Joint Operation Brings Rescue
In December 2010, IJM discovered that girls as young as 16 had been trafficked to the two-story bar and were being sold for sex. IJM worked with the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation’s anti-trafficking unit to rescue sixteen young women, including five girls under 18.
The girls spent time in aftercare homes for survivors of sex trafficking. The youngest girl—16 when rescued—still lives in an aftercare home and is now in her fourth year of high school. She has her sights set on attending college.
Despite the perpetrators’ intimidations, four of the girls chose to participate in the trial. The threats actually propelled one survivor, who said: “I will pin them down even more.”
IJM social workers helped the girls prepare to share the truth from the witness stand, and IJM attorney Rosemarie Ayos-Lujero represented them in court.
The Battle for Justice
In November 2013, after almost two years in trial, the case was finally coming to a close. But just a week before the final hearing, IJM learned that the judge was related to one of the suspects charged with trafficking. This posed an obvious conflict of interest.
The IJM team quickly filed a request with the court to recuse the judge from the case. The court approved the request, and a new judge was assigned to the case earlier this year. Since the new judge did not have the benefit of hearing the testimonies from the survivors or other witnesses, she made her ruling based solely on the trial notes.
On June 30, 2014, in the final hearing of the day, the judge issued her ruling. She was expressionless as she prepared to read the long-awaited verdict. The five defendants were somber as they listened: all five were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In her remarks, the judge said the fact that the defendants claimed they didn’t realize the girls were under 18 was “immaterial,” since the Philippines’ anti-trafficking law is clear that minority constitutes trafficking.
The bar where girls were once trafficked and exploited for sex has long been closed. Instead, a restaurant occupies the first floor and a gym on the second. The third story was empty at the time of the rescue operation—today, it houses a church.