As a seasoned police officer and, then, in more recent years, an investigator looking into sex trafficking cases for International Justice Mission, “V” (real name withheld for security reasons) thought he’d seen it all. But then he came face-to-face with the exploitation of boys as young as four used as slave labour in the fishing industry on Ghana’s Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial reservoir.
“I thought I was prepared for that because I’d been working [on cases involving] sex trafficking of young girls,” he says. “But I wasn’t. I mean, you stand in front of a boy who’s starving to death and [has been] beaten and got scars—eight years old. I don’t know how you can prepare for that. We turn a lot of stuff over to God. You have to.”
That undercover mission, which had involved posing as a seafood restaurant owner to successfully determine that hundreds of boys were indeed being sold into slavery and forced to work in the fishing industry based on the lake, has, at the time of writing, resulted in the rescue of 168 boys from slavery and the prosecution of 39 people for the trafficking of young boys.
Having grown up in California, V spent six years in the Marines working as a search and rescue swimmer before going on to work as a police officer. He subsequently spent 10 years with the California Highway Patrol and then 12 as a special agent with the California Department of Justice, a role which involved undercover drug enforcement and, later, as a cross-sworn agent with the FBI investigating police corruption.
V had become a Christian at the age of 10. He remembers being caught stealing a candy bar. His mother, who, like his police officer father, was not a Christian, told him later that “bad people steal”. But later that same summer, V attended a Christian youth camp and there heard the “true message of faith”, as he describes it.
“It was presented that we’re all basically bad and this was the way out of that—the gospel message. So I accepted Christ at 10 years old at camp.”
V says God has “taken care of me through life ever since”.
About 12 years ago he took an opportunity for early retirement from policing.
“I began to look for opportunities for work after a career in law enforcement—I mean, what do you do? And I also have a faith, so I was considering, maybe, some part-time mission work. Maybe playing golf once in a while, maybe working a little bit, maybe travelling a little bit.”
As part of his quest for work, he filled out an online profile and International Justice Mission (IJM) was among the employers monitoring the site. IJM is a Christian organisation based in Washington DC and dedicated to combatting sex trafficking, slave labour, child exploitation and other forms of violence against the poor. They have field operations in 14 countries and offices in 20. They called V “out of the blue” and asked him whether he’d be interested in a job.
During the subsequent discussions, V recalls, his initial response was somewhat incredulous when told there were tens of millions of people living in slavery (the figure is now estimated at more than 40 million). He asked how that could be the case, given he’d never heard anything about it.
Eventually the IJM representative asked him if, given his investigative experience, he would consider working for IJM, helping to build sex trafficking cases in Asia as well as train investigators and build relations with the police. V says that, even at that early stage of discussions and despite his reservations, he felt what he describes as a “nudge from God”. He eventually surrendered to the idea and he and his wife—their two children by then grown—would move to Kolkata, India to take up the post of IJM’s director of investigations.
“It was completely out of my comfort zone,” V says. “[I]f I had’ve known beforehand some of the things that God was going to take me through, I probably would have said ‘No’.”
He says one of the first goals of his work in Kolkata was to help prosecutors and police work towards their first human trafficking conviction.
“They’d had laws on the books for years about human trafficking and they had not one conviction,” he says, noting that he was repeatedly told it would never happen. “So one of our first goals was not just to rescue these young girls, but to help the prosecutors and the police gather evidence properly, build a case and prosecute the criminals. It took us a year-and-a-half, but eventually we got a conviction and it sent shockwaves through the community there.”
In an illustration of how trust is built with law enforcement—and of the sort of miracles he’s seen in the job—V relates how he and an IJM team were involved in the rescue of a 13-year-old girl and two others from a Kolkata brothel.
“We got the trafficker arrested, but prosecution takes a long time—years. So, we got her into protective custody in an aftercare home and she was doing very well,” he says. “But the traffickers had never stopped looking for her and over time they were able to infiltrate her aftercare home.”
The traffickers managed to convince a young man to become her friend and entice her to run away with him to be married. He was successful and the traffickers were able to seize the girl and take her across India to Mumbai where she was sold to another trafficker.
“We were devastated,” says V. With the trail cold, police investigators hit a dead end. But the IJM team “could not accept it” and so asked the police if they could continue to try and find her. Granted permission, they headed to Mumbai and began to look in the huge city of 22 million.
It was four months before the girl was found, but the traffickers and the girl emerged from the property before the police arrived and were about to get into a rickshaw and leave. V rang the local police. “And here’s the miraculous thing,” he says. “The police in Mumbai said, ‘I’m giving you the authority to stop that rickshaw and hold them in custody.’ I said, ‘Sir, I’m not even a citizen of your country,’ and he said, ‘That’s OK, I’m giving you that authority.’ And I actually hung up the phone because I didn’t want him to change his mind.”
And so, the six investigators were able to stop the rickshaw and surround it until the police arrived. Against the odds, the girl was rescued a second time.
Out of the comfort zone
With the problem of human trafficking as large as it is, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. But V, who, after spending three years in Kolkata, went on to work in IJM’s investigations department in Washington, DC, and now contracts with IJM in designing and overseeing investigations internationally, says he’s able to avoid getting overwhelmed by remembering that “my job, my role, God’s nudge on me, is not to rescue every slave; it’s not to solve that problem. My role is to be faithful, to answer His call. I can’t carry the burden of solving everything, but I can be faithful. Maybe we’re not going to end slavery in my lifetime, but I’m going to fight as hard as I can, for as long as I can, to do as much as I can, and rescue as many as I can.
“I think the joy and the hope and the purpose comes, not so much from winning the war, but from being in the battle; from stepping up. I could choose to ignore it; I could choose not to do it—we all can; we can look the other way. But it’s still going to be there.”
V says his work with IJM has “absolutely” impacted his faith, firstly by taking him out of his comfort zone.
“My faith seemed like it was so superficial. . . . But being out in this position where you’re absolutely at your wits end, you have no resources other than to pray and trust God, and you choose to do that and not give up and see God do the miraculous—that is like a stamp on your faith to make it real. . . . It’s completely changed my walk, my worldview. The day before I left, we did an operation, a rescue in the heart of the red-light area [in an Indian city] and it was every bit as hard as the first one we did. But what has changed is it was easier for me to recognise God’s hand in it.”
David Adams is editor of Sight magazine <sightmagazine.com.au>, based in Geelong, Australia, where a longer version of this article first appeared. To learn more about International Justice Mission, visit <ijm.org>.