They are the face of rescue but survivors will only ever know them as another potential perpetrator, seeking out young girls for sex.
Some are locals with wives and children they adore. Some are single and travelled across the globe to volunteer their expertise. They have backgrounds as lawyers and former police officers. Together this team of men impersonate, nightly, the evil they wish to eradicate.
The Dominican Republic is a place where sex is openly for sale. Over the age of 18, prostitution is legal, paving the way for a short, slippery slope into pimping (which is illegal) and then it’s barely a hop into the world of child-sex-trafficking. “You want younger? I can get you younger.” It’s a beautiful country people flock to for warm, inviting beaches. By day it is a caribbean paradise. By night the open secret of sex-trafficking thrives in the heavily touristed areas.
This is where I found myself last week. Having supported and increasingly engaging in work with International Justice Mission over the last few years, Andy and I decided a visit to the field would be beneficial in our abilities to articulate the realities of the daily operations of IJM’s work. We pray it will make us more affective advocates.
All of this led to what was perhaps one of the more bizarre experiences of my life; sipping a piña colada in the middle of the Red Light District of Boca Chica. Our task was to nonchalantly observe. Our table gave a “cheers” with our drinks attempting the appearance of friends out for a fun night. Despite our best efforts, I’m quite certain we did not blend in. I kept thinking of that line from Star Wars when Han Solo says to Chewy, “I don’t know! Fly casual!” We “flew” as casual as we could.
IJM’s investigators had planted themselves on the scene prior to our arrival. It was very strange to watch them at “work” as women literally draped themselves onto them. Wait…these friendly, heart-felt, Christ-centered men we’ve been talking with for two days now look every part the sleezy dude in a bar. What just happened?
As it turns out, planting the investigators was hardly necessary to witness the egregiously open nature of the sex-trade here. Older European men shamelessly sought the company of young Dominican women before our very eyes. Lest we “tsk-tsk” the Europeans with an air of superiority, there are other regions well-known to be the favorites of young American men. It’s quite common among local Dominicans as well – typically charged a fraction of the price westerners pay. Girls are later taken to back rooms of bars, nearby apartments, or Cabañas; special hotel-like establishments, which assure total privacy. Customers with heavily tinted windows pull into a garage attached to a bedroom. Payment is electronic and the entire affair can be conducted without seeing a single person.
This is not actually a picture of Andy. Behind him is an example of a view we saw repeated many times that night (and we were there for only half an hour early on a Tuesday evening after a heavy rain! Can’t imagine it late on a weekend.):
They say if you fly too close to the sun you get burned. But what about those wading into the cold depths of earth’s underworld? What effects do they feel? “I feel like I need to take a shower,” one of the investigators told us as we reconvened later that night. “I always feel so slimy playing this part. It’s really hard to think, ‘I’m doing this as a mission. I’m serving God in this way’, yet to be hitting on young girls regularly and always trying to see who looks the youngest to focus my attention on. It’s very difficult to reconcile. And I’ve only been here for such a short while. These other guys have been doing it for years. I feel like one of the most important things I’m doing is giving them a break from playing the Peter. They can play the role of my co-worker or driver, helping me find a good time and it takes some of the pressure off of them for a while.”
These men are strong. They are heroes. But they are also human. Masquerading as a perpetrator takes it’s toll emotionally and spiritually. One investigator shared how hard it is to walk away. After asking a young girl what questions he can, while trying not to raise suspicions, he has to creatively extricate himself from the scenario. He can’t rescue her on the spot. His cover would be blown and as he makes his excuses for why he’s chosen not to go through with the evening the girl’s tactics often change from attempting to allure and entice into a degrading scene of pleading for even a small handout. Then there are the times when a girl has JUST turned 18. He can no longer follow that as a line of investigation because she is no longer considered a minor. It doesn’t change the fact that her life is full of trauma and abuse that has gone on for years well before she turned eighteen. By virtue of a date on the calendar, he’s now powerless to save her. If only he’d been there three weeks earlier…. What do you do with that when you arrive home to a small, empty studio? Another investigator, fortunate enough to have a supportive family, will wake his wife and kids after particularly bad cases…no matter the hour…his family surrounds him and they pray. This family embrace helps restore his feeling of wholeness. Wholeness brings healing into the brokenness.
The investigators of International Justice Mission bring light into the darkest places of our world by becoming darkness. They will never receive recognition or even the satisfaction of seeing survivors after they are restored because their safety and ability to continue working depends on total anonymity. They do it because our God came after us in the darkness. He became darkness itself on our behalf. It’s the only way we could be rescued. He brings wholeness and healing into our brokenness and we are invited to love others in this same way. Few of us will ever do this quite as literally as this team of men seeking to rescue children from the world of sex-trafficking. I’ll never walk into a situation in life where my back-up plan, if things go south, is to sucker-punch the person I’m with and start a bar fight to create a diversion. It’s a strange reality they acknowledge and wrestle with in every operation. These men of light walk in darkness on behalf of the most vulnerable in our world. I’ll never fully understand the strength that takes but I’m thankful for the glimpse they were willing to give us into their hearts. Every single one of those children deserve a life of dignity, joy, and freedom. Every single one is worth going after.
The investigators do not get to see the fruits of their labor but we were privileged to see some of the freedom they bring. The morning after our excursion into the Red Light District we met some of IJM’s clients. Three survivors were bravely willing to spend time with our group at the botanical gardens. We raced around the gardens taking ridiculous pictures for a photo scavenger hunt. There were moments of laughter and joy as well as moments of hesitation and reservation (They are normal children after all. Spending time with strangers who speak a different language would be daunting to any child!) I wished I could just take them all in my arms and make everything better. IJM’s After Care team has the privilege of playing that role. (I’ll share their “juxtapositions” in another post.) The identities of survivors is as fiercely guarded as the investigators so I have no pictures to show but as I looked at those three beautiful children all I could think was, “They are free because men of light were willing to walk into the darkness.”