However, what is real and what is not true? The movie tells viewers that it is based on a true story and concludes with a photo of the real Ballard (played in the film by Jim Caviezel). However, the website for Ballard’s organization, Operation Underground Railroad, explains that it is a mix of fact and fiction.
Be forewarned that there are some spoilers in this article.
In the movie, the Caviezel character, also a federal agent, travels to Colombia to search for a sex-trafficked girl after rescuing her brother. Along the way, he bands with a former Cali Cartel official to fake a new island club for pedophiles that is really a law enforcement sting.
Here’s what you need to know:
Was Tim Ballard Really a Federal Agent?
Yes. Tim Ballard’s organizational biography says he “spent more than a decade working as a Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security, where he was assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force and deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team.”
The website says Ballard “has worked in that role and has seen every type of case in the fight to dismantle child trafficking rings. He’s worked in the United States and in multiple foreign countries to infiltrate child trafficking organizations. He has successfully dismantled dozens of these organizations and rescued children from slavery and exploitation.”
According to his bio on All American Speakers, Ballard started his career with the CIA working on cases that focused on terrorism and Latin America.
According to a 2015 article in The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, “after running operations for more than a decade, and seeing how many individuals he couldn’t get to, he wanted a change.”
Did Tim Ballard Really Stage a Fake Pedophile Club to Catch Sex Traffickers?
According to the Ballard organization’s website, yes.
However, some elements of the movie differ from actual details. The movie shows a single raid on an island. In real life, “this was one of three coordinated takedowns that happened that day in Colombia, conducted by O.U.R. in conjunction with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). In total, 123 survivors were rescued, 55 of which were minors,” the website says, adding that it was called “Operation Triple Take.”
The character “Fuego” in the film “is a real person who was arrested during Operation Triple Take. As an undercover operator for O.U.R., Tim negotiated directly with him. Fuego wore a hat of Che Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary, and when Tim asked him about it, he boasted, ‘Because I’m the revolutionary in selling girls,'” the website says.
Was the Character of “Miguel,” aka “Teddy Bear,” Based on a Real Person?
Yes. In real life, according to the organization’s website, “Tim was still an HSI Special Agent, and the little boy really did gift that necklace to Tim. On it, it has a scripture reference from 1 Timothy 6:11 and the words ‘Man of God’ inscribed on it. It wasn’t until Tim took it home to show to his family that his son pointed out his name was on it.”
“To me, call it luck, chance, coincidence, God, whatever you want to call it, it was a message,” Ballard says on the website. “That necklace symbolized a calling now to me. It meant so much and I decided, then and there, that this is it, this is what I’m called to do, this is what I’ll do for the rest of my life.”
However, in real life, Ballard set out on a quest to find a young boy named Gardy, whereas in the movie he searches for a lost girl who is the sister of Miguel.
Operation Underground Railroad has written extensively about the search for Gardy on its Facebook page. The website says Ballard promised Gardy’s father they would find his son:
In 2013, the beginning of Operation Underground Railroad was sparked by the story of Gardy Mardy, who was kidnapped from his family. Gardy’s story reached Tim Ballard, who was working as a federal agent for the U.S. government. As someone who led dozens of child exploitation cases, he was devastated when he discovered he could not make this a U.S. case. He made a promise to Gardy’s father and left his government job to begin the search for the little boy.
Although he is still missing today, we will never give up until we FIND GARDY.
Was the Character of Former Beauty Queen Turned Sex Trafficker Giselle Based on a Real Person?
She was based on a real woman named Kelly Johana Suarez, according to the organization’s website.
The site says that Suarez was a former beauty queen and model who “really did recruit and traffic children using her credentials in Colombia.”
In 2014, Daily Beast reported, “A popular Colombian beauty queen was arrested this past weekend for her alleged role in a child prostitution ring aimed at foreign sex tourists.” The site reported that authorities arrested “22-year old Kelly Johana Suárez Martínez Moyam and four others during a party attended by 25 minors, among others, on Colombia’s Caribbean Islas de Rosario islands.”
According to CW39, however, Suarez was a contestant in the Miss Cartagena pageant. “The 22-year-old was arrested by American I.C.E. Agents on a beach near Cartagena in an undercover operation in which Kelly’s accused of trying to sell an 11-year-old girl’s virginity to a foreign sex-tourist,” the site reports.
Did Tim Ballard Really Kill a Man in His Quest to Save the Trafficked Girl?
No. His organization’s website says that was fictional and that Ballard has never killed a man.
Was Tim Ballard’s Wife Really Supportive of the Venture?
Yes. “Happy Mother’s Day to my inspiring, amazing wife!! She couldn’t see a world where we didn’t fight to rescue God’s children and for that, I’m so grateful,” Ballard wrote in one Instagram post.
One aspect of the Ballard family not shown in the movie is the family’s Church of the Latter-day Saints faith. Ballard’s wife is named Katherine Ballard.
According to Foreign Policy, “Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work.”
Did Tim Ballard Travel Alone Into the Jungle Posing as a Doctor?
No. That’s fictional, according to the website.
“This did not happen. However, in real life, Tim did lead a group of O.U.R. operators, posing as doctors, into a jungle on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic a few years after Operation Triple Take in search for Gardy,” the website says.
Is the Character ‘Vampiro’ Real?
Yes, according to the organization’s website, but Vampiro did not sleep with a teenage prostitute but rather an adult victim of human trafficking, the website says, and he has never been to jail. He did not participate in “Operation Triple Take,” however, according to the website.
In real life, Ballard’s group is more controversial than the movie presents. Ballard’s organization has been accused of exaggerating its role in some rescues. According to Deseret News, a Utah prosecutor in March 2023 closed a criminal investigation into Ballard’s nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad without issuing charges.
The website notes that the film’s depiction of the sex trafficking issue is not entirely accurate. It says,
At the first of the film, it shows security camera footage of several different kidnappings. This is real footage, and while this type of human trafficking exists, it isn’t the majority. When we hear the phrase ‘sex trafficking,’ our minds often picture dusty, dark alleyways in foreign countries where orphaned children from the streets are kidnapped, exploited, and sold. And that is a horrific reality, but it is also important to understand that sex trafficking is not just a foreign issue, but an acute domestic concern within the United States that is ever increasing.