We got to Armenia Airport, they secured a perimeter, escorted us into the building, and then this is where it gets a little bit edgy,” Hyland said. “The airport was closed because there was fog. We really, really wanted to leave. We had a connecting flight to Bogota and then from there back to Houston. The travel agent that supports OUR was dynamite and determined ‘OK, no connecting flights, let’s just go ahead and get you out of the country ASAP’ and got us a direct flight out of a town close to Armenia. That night – we spent the night in that other airport – was a long night for me. I do believe that the Colombia military maintained a perimeter on that airport until we were wheels up and out of the country.”
“It’s unconscionable that people engage in the sexual trafficking of innocent children,” ICE Colombia Attaché Luis Sierra said in a press statement. “Through this successful bilateral operation, the U.S. and Colombia are sending a clear message that we will go to any length to identify and catch the monsters that exploit our vulnerable children.”
“Eighty-five percent of those rescued were females,” the statement said. “Some of the victims were allegedly drugged with ecstasy and cocaine.”
Fifty-five of the rescued victims were Colombian minors, some as young as 11 years old, the statement said. The children are in the care of Bienestar Familiar – Colombia’s Child Protective Services.
“OUR tries their best to get them back to their families and, if they can’t do that, then they try to vet orphanages and different agencies that help these kids find families and to get reintroduced into society, and they follow up on them as much as they can,” Hyland said. “OUR, as a nonprofit organization, is very transparent and they are trying to not just bust bad guys; they’re trying to save kids, or save people for that matter, because the statistics on people and human subjugation are staggering.”
During the takedown, one 11-year-old girl broke down in tears, thanking the officials who rescued her, according to the press statement. She was allegedly sold for $1,000 in U.S. currency since she was a virgin.
“The poverty there is immense and I think that sometimes maybe you might have situations where families need money and they farm their children out to this horrific business,” Hyland said. “Or you have situations where kids are poor, they need money, and they meet someone who promises them something and then they get sucked up into something they didn’t intend to get sucked up into. And then there’s just the outright kidnapping. I think Colombia was in the top three in the world at one point for kidnapping. It happens there still.”
At the Medellin mission, one 10-year-old boy approached some of the operatives and was very thankful and grateful, and some tears were shed on all sides, Hyland said.
Hyland’s principal contact with OUR, Matt, formerly had 12 years in the CIA, Hyland said. As recently as this year, Matt relinquished that position and came on with Operation Underground Railroad.
“Matt. My personal observation of him is he was the perfect person for that position,” Hyland said. “He was a hell of a negotiator. He was a hell of an asset manager. He knew how to take his team of 12, including the reporter, and utilize them. He was very fluid. He knew how to fluctuate with the changes – at one point we were going to scrub the mission, at one point we were going to go forward – he dealt with that very well, and he also was devoid and absent in any egotistical behavior that would have compromised the mission or anybody’s lives.”
Hyland referred to Matt as “a cool head” and said he had no doubt in his mind that he was mitigating the risks even though you can’t mitigate all risks.
“He would say, ‘You cannot mitigate risks down to zero, but you can do the best you can and then you can make an informed decision to go forward,’” Hyland said of Matt. “When he decided to go forward with it on Saturday, I trusted him. He did a great job.”
Hyland said of CTI, the agents in Colombia:
I thought they were just going to think of us sort of like American cowboys trying to come down there and just show them how to do their job. Not at all. I think they lacked the funding and the training and that some of the bureaucratically red tape in their government would prevent them from doing this. They had Americans that would come down there and willing to pose as American sex tourists to bust some bad guys and I think, for the most part, the general attitude I got from these people was that they were thankful and they respected the hell out of us.
“I thought, ‘What if one of these guys is dirty and they blow the whistle?’” Hyland said. “The level of trust – and it goes all the way up a chain – the level of trust that I placed in Matt that Matt placed in those agents that we all placed in Colombian government that was all placed in American government is profound. It is absolutely profound that that level of trust was instituted across the board, because the number of ways that this could have gone bad … are countless. It really was a well-executed mission.”
Ed. note: Full identity of OUR principals is withheld for their protection in light of the sensitive nature of their endeavors.
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.Photo copyrights Dallas Hyland 2014, used with permission – all rights reserved.