Henry clicked his seatbelt into place, settling into the middle seat of Xavier’s Jeep since he had insisted Whitney sit in the front.
Although he wore jeans and a T-shirt, Henry felt as if he was starting into a mission without his weapons. Even with a backpack full of gear including food, water, and supplies, he felt bare without forty pounds of Kevlar, a Beretta 9 mm clipped to his belt, a knife in his boot, and a M16 rifle strapped on his back.
Walking unarmed into a fight was less than comfortable, but officer training had taught him that his most valuable tools were his brain and his radio. Maintaining communication with his team would keep him alive, and the guys in Operation Freedom Warriors had just become his team. Including the lovely Whitney Olson.
Whitney turned in her seat so that she was facing Xavier but frequently glanced back at Henry as if she couldn’t help herself. Her professional façade kept slipping and she would show a hint of a smile, then pull her features together again or glance down with a soft blush.
Dang, she was beautiful. Henry knew he needed to focus on the mission and finding the girls. He decided to ask about their organization and see if he could glean more information.
Xavier was a strong man of pure muscle. If Henry had to wager, he would guess some branch of the military or CIA. He pulled his Jeep out of the parking lot at the headquarters of his organization, and headed for the Western Highway toward San Ignacio.
“Tell me more about what you do,” Henry said. “And how can I help? Whitney mentioned that I should be careful not to jump ship because you may need me to hold my rank.”
“She’s right,” Xavier said. “If these guys are indeed Americans, and we have a Captain in the U.S. Army involved, we may need you to call in your higher-ups. On the reservation, even we don’t have permission to do our job.”
“When you say, ‘do your job’,” Henry asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Operation Freedom Warriors is made up of dozens of retired and discharged military officers, ex-CIA, Homeland Security agents, undercover officers.” Xavier explained. “We took off our badges in order to remove the jurisdictional restrictions that were holding us back from doing our jobs with Freedom Warriors.”
“Which is what?” Henry asked, wondering if he’d ever feel compelled to leave his commission.
“We conduct undercover sting operations to purchase children who are being sold into slavery.”
“Wait, purchase children?” Henry gulped. “That’s wrong.”
“Someone’s going to purchase them,” Whitney said. “Better us than the pedophiles and sex traffickers.”
“But you’re still giving money to the criminals.”
“Briefly,” she explained. “And then we immediately arrest them.”
“Why can’t you just arrest them without purchasing children?”
“Because we wouldn’t have any reason to arrest them,” Xavier explained. “We couldn’t prove that they had committed any crimes. Whereas if we purchase a child from them then we know that they’re selling children. We have proof and we can put them in prison.
“If we can get close enough to the ringleader of the group, then we can rescue hundreds of children rather than just the one or two that we are purchasing. So, it’s important that we get close to them, to get into their inner circle, not just be a one-time purchaser, but someone who’s willing to bring other buyers down from America.”
“Do you arrest the buyers also?” Henry asked.
“The buyers are all working for us. But at the time of the sting operation, yes, we allow everyone to be arrested so we can maintain our undercover status.”
“So, you’re able to do this more than once with the same group of individuals?”
“Yes, because we’re trying to weed out the corrupt judges. So rather than posting bail, we allow them to go through the judicial system here in country and learn what it takes to get them back out. Then we can discover who the corrupt judges are.”
“How can this be happening right under our noses?” Henry asked. “How come it’s Americans that are buying the children?”
“Child sex trafficking is more prevalent than you think it is,” Xavier said. “This is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.”
“Really? More than drugs?” Henry had a hard time believing that.
“It’s the fastest growing,” Xavier clarified. “The difference is you can sell a bag of cocaine once, but you can sell a child ten or twenty times in a day.”
“That’s disgusting.” Henry felt his stomach churn and wondered if they would need to pull the car over to the side of the road.
“Yes, it is. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s modern day slavery. These kids are being used as a commodity. There are estimated thirty million slaves in the world today, and about ten million of them are children. About two million of them are sold into sex slave trade and the rest of them are used as child labor.”
“But if you are in slave labor,” Whitney said, “it’s just a matter of time before they use you for sex. Once they own you, you’re a product, and they can do whatever they want with you.”
“Is this something you have experienced?” Henry asked with compassion.
“Just as an after-care humanitarian aid worker serving alongside survivors.” Whitney’s voice lowered and became emotional. “They tell some horrific stories.”
“Are there slaves in the States too?” Henry asked. “Or is this mostly international?”
“People would like to think it’s happening somewhere else,” Xavier said. “But Americans are the biggest consumers of child pornography worldwide. Which means we are the market. We are the sex tourists.”
“United States is one of the top three destination countries,” Whitney said.
“What do you mean by that?” Henry asked.
“The traffickers are trying to bring their slaves into the U.S. They see the market and realize if they can get into our country, they can make a lot of money.”
“So that the United States people won’t have to travel?” Henry guessed.
“That’s right.” Whitney nodded.
“Where is this happening? In big cities?”
“Well, in developing counties, where the infrastructure is not that great, and the law enforcement struggle, you can see child sex slaves being sold on the street,” Whitney said. “You’re not going to see that in the United States. It’s mostly online. We have warriors trained to infiltrate dark net groups to find kids.”
“I’ve worked as an undercover operator in some capacity for almost nineteen years,” Xavier said. “And I have bought and sold a child on every social media platform.”
“It starts on social media and then leads to private phone calls, then suddenly you’re negotiating for a child.”
“In person? No way.”
“How did you originally get into this?”
“I started in the CIA fighting terrorism. Then I was recruited to Homeland Security as an undercover operator. There’s a lot of criminal activity at the ports of entry. I would have been busy for years fighting drug trades and human trafficking, but they called me in and told me they wanted to start a child trafficking unit. I had no idea child trafficking was a thing.”
“No one wants to talk about it,” Henry agreed.
“I didn’t want anything to do with that. My wife agreed. We had just started a family. We didn’t want to bring that darkness into our home. I didn’t want to know what people are doing to kids.”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want that either, and I don’t even have a wife and kids… yet.” Henry didn’t mean to hesitate on the last word, somehow implying the possibility wasn’t far off. Henry met Whitney’s gaze. “What about you? Married? Kids?”
“Not yet,” Whitney said softly.
Xavier didn’t seem to notice their exchange nor the electricity hanging in the air between them and continued with his story. “I planned to turn down the job and I was practicing my speech in the mirror wondering how I was going to tell my boss, and my wife walks into the bathroom and she’s crying. She said she didn’t sleep at all that night and then she told me that for the same reason we didn’t want you to do this was the reason we had to do this. Because we have children. Because if there really are millions of kids being trafficked, we allow this to happen.”
“So, you started in the States?”
“Yes. Then in 2006 the U.S. passed a law called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act which changed the statutory requirements for secondary sex traveler statutes.”
“You can’t travel to have sex with a child,” Xavier said. “Prior to that we had to prove a perpetrator had the intent to have sex with a child while standing on U.S. soil.”
“That’s impossible to prove,” Henry said.
“Prior to 2006 we had zero prosecutions,” Xavier said. “But the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act changed the law, so we don’t have to prove the perpetrator was thinking about sex with a child while in the States. Now all we have to prove is that he left the States and that he committed the act. If we can prove that, we can hold him accountable as if he committed the act on our soil and we can put him in jail in the States. Homeland Security put together a team and basically said okay guys, go out and find Americans who are doing this.”
“But how do you know where to go to find these guys?” Henry asked.
“They sent me to undercover school to teach me how to be a pedophile, how to think like one, how to talk like one. I became an undercover operator and because I speak Spanish, they sent me mostly into Latin America, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, Colombia. Once I get overseas, I can basically sit on the beach and the traffickers come to me. It’s like they know that’s what I’m there for.”
“What do you mean? Sit on the beach?”
“Trafficking is so prevalent that they expect an American guy sitting on the beach alone is waiting for them to come offer what they have for sale.”
“Usually young girls. Preteens or early teens.”
“Are you talking prostitution? Of little girls?” Henry gulped, knowing his nausea had nothing to do with the bumpy roads.
Henry balled his fists. He had seen some horrible things in the world, but imagining little girls having their innocence stolen in such a way was more than he wanted to envision.
“Hey, we can stop talking about this if you need.” Whitney’s soft voice pierced through Henry’s shell and he met her gaze. Her compassion was probably what kept her pushing through this job.
“No… I need… to hear this.” Henry spoke through clenched teeth. “I need to know the truth so I can help stop this from happening to anyone else. Keep talking.” Henry sat up straight, forced back his emotions and put on his game face.
“Anyway, I don’t want to just meet with the pimp on the beach. I want to get to know his boss and his boss’ boss. You know what I mean?”
“So, we put together this whole plan where we want to bring a group of guys down from the States and I convince them to get a party together.”
“And they fall for that?”
“Oh yeah, they do these all the time.”
“All the…” Henry forced back his emotions and swallowed hard. “Keep going.”
“I have to become friends with these guys, and they’re showing me pictures on their phone and they’ve got ten-year-old girls and I’m smiling and pretending. My stomach’s churning and I want to reach across and strangle this guy but I know I’ll never find the kids if I do.”
“Do you ever worry about becoming a pedophile after looking at all those pictures?”
“Actually, it’s just the opposite,” Xavier said. “If anything, you become less interested in sex. I mean, not to divulge too much information, but my poor wife. I have to go through a period of desensitization just to come back to the real world after an op.”
Henry decided to change the subject after that very awkward question. “How did you transition from meeting these jerks on the beach to quitting your job and starting a nonprofit?”
“Remember how I said that we had to follow jurisdiction rules and laws when we’re representing the government?” Xavier met Henry’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “I was in deep with these guys and we were running out of budget. We couldn’t find an American involved, but we were about to intercept about a hundred kids. And the order was given that we were out of money and I had to come home.”
“You went all that way for nothing?”
“I went all that way and found a hundred kids.”
“But you couldn’t arrest the guys because there weren’t any Americans?”
“Not working for the United States government.” Xavier shook his head.
“What did you do?” Henry leaned forward and put his elbow on his knee, completely engrossed in Xavier’s bravery.
“I took off my badge.”
“Just like that?”
“Well I talked to my wife first. She said, do it. We’ll figure out a way to feed our family. God will provide. Save those kids.” Xavier’s façade broke and his voice cracked.
“And you saved the kids?”
“We saved the kids.”
“But not your job?” Henry guessed.
“We started the nonprofit.”
“And the rest is history?”
“Not quite. For that op we already had the local government involved. We didn’t have that kind of relationship with other governments. We won’t go into a foreign country unless we have the local law enforcement involved, and until we have the aftercare program in place.”
“Which is where you come in?” Henry nodded to Whitney.
“I’m in charge of the aftercare program.” Whitney nodded.
“So, you’re in charge of the hundred kids after their rescued?”
“Things are a little more complicated than that,” Whitney said.
“The aftercare is the most important part,” Xavier said. “More than half the time there’s not a family member at home waiting for their missing child with open arms. Some families are part of the problem. There are families who are so poor they’re selling their kids into slavery.”
“The first thing we do,” Whitney said, “is to let the kids know they’re safe and we’re not the bad guys. Because they’ve just witnessed a raid, and people getting arrested, and chaos and shouting, and they’re traumatized. They don’t know what’s going on. We have the aftercare team right there on the ground as the raid is happening.”
“How could a parent sell their child?”
“I think some people are just so poor and desperate, selling themselves and their children becomes part of the culture, generational. Parents tell the kids, this is what I had to do when I was your age, so this is what you’re going to do. And that’s part of the problem. When something becomes culturally accepted, the laws reflect that as well. We can’t help a country until they establish laws making that illegal.”
“If I’m understanding this correctly, we have more than one problem,” Henry said. “We’ve got the people selling kids for sex, but we’ve also got the pedophiles paying for sex.”
“The guys don’t even have to be paying for sex for us to arrest them. Even looking at child pornography is illegal, and we’d like to catch them before they become a contact offender.”
“What’s a contact offender?” Henry asked.
“Someone who is actively seeking sexual interaction with a child,” Xavier explained. “Usually child pornographers will eventually want to take action and that’s when they become a contact offender.”
“How many of these guys do you think there are?”
“Well, if there are two million children in sex slavery, consider what kind of number justifies that demand.”
“Switching topics for a minute,” Henry stopped them. “You don’t normally have a billionaire prince walk up and hand you a couple million dollars. How do you get enough money to do these raids?”
“We have a few big donors, plus fundraisers. We never have enough money though. Although we now have law enforcement units in 26 countries, we can’t keep up with the demand. With each new request for assistance we have to evaluate whether that country is able to handle the stress of taking on this magnitude. We can give them all the tools and training but they have to have the infrastructure to sustain the program. With limited resources, we have to go wherever we’ll be able to make the biggest difference.”
“For today let’s go make a difference for a couple of girls on a Mayan reservation in Belize.” Henry felt a sense of peace even after hearing those horrific details. If he could save even one child, it was worth the risk to his life and his job.