You have to sit there and smile in the face of evil... I mean, these guys talk like they're selling a car. – Tim Ballard

SALT LAKE CITY — Tim Ballard says he has more freedom to bust bad guys as the head of a Utah-based charity than he did as a former agent for the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

"There's a gap that's not being filled," Ballard said. "It's because kids we're finding, the vast majority of the kids that we find, fall outside the purview of the United States government."

In Operation Underground Railroad's most recent sting, Ballard's team worked with the Colombian government to free 123 sex slaves, some as young as 11 years old.

"Our approach really is to end it. Our approach is to eradicate this problem," Ballard said.

He spent a dozen years working for the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

"So we'll find the kids in Colombia, in Nicaragua, in Haiti, wherever we're working, and then we'll go to the jurisdiction, say, 'Guys, look at this problem. We will help you do this,'" he said.

Ballard recently posed as a broker for a large group of American sex tourists.

"The hardest part is having to look at these guys, smile at them and talk about children, having … children and sex," Ballard said.

As several accused traffickers thought they were about to make a major payout, dozens of Colombian law enforcement officers moved in. Undercover cameras captured the sting, as well as the deal made before the party. The video and audio will serve as evidence in upcoming trials.

"You have to sit there and smile in the face of evil," Ballard said. "I mean, these guys talk like they're selling a car."

In another sting in the Dominican Republic, 26 children were liberated.

Even tougher, Ballard says he and his team members have to stay undercover throughout the operation. Children may never know that they were there to liberate them.

"They eventually see you and say, 'There's the next monster,'" Ballard said.

It's a scenario he had to live with before as a government agent. But for the first time in 12 years, someone accidentally let the children in on his secret, breaking the team's cover after the bust.

"I was able to for the first time have an interaction with these kids, them knowing we were the good guys," Ballard said. "Some of my jump-team guys are crying. These are tough guys who start crying as these kids come up and start saying, 'Thank you.'"

It's work he says he couldn't do as a government agent because the U.S. has no jurisdiction unless American citizens are involved.

"What they did was, they recruited these kids by luring them into the idea that they are going to be models," Ballard said. "They even convinced their parents that they were going to be models and send money back."

Ballard seeks out former law enforcement officers like himself to build his teams. Recruits are already trained in undercover work. Those efforts are supported through donations.

"This problem's not going to go away until people see the reality of what it is," Ballard said. "There are 2 million of these kids being exploited. If you include the adults, there's over 10 million exploited sexually."

While the problem may seem insurmountable, Ballard says he's already seen evidence that Operation Underground Railroad's efforts are working. It happened as an undercover team started to investigate an area where they had previously organized a sting.

"(The locals) said a couple of months ago these Americans came down and they were all arrested and 32 kids were saved. And now no one is selling kids here," Ballard said. "You don't even know how many kids you actually save. You know how many you pulled out, but the deterrent effect, it's countless."

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com