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Operation Underground Railroad: The QAnon-adjacent charity boosted on a UFC broadcast

Karim Zidan delves into the controversial history of Operation Underground Railroad.

Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.)

When Maycee Barber claimed a hard-fought split decision victory against Miranda Maverick at UFC Vegas 32—ending a two-fight losing streak in the process—the flyweight fighter turned her attention to her next big fight: saving sex-trafficked children.

“July 30th is World Day Against Human Trafficking. I’m a big part of Operation Underground Railroad and it is a super important part of my life,” Barber told Daniel Cormier during her post-fight interview. “I’ll be in Salt Lake City, Utah and if anyone in Utah would like to come out and support an amazing cause, follow my Instagram right now. I just made a post with all the information on it. So please go there, follow them, see if you can donate. Be part of rising up for children.”

Prior to her fight on Saturday night, Barber posted a video of herself on Instagram dressed in a T-shirt that read “Rise Up for Children,” and a caption that called on her 299,000 followers to support Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a U.S.-based non-profit organization whose stated mission is to go undercover to rescue children forced into the sex trade.

Despite its stated goals, the organization has been the subject of several investigative features detailing its questionable fundraising methods, its lack of transparency, misleading claims, police investigations into the organization’s operations, as well its concerning ties to the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement.

Founded in 2013 by Tim Ballard, a former Special Agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who spent years working in the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force. Ballard would reportedly pose as a pedophile to infiltrate child-trafficking rings. He subsequently left his government job in 2013 to start OUR. A devout Mormon, Ballard told LDS Living magazine in 2018 that he received a “spiritual download” from God telling him to “find the lost children.”

“Even as the money was dropping, I felt like Jonah—I wanted to run and hide,” Ballard said at the time. “But it got to the point that as hard as it was to walk down this unknown path, not taking it became scarier. I became petrified at the thought of sitting down with the Lord and explaining why I didn’t do what He had asked of me.”

Over the past eight years, OUR claims to have rescued thousands of sex-trafficked children—supposedly over 3,000 rescues in 2019 alone—using an “Ops Team” consisting of “former CIA, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives that lead coordinated identification and extraction efforts.” The organization has used these figures as a means to drum up support and funding for their cause, adding that “it is time for private citizens and organizations to rise up and help. It is our duty as a free and blessed people.”

As false conspiracy theories about global elites kidnapping young children for sexual exploitation and organ harvesting proliferated over the past few years—conspiracies such as Pizzagate and its later descendent, QAnon—OUR’s popularity skyrocketed, as did its funding potential. The organization became a darling on conservative media programming, attracting figures such as political commentator Glenn Beck, who traveled with Ballard to Thailand to visit some of the rescued children in aftercare.

“Kids, 6-years-old, slaves—they don’t believe that anyone cares about them at all,” Beck said in an OUR video posted on their official Facebook page.

In February 2019, Ballard was appointed by former president Donald Trump to the White House Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking. He served as the co-chair of the council alongside Dr. Sandra Morgan. He argued in favor of a wall along the U.S. southern border during a White House event on human trafficking in February 2019, claiming that it could be “utilized” to rescue victims. He furthered this claim in an opinion column for Desert News, stating that the “building, expansion and strengthening of the border wall has been one of many effective tools, and will continue to be an effective tool, in the rescuing of trafficked children.”

us-politics-trump-trafficking
US President Donald Trump listens to Operation Underground Railroad CEO Tim Ballard (L) during a meeting on fighting human trafficking on the southern border on February 1, 2019
Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

However, Ballard’s op-ed later claimed that the “State Department reports that around 10,000 children are smuggled into the U.S. annually and forced into the commercial sex trade” and did not respond to a request for his source when questioned by The Washington Post. The Post later confirmed that the State Department “has no records that would validate [Ballard’s] claim.”

“We have attempted to identify any State Department report that references that statistic, but have found none,” said a State Department spokesperson. “As a result, we cannot verify its origin.”

Ballard’s exaggerated figures laid bare growing concerns about OUR’s operations. According to Vice, which reported on Ballard and OUR in a series of investigative features, the organization maintains a “pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.”

Vice went on to reveal that several law enforcement agencies that OUR claimed to have partnered with were “insubstantial.” The investigative outlet also revealed that one of the victims that OUR claimed to have played a pivotal role in rescuing had actually escaped on her own, according to court documents. OUR also opted not to respond to Vice’s questions about the lack of transparency regarding its finances, including what it precisely does with the millions of dollars that they raise to rescue children.

OUR was faced with more negative coverage in October 2020 when Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings announced he would be investigating the anti-trafficking organization. While Rawlings did not comment on the details of the investigation at the time, Vice World News later confirmed that FBI, IRS, and Homeland Security were also involved and that the investigation concerned whether “OUR operators have engaged in sexual acts with human trafficking victims; whether operators have been intoxicated while on missions; whether OUR operations have created demand for trafficking victims; and whether OUR has committed human trafficking itself by enticing people who were not previously traffickers with large sums of money.”

Vice added that “Investigators are also said to be looking at whether charitable donations to OUR, a nonprofit, were funnelled into for-profit businesses,” which matches reporting by the American Crime Journal, which revealed that Ballard has a secret “whiteboard meeting” in August 2019 where he allegedly laid out plans for a criminal conspiracy to launder donor funds from his non-profits to his for-profit businesses (a picture of the whiteboard is available here). Shortly thereafter, Tevya Ware, Ballard’s sister and OUR Chief Financial Officer resigned from her post and formed a new anti-human trafficking non-profit organization with several other former OUR executives.

Despite facing several criminal investigations, Ballard is reportedly entertaining a pivot to politics and may consider running against Mitt Romney in the coming years. However, as OUR’s reputation continues to come under fire, so does Ballard.

On April 16, 2021, The Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel appeared onscreen at a the Health and Freedom conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma—an event devoted to false election fraud conspiracy theories, COVID-19 denialism, and anti-vaccine narratives. The multi-day conference was headlined by the likes of Lin Wood, Sidney Powell and Mike Flynn, all of whom are considered pivotal figures in the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement. At one point, Wood played to the crowd by miming a Q in the air to widespread applause.

Caviezel, a proud conservative, was there to promote his upcoming film Sound of Freedom, in which he portrays Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR. The actor explained that Ballard could not be there in person because he is “down there saving children as we speak” before proceeding to promote one of the more fringe and dangerous conspiracies central to QAnon.

They’re pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell,” Caviezel said. “All kinds of places, the adrenochroming of children.”

Jim Caviezel appeared onscreen at a the Health and Freedom conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Screenshot

The term adrenochroming refers to false claim that a cabal of global elites is kidnapping and torturing children to harvest their adrenaline in order to maintain their youth. And while adrenochrome is a real chemical compound produced by the oxidation of adrenaline, the suggestion that it can only be extracted from tortured children is little more than fiction. In fact, Hunter S. Thompson mentioned adrenochrome in his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where one of the main characters ingests the drug after claiming “there’s only one source for this stuff... the adrenaline glands from a living human body.”

Not only did Caviezel promote a baseless and dangerous conspiracy theory rooted in QAnon and blood libel fantasies, he did so while boosting his association with OUR and his upcoming portrayal of the organization’s founder. While OUR informed Vice World News that it “does not condone child trafficking conspiracy theories, such as the harvesting of adrenochrome, nor is the organization affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, including QAnon,” the incident suggests that OUR is willing to use QAnon adherents fuelled by child sex-trafficking conspiracies to further their brand.

Ballard has previously used baseless conspiracy theories as platforms to promote his work. As reported by Vice, Ballard treated the QAnon-supported conspiracy theory about furniture retailer Wayfair being a child sex trafficking hub as a serious topic. “Children ARE sold that way…and I’m glad people are waking up to it,” Ballard wrote on Twitter at the time. He later explained his stance to the New York Times in August 2020, revealing that “some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes. So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”

While OUR and QAnon are distinguishable entities—one is a registered charity while the other is an anonymous cesspool of conspiracy theorists amalgamated on internet forums and chatrooms—OUR appears to be leaning into QAnon obsessive need to “Save the Children.” Both groups held #SavetheChildren rallies and both used similar messaging to galvanize their audiences into action.

Beyond QAnon adherents and celebrities, OUR has also coopted athletes from across various sports to further their marketing strategy. This includes Maycee Barber, who first posted about OUR in July 2020, when she took part in a campaign to raise awareness for World Day Against Trafficking alongside former NHL player Brooks Laich.

“Meeting incredible humans and shooting things,” Barber wrote on Instagram in July 2020. “Thank you Operation Underground Railroad!”

Barber’s decision to partner with OUR—the extent of their relationship remains unclear as OUR has yet to respond to BloodyElbow’s request for comment—does not necessarily suggest that she is affiliated to QAnon. However, it is worth noting that there is a long list of MMA fighters who have outed themselves as supporters of the far-right conspiracy movement over the past couple of years. This is due to a wide range of issues, including the sport’s history as a counter-culture activity that rejected mainstream interests, which allowed conspiracies to permeate the community. There is also a case to be made that the lack of regulation of MMA fighters’ social media accounts in comparison to mainstream team sports such as basketball and soccer has played a key role in the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

OUR has not responded to BloodyElbow’s request for comment.

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