Tim Ballard has created a challenging, deeply affecting job for himself. He leads a team of former US military personnel who pretend to be sex tourists south of the American border, to catch criminals trafficking in children.
Given the serious nature of his work, it is no wonder, then, that the American is so intense in The Abolitionists, a documentary that debuted in the United States this month.
The founder of the associated project Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), Ballard developed his current line of work after leaving the US Department of Homeland Security in frustration, because its focus was on domestic trafficking cases.
OUR team members, including former Navy Seals and CIA operatives, work with local governments and police forces in Columbia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, setting up sting operations with varying degrees of success.
As the film shows, sometimes all Ballard and a member of his team have to do to is go to a beach in one of the countries and wait to be approached with offers from the traffickers.
The group also works with local informants – including one who appears in the film, a talkative, cigar-smoking individual who goes by the name “Batman” – they are not vigilantes, says Chet Thomas, who co-directed the film with Darrin Fletcher.
“A lot of people perceive that ‘you guys are vigilantes’, until they realise how we are doing it, we are doing everything with governments, we are signing up, we are doing everything to do it properly and not be vigilantes,” he says. “It’s really a lack of knowledge about how Tim operates and the organisation goes about it.”
While the cause it shines a light on is unquestionably admirable, The Abolitionists is, sadly, not a very good documentary film. The storytelling is heavy-handed. It is also uncomfortable to witness yet another situation where former US military personnel have turned contractors-for-hire in developing countries.
And troubling questions are raised: Who, if anyone, oversees Ballard’s team? What happens if there is a rogue agent?
OUR claims to have rescued 500 children and helped to bring 150 traffickers to justice since launching in 2013.
The documentary focuses on the rescue of several children in Columbia and two toddlers in Haiti.
Not all of Ballard’s operations are successful – but watching a Haitian woman and her daughter arrange to sell snatched children for US$15,000 (Dh55,000) each to strangers, and then admit it to a police officer, is both compelling and stomach-churning.
Traditionally, it is seen as the responsibility of governments to weed out traffickers and strengthen laws, policies and services, including legislative reviews and reforms.
Unicef collaborates with development partners, governments and non-governmental organisations on all aspects of anti-trafficking initiatives.
Unicef officials in the US declined to comment on the processes depicted in The Abolitionists.
The film, which also has Schindler’s List executive producer Gerald Molen on board, has so far screened on one night only in selected US cinemas. There are hopes for a wider release, and the filmmakers are also pitching it as a TV series.
“We hope it inspires other organisations,” said Thomas.
“Tim’s was the first group I came across, which is why we documented him. The television series is documenting other Abolitionists. There are thousands of organisations, from colleges to kids coming together, to huge organisations. Our goal with the film is to bring all these organisations together and unify the non- profit arena that is out there, with regards to trafficking.”
Source: art & life