The American men walked into the darkened brothel in Bangkok and were soon offered a variety of prostitutes, young and old, male and female. “You go in and try to look like a john as much as possible,” one of the Americans said later of his undercover role. “Try to act like them, talk like them. You don’t go in and order a glass of milk.”

The men moved from brothel to brothel, each “packed with foreigners,” the American said. “You’re sitting next to these perverts, not only having to interact with them but become one of them. It’s common to go shop around. You sit there, get a price,” he said. “It was probably the darkest underworld playground of the devil that I’ve ever been in.”

The American was former Washington Nationals baseball player Adam LaRoche, and he described participating in a “rescue” operation last year with The Exodus Road, one of a number of American nonprofit groups that are fighting human trafficking in a new way: by luring pimps into the open, and then working with local law enforcement to arrest the traffickers and free the victims.

Members of the groups, often former U.S. military members or law enforcement officers, pose as American tourists looking to party with groups of underage sex workers. Some groups, such as The Exodus Road and Operation Underground Railroad, invite supporters or television crews to come along to spread the word about the horrors, and witness the thrilling moments when sex traffickers are handcuffed, and terrorized children are rescued.

‘RISKY TO THE VICTIMS’

“We believe the problem will never go away unless everybody knows about it and does something,” said Tim Ballard, a former investigator with the Department of Homeland Security who started Operation Underground Railroad, based in Anaheim, California.

But this high-profile approach is attracting skepticism from some respected workers who have fought human trafficking for decades by working with Third World police and prosecutors to attack the problem and rid their ranks of corruption. They question whether the American groups spend the time and effort needed to ensure that victims aren’t returned to the same cycles of degrading violence. They also raise concerns about entrapment and safety for the civilians such as LaRoche who participate.

“The trouble is it’s really risky to the victims,” said Anne Gallagher, founding chair of the U.N. Inter-Agency Group on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, and cited by the State Department as “the leading global expert on the international law on human trafficking.” She said that the civilian groups can cause problems for prosecutions, and that they often are unprepared to help victims.

“It’s also misleading,” Gallagher said, “and deflects attention and resources and energy away from the hard stuff that needs to be done. . . . They’re in and out. No way they can follow up a victim’s case. No way they’re evaluating the impact of what they’ve done.”

Gallagher and Cees de Rover, executive director of Equity International, wrote an article for the Huffington Post last year criticizing Operation Underground Railroad from “a law enforcement perspective.” The group’s approach, the pair said, targets low-level recruiters and pimps but doesn’t dismantle the leadership of sophisticated trafficking networks.

But groups such as Operation Underground Rescue and International Justice Mission, often mentioned as the preeminent rescue group, say that they do plan for the care of rescued victims, and that their work is having a measurable effect on human trafficking and sex tourism in countries such as Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Thailand. The rescue organizations are funded entirely by private donations, government and private grants and in-kind offers of goods and services, their officials said.

‘WE ARE ABSOLUTELY INVOLVED’

Holly Burkhalter, the senior adviser for justice system transformation at the International Justice Mission, based in Washington, said that her group establishes permanent staffs in the countries where they work, and that they create lasting relationships with both social service providers and law enforcement.

“We stay there for the long term,” she said. “If children coming out of a criminal sexual situation are not given care and schooling and economic aid, they will almost certainly be retrafficked. We are absolutely involved every step of the way.”

The rescue groups work closely with law enforcement in the host country to oversee their rescue missions and handle the prosecutions of the traffickers. Gallagher said that can be problematic in many countries where law enforcement is already deeply involved with the traffickers.

The most widely accepted analysis of human trafficking worldwide, by the International Labour Organization in 2012, estimated that 4.5 million people are being forced to work in the sex trade, out of 20.9 million in all manner of forced labor. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2016 said there had been nearly 19,000 prosecutions worldwide for human trafficking last year, an 88 percent increase from the previous year.

When American rescue groups offer their help, it’s generally appreciated by the United States and host governments, even if it isn’t always comprehensive, said Ransom J. Avilla, a Department of Homeland Security Investigations attache based in Manila. Avilla said American officials in the Philippines had worked closely with the International Justice Mission and “they do provide a full service,” working with police, prosecutors and social service agencies throughout cases that can last many years.

Ballard, who became frustrated with his Homeland Security job when the federal government said that children from other countries couldn’t be rescued, started Operation Underground Railroad in 2013. With former Navy SEALs, CIA agents and other experienced operatives, he trains foreign law enforcement agencies and then acts as one of the American lures to bring traffickers out of the shadows, as a presumed tourist in bars or on beaches. Some of the organization’s exploits are featured in a recently released movie, “The Abolitionists,” documenting the preparations, the contacts and then the takedowns of sex traffickers.