PAMPANGA, PHILIPPINES – As Typhoon Nari bore down on the Philippines this fall, the destruction made global headlines. But far below the headlines, another drama was playing out against the background of the torrential downpour and power outages.
In the midst of the typhoon, six young women were being rescued from the bar where they had been trafficked and sold for sex.
The entertainment bar was located in the heart of the red-light district in Angeles City, an internationally known destination for sex tourism.
According to IJM Pampanga Director Kaign Christy, the successful rescue operation on October 11, 2013, signals a shifting tide for business in Angeles: "We got to see several different law enforcement agencies working together on this sting operation. As law enforcement starts policing these streets and closing down bars that are exploiting minors, we can expect to see fewer young girls abused in this industry."
The Rescue Operation
Because of the large bar's central location, the operation required close collaboration and careful planning. Lawyers, investigators and support staff from all three of IJM's offices in the Philippines were on the ground to support several law enforcement agencies, including the regional anti-trafficking division. The rescue team entered the bar around 8:30 p.m., and many of the agents and IJM staff were collecting evidence and securing the crime scene until 3:00 in the morning.
Government and IJM social workers helped explain what was happening to the young women—they were confused and afraid, unwilling to leave the bar and unsure who to trust. Many trafficking victims actually fear police. Pimps and traffickers know that they can control their victims through force and with lies: Some of the young women had been told that they would be in trouble if they ever cooperated with the police.
Protected by law enforcement officers and aided by social workers, the young women boarded buses and drove through the rain to a government safehouse where they could begin to share their stories.
Recording the Truth by Flashlight
Typhoon Nari (known in the Philippines as Santi) was only getting stronger, and moments before the bus full of young women arrived, the power went out at the government center. Undeterred, IJM staff distributed flashlights and finished making final preparations. When the survivors arrived, they began the interview process by flashlight.
Officials recorded statements from each young woman that may be used as evidence in trial. At one point an IJM staff member went out into the storm to buy a generator, to recharge everything with batteries.
Reinstating Rule of Law
"Reinstating the rule of law in this city will not come without a fight, but it can come. We have seen what a targeted investment in law enforcement can bring—nearly 80% reduction in the number of girls available for sex in metro Cebu. That kind of dramatic reduction can be replicated."
Staff from IJM's Washington, DC, headquarters were in Pampanga and on site to provide support. IJM Director of Operations for Southeast Asia Blair Burns said he was struck by how efficiently the law enforcement agencies conducted the anti-trafficking rescue operation. He noted that they had worked with IJM less than a week earlier to remove trafficking victims from a karaoke bar on the same street.
"It's hard to believe the red-light district in Angeles City—it's like stepping back in time. There is a sense of lawlessness that is hard to describe," Blair said, adding, "Reinstating the rule of law in this city will not come without a fight, but it can come. We have seen what a targeted investment in law enforcement can bring—nearly 80% reduction in the number of girls available for sex in metro Cebu. That kind of dramatic reduction can be replicated. It must be replicated."
Between the high-end entertainment bar and the smaller karaoke bar, eleven sex trafficking victims were rescued and twelve suspects were arrested. The survivors spent time at a government shelter and are now home with their families. IJM will continue to follow up with them to provide critical care.
Trafficking charges were filed against all twelve suspects, and IJM will support both criminal cases as they move to trial this year.