MANILA, Philippines — Fourteen-year-old Chang cried as she took off her clothes in front of a webcam. On the other side of the world, paying pedophiles watched the “sex show” in real time.
Chang had entered the house with the bamboo fence in her fishing town, believing she would smile, say “hi” to the camera and earn enough pesos for a new pair of pants. Once inside, Chang’s neighbours coerced her into exposing herself to pedophiles in places like Canada, Australia or the United States.
“They threatened me that if I did not do what they asked, they’d tell my parents,” Chang told HuffPost Canada.
She ignored her father’s warning to avoid the house, where everyone in the community seemed to know bad things happened. Instead, she told him she was hanging out with friends. “I was so nervous and scared,” she said.
Chang was groomed and sexually abused for three months in 2015, facilitated by five adults on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. She kept going in part because her best friend, who lived there, said she would be physically abused or kicked out of the home if Chang didn’t show up.
“I feel pity to her and I go there,” Chang said.
One day, police officers stormed the house and arrested the suspects. Chang sat frozen on a bed in one of three rooms, watching it unfold. She remembered what a teacher had once told her: In stressful situations, don’t react. Stay calm.
“I see my perpetrator. They handcuff him,” she said. “I just did nothing.”
Social workers rescued Chang, her best friend and 10 other victims who were in the house at the time of the raid; the youngest was six years old.
Police seized computers and hard drives, sex toys and condoms, and remittance receipts, according to local media. Two men and three women later pleaded guilty to child pornography-related charges. All were sentenced to prison for 20 years, except for one offender who received a life sentence.
Chang, now 18, lives in a shelter for victims of violence near Manila. (HuffPost Canada does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent. “Chang” is a pseudonym.)
She agreed to share her story to raise awareness about the global crime that irreversibly changed her life, and is affecting an unknown number of other Filipino children.
Sitting on a chair on a veranda grasping a plastic bottle of water, her sneakered feet did not quite touch the floor. Her voice was quiet but she spoke clearly, with determination.
“I deal with my anger through crying because I can’t fight with (the perpetrators),” she said. “I was just a child and they’re adults.”
A humanitarian crisis
The police bust was an early indication of a disturbing trend emerging in the Philippines. Four years later, police and experts say online sexual exploitation of children is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis, and they need help.
“This crime is fuelled by demand from western countries,” said Sam Inocencio, the Philippine national director of International Justice Mission, an organization that works closely with police, prosecutors and the government to rescue, protect and rehabilitate victims.
The kind of online abuse that Chang experienced is orchestrated by pedophiles, who dictate to offenders and their victims what kind of sexual acts or abuse they want to watch.
“It’s one of the most evil abuses committed against children …. And the idea that perpetrators from abroad don’t even have to leave their own homes to direct the live abuse of children located in the Philippines, that’s just mind-blowing,” Inocencio said.
UNICEF described the Philippines as a “global epicentre” for the livestream child abuse trade, and among the top 10 countries for producing sexual content of children. It also found that almost one in five children had been sexually violated.
“The Philippines is gaining prominence for this vicious online activity,” said anti-trafficking Philippine National Police (PNP) Col. Sheila Portento. “Vulnerable and innocent children are most likely the target of thousands of foreign customers and buyers of sexually explicit materials exploiting the cyberspace.”
Sex tourism in the Philippines has been a challenge for decades, but technology has changed the nature of crimes. Instead of teenage girls exploited in brothels and on streets, younger victims are abused in homes. Children are under 12 years old in more than half of their cases and 20 per cent are boys, according to IJM. The youngest victim police say they’ve rescued is a three-month-old baby.
Nearly 60 per cent of the time, perpetrators are parents, relatives or close family friends, reported IJM. In a developing country where poverty is rampant, the motivations are easy to spot.
“Greed will drive this crime because (perpetrators) can get multiple times of what they’re earning as minimum wage, with the misconception this will not harm my child,” said Rey Bicol, IJM’s Manila field office director. “It’s the easiest way to earn a living.”
Victims and their families usually speak fluent English, and internet is cheap — a day’s worth of unlimited data costs a few pesos, or less than a dollar. Virtually everyone is connected. There are more mobile subscriptions than the country’s population of 107 million, reported Hootsuite earlier this year.
The Philippines is also among the world’s top recipients of remittances, with 2.3 million Filipinos working abroad, according to the government. Money transfer centres can be found “on the tiniest villages on the remotest islands,” said Australian Federal Police senior liason officer Richard Stanford, who is based in Manila. Those same services are being used by foreign pedophiles to pay for live child pornography ranging from $20 to $150 a video, according to IJM.
Prioritizing ‘the worst of the worst’
PNP have conducted more than 130 operations and rescued nearly 500 victims since 2011, reports IJM. About 95 per cent of cases were referred by their foreign counterparts including the RCMP, FBI, Interpol and Europol, said Chief William Solano Macavinta of the PNP Women and Children Protection Centre.
In the past six months, the RCMP has sent 80 tips to police in the Philippines, said Chief Supt. Marie-Claude Arsenault. She is the director of the Canadian force’s general, sensitive and specialized investigative services.
“Southeast Asia in general is a hot-spot region. The reality in these countries is that the culture, the poverty and so on means these behaviours have been in existence for a while,” Arsenault said in an interview.
In 2017, Canada and the Philippines worked together in a high-profile case that led to the arrest of Philip Chicoine. The Saskatoon man admitted to paying parents to livestream online sexual abuse of infants and older children overseas.
The PNP used images and other evidence seized from Chicoine’s computer to track down and rescue nine children in the Philippines, and to arrest and charge the mother of some of the victims, said IJM. Chicoine was sentenced to 12 years in prison — the longest in Saskatchewan history for child pornography-related offences.
“This was a very successful case and the co-operation with the Philippines was excellent,” Arsenault said.
This year, police in both countries investigated Howard Milne, a London, Ont. man, who allegedly paid a woman in the Philippines to sexually assault children. Milne, facing a half dozen child pornography charges, is out on bail. The investigation is ongoing in the Philippines; no victims have been rescued so far, said IJM.
There’s a third joint investigation, said Arsneault, but she can’t reveal any details as the case is ongoing.
Watch: Sex offenders from U.K. barred from Southeast Asian countries. Story continues below.
The PNP are expected to conduct online sexual exploitation operations more frequently, with the launch of the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Centre (PICACC) in February. It is dedicated to working with IJM and law enforcement agencies around the world, Macavinta said.
“There are so many victims out there that need to be rescued soon, very soon,” he said.
At its headquarters in Manila, the PNP work alongside officers from the Australian Federal Police and the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency.
The Mounties do not have an officer there, although there are liaisons in other Southeast Asian countries. The RCMP will soon have investigators dedicated to monitoring child sex offenders, but it has not yet decided if they will be stationed in the region, or travel to countries such as the Philippines as needed, Arsenault said.
Canada, the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and the Netherlands are reporting significant increases in online child pornography tips from the public, international partners, internet service providers, and social media companies. The RCMP, for example, saw reports jump by 350 per cent, from 6,072 in 2011 to 27,300 in 2016, according to the Virtual Global Taskforce. Last year, it received 50,000 reports.
RCMP keep tabs on registered sex offenders
RCMP investigators sift through the data — eliminating cases that don’t classify as criminal, and prioritizing “the worst of the worst, the disturbing sexual abuse, the hands-on abuse, the abuse where you have re-victimization and the constant sharing of information,” said Arsenault.
Referrals and investigation packages go out to international partners like PNP and police forces in the U.S. and Canada, she said.
The RCMP also monitor the internet. One unit, for example, is dedicated to the “dark web,” an encrypted network where it’s easier for offenders to remain anonymous. Another group of investigators keeps tabs on the 51,000 Canadians registered as national sex offenders, especially when they travel to hot spot destinations like the Philippines.
The RCMP is a world leader in using machine learning and artificial intelligence to ease the pressure on investigators who must examine high volumes of graphic information, Arsenault said.
“Our system will be used by (police) units across the country and increase our capacity to prioritize and deal with these files, share and analyze,” she said. “It also helps us with our health and wellness. The disturbing material that’s being watched on a daily basis is very difficult, very damaging.”
Not long ago, foreign law enforcement thought of the Philippines as a “black hole,” said Gideon Cauton, IJM’s director of investigations. U.S. authorities alone would send a thousand online child exploitation-related tips every month to the Philippines, and never hear anything back.
Recognizing that local police lacked the resources or training to keep up with cybersex crimes, the government dedicated more funds to the cause, and police formed the specialized PICACC unit this year.
Just 10 days after its creation in February, PICACC received a tip from the FBI. A military staff sergeant, Moeun Youen, had been arrested in Washington state. Youen, 37, is accused of possessing child pornography and travelling to the Philippines to sexually abuse children, according to IJM.
Police in the Philippines analyzed chat logs between Youen and a 17-year-old Filipino perpetrator. They also reviewed videos that showed “significant” sexual abuse of girls between the ages of 10 and 13, compelling police to act quickly to track down their location, said Macavinta.
In the dockside slums of Manila’s Navotas City, police collaborated with school officials, social workers, local government and IJM to locate the children, said Cauton, who helped co-ordinate the rescue.
As the sun set on April 2, the cops moved in. Filipino, Australian and British officers ran from one of Navotas City’s main streets into a dark, narrow maze of criss-crossing alleyways lined with a patchwork of congested apartments and informal homes (about 250,000 people live in the 10-kilometre area), said Cauton. For a moment they lost their way, before bursting through the correct door and discovering the girls.
“The victims want to run away, they’re not trusting of you,” said one of IJM’s security personnel, who asked for anonymity to protect his role in future rescues. “We have to be strong and hopeful, and make them feel safe.”
IJM security focused on quelling a growing crowd of curious onlookers and protecting social workers from retaliation so they could grab the children as quickly as possible and make it into waiting vans. The victims were taken into government care where they will receive counselling, IJM said.
Likely tipped off, the alleged offender has yet to be found, said police.
‘How the bird can fly’
Chang remains in an IJM-sponsored shelter near Manila, far from her hometown that continues to be a hotbed for online sexual exploitation of children, said her social worker who cannot be identified as it could jeopardize her rescue work. Chang is not quite ready to return to her family, but is working towards her future.
“I want to have my own agency. I want to have a house, I want to travel,” Chang said. “I want to go back home when I am successful.”
She’s in Grade 11 now, and said she’s a leader in her church and school, where she loves to dance and learn about science. “I am understanding how the bird can fly,” she said excitedly. “I am so very curious about the environment.”
Chang said she wants to become a police officer, to raise awareness about the crime and “stop the traffickers.”
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen again,” she said. “I want to stop what’s currently spreading — not just online sexual exploitation of children, but every illegal act.”
Reporting for this article received financial and logistical support from the International Justice Mission Canada, a charity that works to end slavery, sex trafficking, and sexual violence in developing countries.