Fans of Laurie Holden might recognize her from her roles in The Walking Dead and The Shield, but she's also an international badass. When she's not fighting zombies as Andrea on AMC's beloved zombie saga, she's fighting child sex trafficking.
Holden is part of Operation Underground Railroad, a volunteer organization that aims to hunt down and arrest child sex traffickers. The group recently traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, where it aided authorities in breaking up a major sex-trafficking ring that used drugs to force underage boys and girls into prostitution. The operation resulted in the arrest of 11 Colombians and one person whose nationality has not been released in the cities of Armenia, Cartagena and Medellin and the rescue of 55 sex-trafficking victims, one just 11 years old.
The organization, described as a "ragtag group of volunteers" that includes actors, filmmakers and CrossFit instructors (and a Romney), is led by Tim Ballard, a former CIA agent and former Department of Homeland Security investigator who specializes in child-sex-trafficking cases.
"We are not a government agency," the group's website said. "We are a non-profit organization that relies one hundred percent on donation to save them. And we do it because no child should be a sex slave."
The group worked for months to conduct a massive sting operation in coordination with Colombian and U.S. officials. Ballard told an alleged sex trafficker named Marcus Bronschidle that he was looking to hire a score of underage prostitutes for a "bachelor party" in the northern coastal town of Cartagena.
"The cover was meant to lure the sex traffickers into a setup so that Ballard and his team could rescue the girls, many of whom were under 18," ABC News reported. The alleged traffickers didn't know it was also a bust that was being videotaped by a group of filmmakers.
Ballard decorated the mansion with balloons "like a teenager's birthday party" so the criminals wouldn't expect anything. With the police hiding in the bushes, the team had to catch the traffickers exchanging money for the girls on tape so they could be prosecuted.
"It's going to be about $200 to $300 for the evening, for a child," Ballard is heard saying on tape.
It worked. Voice of America reports the group helped rescue 55 minors and arrested 12 people during Saturday's sting. Police say one of the 11-year-old girls in the group was being sold for $11,000.
All the victims are now in the care of Colombia's child protection agency. The Colombian defendants face between five and 20 years imprisonment if convicted.
"I spent 12 years as a special agent, undercover operative for the United States government, doing this, and learned how to do it,"
says Ballard said. "The problem was that the vast majority of the kids that we would identify, we couldn't save."
In this case, Ballard, Holden and the other volunteers in Operation Underground Railroad made a real difference.