It is estimated that sex trafficking will be the number one source of income for organised crime within the next decade. Undercover agent and former New Zealand Police detective Daniel Walker is working globally to infiltrate the sex trafficking industry, capture culprits and rescue victims. Walker has seen things that none of us ever want to see, or could even dare to think is happening. Yet, as Walker reminds me in our interview, we must open our eyes.
It’s an ugly topic that was highlighted in the film Taken, starring Liam Neeson. Sometimes rich and comparatively middle-class girls are trafficked but the huge majority are poor and vulnerable, Walker says.
In recent headlines, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting in America in July this year saw the freeing of 105 sexually abused youths and capture of 150 pimps. Most of the minors rescued during the three-day operation in 76 cities were aged 13 to 16. Ronald Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division, told media, “Our goal is that child trafficking is openly discussed. We are trying to take this crime out of the shadows and put a spotlight on it … to put (the children) out of the cycle.”
The operation was part of the bureau’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which since its launch in 2003 has been involved in the rescue of more than 2700 sexually exploited children. Community organisation TEAR Fund is working with Share and Care Nepal to facilitate change among Nepal’s poor through its anti-trafficking programme and is stemming the flow of children being trafficked into India. According to TEAR Fund, Nepal is a source country for human trafficking with an estimated 5000 to 10,000 women trafficked every year.
Human trafficking is estimated by the United Nations to be a US$32 billion industry and is considered to be the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Countries in which sex trafficking is rife include Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the United States, Latin America (including Mexico) and even the UK.
Walker believes that in the next 10 years it will surpass crime’s current top earners, weapons and drug trafficking. “With drugs like heroin and cocaine you sell it once and it’s gone. If you’ve got a small boy or girl and you sell them many times in a day, the profits are astronomical,” he says. “The penalties for selling women and children are less than selling drugs and the risks to the criminals are less.”
A TERRIBLE TOLL
Quietly spoken, Walker’s answers are considered yet open and honest. There is complete transparency but a shadow of sadness surrounds his demeanor. Walker has written a book, God in a Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue (IVP Books), about his experiences in the field, which was partly a cathartic exercise recommended by a police psychologist as a way of working through the pain – because while he set out to save those who are vulnerable, he admits he ultimately ended up hurting the people closest to him. His work in this field led to the end of his 15-year marriage. Then there are those he failed to rescue who he knows are still victims of abuse. This knowledge has haunted him.
Walker also recently left the New Zealand Police after more than 20 years of service to establish his own crime fighting agency, Nvader, which conducts planned, covert and tactical investigations drawing on best practices to effectively combat sex trafficking.
Nvader’s mission statement is to be a dangerous catalytic force of inspiration and courageous engagement for local communities and churches in the global fight against sex trafficking. It also trains and builds the capacity of local communities and churches to effectively combat sex trafficking occurring within their own communities. Walker says he was inspired to set up Nvader after seeing how achievable it can be to combat this “rape-profit industry” and having seen the magnitude and nature of it – a firsthand look into modern day slavery.
Walker took four years of leave without pay (between 2002 and 2006) from the New Zealand Police to work with American organisations as an undercover investigator. He worked in cooperation with the United States Department of Homeland Security (ICE), the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Vancouver City Police Department, the British NationalCriminal Intelligence Service, the Australian Federal Police and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. He also received training from the United States Law Enforcement Instructors Alliance from members of the FBI and DEA undercover programmes, from the US Northeastern Tactical School and from both current and retired members of the US Special Forces.
Human trafficking, says Walker, is made up of two elements: deception and coercion. One operation Walker helped bust was a brothel in Asia the size of a factory, housing women aged between 16 and 26 from up to seven different nations. They’d all been promised legitimate jobs in car sales, clothing manufacturing and retail. With the blessings of their family they had travelled and then upon arrival, the door closed behind them and their passports were taken. They were told they had a debt to pay off.
“In some cases they’ve taken 11 girls to the top of the building and pushed one of them off and said to the other 10, ‘If you ever try to escape, this is what we will do.’ Worse than that is they will hold up a photo of their family, their little brother or sister and say, ‘If you ever tell anyone, before you even get out of here this is what we’ll do to your little sister.’ The terror is palpable,” says Walker. Learning from past experiences, Walker didn’t go to the local police whom he knew to be corrupt. Instead he sought the help of police in a different city who raided the brothel and rescued almost 100 women.
Often victims have padlocks on the outside of their doors. In many cases they can’t speak the local language and are intentionally moved around by traffickers so that they can’t talk to the customers or to the police. “They keep moving them, rotating them, to keep them disoriented. As a customer, you would have absolutely no way of knowing whether they were there by choice or not,” says Walker.
A DESPERATE CASE
The first girl Walker ever came into contact with was a victim of deception and coercion. Her name was Maria and she came from a very poor family in Latin America. At age 12, she was promised a job where she could cross the border into the neighbouring country to work in a factory making clothes and send money home to her family. She went with the men, only to discover they were coyotes (local term for human traffickers). They took her straight to a brothel, raped and brutalised her and told her they’d paid a lot of money for her and that she had a debt to pay off – US$5000 plus interest.
“The first opportunity she got, she escaped and ran to the local police station and told them what had happened. The local police took her straight back to the brothel because they provided protection for it, they got free girls whenever they wanted them and they got money from the business. When I met her she was 15 going on 16 and had absolutely no recourse to justice,” says Walker.
Walker met Maria on his first-ever deployment, posing as a customer and wearing a covert camera, and admits he was “terrified” – afraid of the bad guys with guns if they found the camera, and of being a married man in a brothel. His job was to gather evidence to set her free and get out of there without endangering himself or Maria. He was on his own, with no back-up.
Maria, not knowing who he was and that he had no intention of sleeping with her, was desperate to please and afraid she would be punished if she didn’t satisfy the customer. She didn’t want Walker to leave and dragged him onto the dance floor and put her arms around him to let him know she was his to consume whenever he was ready. “It was one of those horrible moments and I thought, ‘Oh God, get me out of here in one piece,’” he says. “Then I had an epiphany. I saw this little girl not as a threat to my personal purity or to my professionalism as a Kiwi detective but as a little girl just like my little sister. I was filled with this overwhelming sense of hatred for evil that had so conspired to bring her to that place and this all-consuming anger for our indifferent world that allowed little boys and girls to be sold.
“It hit me that I had recorded enough evidence to facilitate her rescue and the prosecution of every criminal in that place and that if anyone was dangerous, it was me. If anyone needed to fear, it was the bad guys in that place. So, I left with a courage and compassion that was not my own.”
The first experience emboldened Walker. From 2002 to 2006 he worked in 13 countries and helped rescue several hundred women and children.
The work was exciting and had positive moments, such as when he saw the happy transformation of a 12-year-old upon finding out she was free. “Every rescue is an incredible one to be part of,” he says.
The youngest child he has carried out of a brothel was aged five. On one deployment in Southeast Asia he discovered an entire village that derived its income from selling small children to men from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Europe and Canada. On any given day more than 50 to 60 paedophiles would go into this village to have sex with children.
On the first night, when Walker visited the village, he was taken by a pimp through a labyrinth of alleyways and offered two 14-year-old girls. Walker paid a deposit and indicated that while the girls were great, he was looking for something different. The pimp disappeared and then returned with two sixyear-old girls with pigtails and teddy bears on their T-shirts. Walker was told he could have them both for US$30 an hour. Walker recorded the whole thing and over the next three weeks documented between 40 to 45 children between the ages of five and 12 being sold every day. He pretended he was setting up a sex party for his clients but on the day of the supposed party, Walker instead arrived with armed police.
“They raided that place and we rescued many of those children and placed them in an after-care organisation. Ten of the offenders went to jail for up to 20 years,” he says. “It was also groundbreaking because in that part of the world, sadly through civil war, corruption, racism, indifference, gender inequality and poverty, there’s not a lot done and for the first time in many years people started going to jail for selling small children.”
It was also a victory when monitored blogs and websites of sex tourists began posting comments to the tune of, “Don’t go to this country, this f___ing group has screwed things up. The party is over.”
Walker says he will never forget looking into the eyes of the children. “In their eyes there was absolutely nothing,” says Walker. “They’d been brutalised and traumatised. Those zombie movies of Hollywood fall short of the truth. [Those children] just had death and despair, hopelessness and emptiness in their eyes. That was disturbing.”
THE RIGHT APPROACH
Walker credits being a New Zealander as being part of the reason why he has been so successful in this area of crime fighting. He would typically gain trust from the girls or women by explaining that he had just broken up with his girlfriend and didn’t want sex, just company, as an excuse not to sleep with them. Then he’d get them talking, all of which he captured on camera.
Armed with damning evidence including covert videos, GPS coordinates of the locations and victim statements, Walker says approaching the local authorities in a humble and culturally appropriate way, something Kiwis are often good at, empowers them to do the rescue and hold people accountable. He believes that when done properly, it is comparatively easy to rescue women and children from modern day slavery.
Closer to home, instances of human trafficking in New Zealand are rare because of our geography and we are a less corrupt nation by many standards. Though, Walker says, our law is flawed and needs
revisiting. “In New Zealand it is only trafficking if someone brings a woman or child into New Zealand from overseas, so if the Mongrel Mob wants to move a girl from Invercargill to Auckland and sell her against her will that is not trafficking because it is just domestic,” he says.
During the four years he worked in the field, Walker faced moments when he was close to being found out by the criminals he hunted. Once a camera he had hidden in his underpants malfunctioned and overheated. On another occasion a brothel owner insisted Walker prove he was one of the “bad guys” by having sex with a child. When Walker refused, the man said, “If you come back here, I’ll kill you.”
He found most pimps, however, were unsuspicious and keen to peddle their wares. The idea that someone would travel halfway across the world and wear covert camera technology and equipment worth thousands of dollars because a six-year-old Vietnamese girl had been trafficked nearby didn’t enter their heads. Walker has now removed himself from active work in the field and heads up the team of investigators at Nvader. He has made the decision to go public because the organisation needs a face.
CONTINUING THE MISSION
While Walker rates the organisations he has worked with in the past as fantastic, Walker also learned that there were a lot of best practices at the conclusion of each mission that were not applied. This included debriefing and counselling for investigators, which he has included as part of the framework of Nvader. “In the field I was often working alone. [I was] away from my wife 50 per cent of the time and slowly, insidiously, the major thing for me was failure and not being able to deal with that. Sometimes there’d be a tip-off before a raid and when you arrive there is no one there. I had to get back on a plane and arrive home knowing I had failed and that they were still being raped every day. I didn’t know what to do with that.” As a result Walker became all the more determined that he was never going to fail. The weight of the world became incredibly heavy. “I started to believe in the very toxic belief that it was all up to me. It
started to take a real toll. And, as I say in the book, it ultimately led to my marriage falling apart.”
Feedback from his book made him realise that he had an opportunity to set up an organisation built on his own experiences. “That’s where Nvader came from. It’s a Kiwi-based initiative based on best practices,” Walker says. At Nvader investigators always work as part of a team, never alone, and briefing and debriefing happens daily. Clinical supervision by a psychologist is provided when investigators return [from missions] and spouses are included in the decision-making and planning.”
Walker’s goal, through Nvader, is to not just rescue the victims, who are quickly replaced with new victims by the perpetrators, but to ensure those responsible are held accountable – not just those who happen to be standing at the door when the police arrive, but the whole criminal network.
“In some cases we do manage to get evidence of the perpetrators and we have been able to give that information to countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, so that upon their return home from holiday they can be charged in their own countries for offending that has occurred overseas,” he says.
The funding of Nvader primarily comes from individuals and community and church groups. Since January 2013 Nvader has rescued 30 women and children in Southeast Asia and facilitated 10 arrests for human trafficking offences. “At Nvader we are intentional about communicating hope and showing that rescuing women and children in this industry is incredibly doable. It just shows that with a small team and with a small amount of funding, you can do a lot.”