IJM Guatemala Seeks Justice for Six Girls Abused in Online Child Exploitation Website

IJM advocated for Benita and the other survivors to testify in the Gesell Chamber, a separate room in the court, so children do not have to take the intimidating witness stand in a crowded courtroom.
IJM advocated for Benita and the other survivors to testify in the Gesell Chamber, a separate room in the court, so children do not have to take the intimidating witness stand in a crowded courtroom.

GUATEMALA CITY – For nearly two years, IJM Guatemala has been advocating for six girls who were victims of brutal sexual violence—aged 6 to 15 years old. It's a unique case for the IJM team that handles child sexual assault cases, as these girls were being sexually abused in videos and photographs posted online.

These six girls are just a fraction of the dozens reportedly exploited on a website targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice in a massive takedown of pedophiles that spanned five continents.

Dreamboard:  Abuse on a Massive Scale

The U.S. Department of Justice described the website, Dreamboard, as a "self-described global 'community' of pedophiles dedicated to the relentless victimization and exploitation of children 12 and under." In 2011, CNN reported that more than 50 people were arrested in the U.S., and ten more were arrested abroad for crimes committed related to the site.

The scope of the abuse was massive—Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that there were about 600 users uploading content to the website, resulting in enough abusive content to fill about 16,000 DVDs.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder explained how uploading abusive content earned the suspects greater access on the site: "Once given access, the participants had to continually upload images of child sexual abuse in order to maintain membership. The more content they provided, the more content they were allowed to access."

The scope of the abuse was massive—Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that there were about 600 users uploading content to the website, resulting in enough abusive content to fill about 16,000 DVDs.

Investigations and arrests continued into 2012, led by U.S. ICE Homeland Security Investigations and several other international law enforcement agencies. When the Guatemalan Public Ministry received information about a man connected to Dreamboard living in Guatemala City, they quickly made the arrest and called IJM for support with the subsequent trial. IJM helped identify and locate the man's victims, then helped advocate for these six girls, all minors.

IJM Guatemala social workers reached out to the girls and their families to provide much-needed therapy and support, while IJM lawyers started to build the case in cooperation with state prosecutors. IJM paralegal William Godinez said that the stories they heard from family members and the girls themselves were "incredibly raw and twisted." He added that "the girls were forced to exploit themselves and be subject to things they never should have."

A Survivor's Story

As IJM helped develop the case, they learned about a girl named Benita.*

The abuse against Benita started when she was 10 or 11. She doesn't remember exactly how old she was, but she does remember exactly what she was doing the first time she met the stranger who hurt her: She was on her way to buy bread with a cousin.

On that mundane errand, a stranger approached her and asked if she would like some work as a model. She agreed, and he later showed up at her house. The stranger gave the same pitch to Benita's mother, who gladly accepted money her impoverished family desperately needed. But this was not good work; the photos were exploitive and would end up on the Dreamboard website. Sadly, even when the nature of abuse became clear, Benita's mother kept letting the man come back and pay to exploit her daughter.

Although the abuse stopped when the man was arrested in early 2012, Benita was still at risk in her home and not receiving much-needed therapy to process the abuse she had endured. In April 2012, IJM helped Guatemalan authorities bring rescue to Benita. She went to stay in a children's home, where she received counseling and was able to keep up with her studies.

Justice Brings Healing

Benita chose to testify in the trial against the man who exploited her. Her testimony offered strong evidence for the case—and just as importantly, it was a significant milestone in her own healing. IJM advocated for Benita and the other survivors to testify in the Gesell Chamber, a separate room in the court. This Chamber allows a child psychologist to interview a child in a room with child-friendly decor and comfortable furniture—instead of on the intimidating witness stand in a crowded courtroom. The psychologist receives questions through an earpiece from the lawyers and judge watching the proceedings from behind a one-way mirrored window.

"Benita is an intelligent, driven and extroverted young woman. She is working to pursue her dreams and goals and is gaining practical skills to help advance her future."

Working closely with local public prosecutors assigned to the high-profile case, IJM completed closing arguments in early 2013. The judge issued a guilty verdict on March 25, 2013. The man was sentenced to 28 years in prison. While the conviction was strong, the legal team is appealing the case to ensure the criminal is sentenced for every single charge brought against him—he was convicted of some, but not all, of the charges brought against him, and IJM's lawyers believe that the evidence requires a guilty verdict on each charge.

Benita's journey of restoration will continue, but she believes in herself and dreams of a better future. She and the other girls have received trauma-focused therapy, and they have learned how to make goals and practical action plans to achieve their dreams. Benita has taken a high school equivalency exam, and she is now taking classes at a beauty school.

"Benita is an intelligent, driven and extroverted young woman," says Claudia Osorio, an IJM Guatemala Social Worker, "She is working to pursue her dreams and goals and is gaining practical skills to help advance her future."

*A pseudonym