CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – A bulky desktop computer sits unplugged on the table in a police station. It looks harmless. But it’s not. It was once used to sell children as young as 2 years old for cybersex in the Philippines.
Over the past week, in two different cases, six children—most under age 7—were rescued from cybersex trafficking rings in the Philippines. The boys and girls were being sexually exploited in images and video broadcast online to customers in over 19 countries on four continents, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
Criminal prosecution of the overseas sex offenders led authorities to the Philippines, where four suspects have been arrested so far for recruiting and exploiting children. IJM assisted international agencies and the Philippine government in both cases, and the search for additional children who may have been victimized continues.
4,000 Images of Children Found
Last month, a British man was convicted in the U.K. for sexually abusing and exploiting children via webcam. The United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency had discovered more than 4,000 images and videos of boys and girls on the man’s laptop in London and traced these back to a cybersex trafficking ring in the Philippines.
The U.K. agency shared the tip, and for the past six months IJM has been working closely with Philippine authorities to pinpoint the ringleaders in the Philippines.
The investigation led to two Filipino women who were exploiting their own children, nephews and nieces, and recruiting other mothers to procure children ranging from 2 to 13 years old. The boys and girls were forced to pose for lewd photos and perform sexual acts on themselves or each other. The British man had often been the one directing the abusive acts via webcam from his home in London.
“Foreign pedophiles like this man exploit the economic vulnerability of Filipino women to satisfy their sexual, and sometimes sadistic, appetites,” explains John Tanagho, deputy director of IJM Cebu.
The Cybersex Ring is Finally Broken
On a rainy morning last week, IJM and Philippine law enforcement officials entered three homes simultaneously and safely removed the children. Three suspects were arrested, including the British man’s alleged partners in crime, and the National Bureau of Investigation seized evidence for forensic examination.
“The victims were mostly quiet in the van, but later they were ready to answer questions. Most of them expressed that they are afraid and ashamed to go back to school after what happened,” said Carmelita Pelone, a senior social worker with IJM Cebu who was on the scene to provide support.
IJM and government social workers stayed with the children throughout the weekend at the temporary shelter where they received crisis care and warm meals.
A few children also shared that there were other victims; thanks to their courage and details they provided, IJM mobilized the National Bureau of Investigations and local officials on Sunday afternoon to rescue two more 8-year-old boys.
Going Undercover to Rescue Others
Just as authorities closed in on the Filipino accomplices, another case surfaced.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shared a referral with Philippine authorities: An American man is currently on trial in the U.S. for sex crimes in the Philippines, including possessing sexually explicit images and video of children. A Filipino woman was allegedly pimping out girls for sex and sharing explicit images via social media.
On Monday, August 17—the day after IJM completed the first operation—another team of IJM staff assisted the regional anti-cybercrime police with an operation to arrest the suspected trafficker. Charges are still being framed, but she may face penalties for both street-based trafficking and child pornography.
One minor was rescued, but the search for a 10-year-old girl shown in the abusive online photographs continues. This girl is believed to be the suspect’s little sister.
Working Around the Clock
Both cases continue. The rescued children are receiving crisis care at a temporary shelter, while IJM staff and government social workers assess each child’s needs to make a long-term plan. Police have been working around the clock to record statements from the children.
“These kids will need a safe, loving and nurturing environment during their healing process. A shelter that will accommodate and guide them to become mature and responsible individuals,” Pelone says. She adds that these cases represent a growing need for more shelters that are prepared to care for boys. Most shelters for trafficking survivors are set up for girls.
On August 19, two of the Filipino accomplices were charged with child abuse and qualified trafficking, a non-bailable offense with a mandatory life sentence. IJM Cebu lawyers will keep working with local prosecutors to hold the suspects in both cases accountable.
“These cases show that while foreign and Filipino perpetrators seek to sexually exploit children online on a growing scale, IJM is ready and able to support international and Philippine law enforcement to stop the abuse and hold them accountable,” says Tanagho of IJM Cebu.
Despite the terrible nature of the crime, he has hope: “Sustained and specialized law enforcement can prevent the online sexual abuse of millions of Filipino children, just as it has with sex trafficking.”