PAMPANGA, THE PHILIPPINES—Eleven suspects were arrested at a high-end entertainment bar where women and girls were being trafficked and exploited for sex in the heart of Angeles City. The highly complex operation involved staff from all three IJM offices in the Philippines and required close coordination between national government agencies and the local anti-trafficking unit.
Carrying out an operation on this bar was a challenge—not only because of its size, but also because the bar management used deceptive tactics to hide their criminal activity.
The police who led this successful operation are part of an even bigger trend across the Philippines: In the first quarter of 2015, IJM has helped authorities rescue nearly 50 victims of sex trafficking.
During the operation, young women gave statements explaining that “(the) establishment had a really complex method of handling its business so it could layer its participants, especially the owners and managers, from criminal liability,” according to IJM Pampanga’s Director of Legal. “It shows that the big fish were intent on protecting themselves at the expense of very vulnerable people.”
The “big fish” are the bar’s owners and management; many are foreign nationals who use their nationality to attract foreign clientele. The managers would allow customers to essentially “rent” a girl who worked at the bar, then take her out to exploit her. It was a workaround to wash their hands of direct involvement in trafficking.
But on March 6, the joint team of authorities and IJM staff conducted a sting operation to catch the criminals in the act. The team also rescued six young women who had been trafficked in this bar. One of the “big fish” arrested that night is a German manager who handled the bar’s day-to-day operations. In a country where most of the demand for trafficked women and children comes from foreign nationals, this accountability is vital.
The driving force behind this operation and other crackdowns in this area long notorious for sex trafficking is the increased initiative and collaboration of local law enforcement. The Regional Anti-Trafficking Task Group 3 (RATTG3) initiated this investigation after a past operation turned up information about the bar.
The Law Has Teeth: Pro-Active Anti-Trafficking Units
The resolve and initiative showed by RATTG3 through this investigation demonstrates that when Philippine anti-trafficking laws are properly enforced, they have significant power to stop the exploitation of women and minors.
“They will realize that the trafficking law here in the Philippines has teeth and we can go after them if we want,” said an IJM lawyer.
RATTG3 used the country’s anti-trafficking law to file criminal complaints against the 11 suspected perpetrators, who are now undergoing preliminary investigation.
In addition, representatives from the national government participated in this operation. Social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development took custody of, interviewed and offered trauma-informed care to the women removed from the bar. The Department of Labor and Employment sent officials to gather evidence for the potential closing of the bar, if evidence is adequately presented for criminal activity. The Department of Justice provided guidance on legal matters, and the head prosecutor conducted the inquest.
IJM Philippines Field Offices Unite
While the national government and local law enforcement came together to complete the large-scale operation, all of the IJM Philippines field offices came together as well. IJM Cebu and IJM Manila sent lawyers, social workers and general staff to assist with the operation.
This collaboration was representative of the larger movement these three offices have created throughout the Philippines. In fact, the Pampanga and Manila field offices were conducting simultaneous operations that day.
“It is great to see the law enforcement momentum continue to grow across the Philippines,” said IJM Philippines National Director, Jesse Rudy. “In a span of nine weeks, our three offices supported three different law enforcement units in eight rescue operations that resulted in 48 young women and children being rescued, and 25 of their abusers taken into custody,” said Rudy.
The speed and frequency at which these operations are happening affirm that the Philippines is serious about fighting human trafficking. “In each of these operations, our law enforcement partners have demonstrated a level of commitment, leadership and expertise that would have been hard to imagine five years ago,” Rudy added.