Negros Oriental, Philippines (CNN) — Andrea was 14 years old the first time a voice over the Internet told her to take off her clothes.
“I was so embarrassed because I don’t want others to see my private parts,” she said. “The customer told me to remove my blouse and to show him my breasts.”
She was in a home in Negros Oriental, a province known for its scenic beaches, tourism and diving. But she would know none of that beauty. Nor would she know the life she’d been promised.
Andrea, which is not her real name, said she had been lured away from her rural, mountain village in the Philippines by a cousin who said he would give her a well-paid job as a babysitter in the city. She thought she was leaving her impoverished life for an opportunity to earn money to finish high school. Instead, she became another victim caught up in the newest but no less sinister world of sexual exploitation — cyber-sex trafficking.
After arriving at the two-story house in Negros Oriental — located in the central Visayas region of the Philippines — Andrea found that her new home would become both workplace and prison. She was shocked by what she saw.
“The windows were covered so it was dark. There was a computer and a camera where naked girls would say words to seduce their mainly foreign customers.”
She said customers would ask the girls to perform sexually with each other.
For the next few months, Andrea said she was one of seven girls, between age 13 and 18, who spent day and night satisfying the sexual fantasies of men around the world. Paying $56 per minute, male customers typed their instructions onto a computer and then watched via a live camera as the girls performed sexual acts. She said the girls were often forced to watch the men they served on screens.
Andrea dreamed of returning home but her employer, an uncle, slept downstairs and kept the front door locked. “I was told if I tried to escape, the police would put me in jail. I believed it. I was very innocent — I grew up without TV and had never left my village before,” she explained.
Convinced that earning enough money to finish her education was the only way to help her family out of poverty, Andrea forced herself to work. But “doing whatever the customer asked” eventually took its toll. “I wanted to cry but I could not. I wanted to cover myself with a blanket. I had goose bumps because of the shame. I would feel like I was floating,” she recalled.
Andrea’s story is only one of many playing out every day in a nation where the conditions — widespread poverty, an established sex trade, a predominantly English-speaking, technically-literate population and widespread Internet access — have made it easy for crimes like this to flourish.
Difficult to stop
Jo Alforque, Advocacy Officer with End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT Philippines), an NGO working to combat child sexual exploitation, explained that because cyber-sex dens can be located anywhere — from Internet cafes to private homes and offices — they are extremely difficult to identify. Anyone who has a computer, internet and a Web cam can be in business.
Whether part of large international criminal syndicates or smaller operations, their independent nature and lack of coordinated structure make it easy for cyber-sex operations to remain hidden, she said.
According to Andrey Sawchenko, National Director at the International Justice Mission Philippines, the private nature of the technology allows the crime to take place in a venue that law enforcement can’t easily access — and that makes it harder to gather evidence against perpetrators.
Although no official statistics exist, Ruby Ramores, a former Executive at the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), believes tens of thousands of women are involved in the industry and that most of the girls are recruited by friends, family — sometimes even by their parents. Poverty can often drive parents to sell the services of their children, she said.
“I was told if I tried to escape, the police would put me in jail. I believed it. I was very innocent — I grew up without TV and had never left my village before.”
Delia (not her real name) now aged nine, said she was just 7 years old when her mother made her undress in front of their computer at home. “I stood there naked. That’s all I wanted to do, not the other things, like when mama said to spread my legs, I didn’t want to,” she recalled. “I would be scared of my mother. Because before I didn’t know what she was doing was bad, I only knew later on.”
Rescued after three years when her father found out about her mother’s cyber-sex operation, Delia is now under the care of a government-run temporary shelter for abused young girls and spoke to CNN in the company of her social worker.
According to Ramores, parents who submit their children to cyber-sex — especially the ones from rural areas — think this is something that won’t violate their children in the way that traditional sex crimes do because it is just a camera and just the body being shown, and there is no touching with anyone else. “So, it’s a better option than being pushed to prostitution which has physical interaction,” she said.
Social workers say the families don’t understand the effect of the work on their children. They are thinking, instead, about money and survival.
Cyber-sex trafficking may have largely operated under the radar in the past, but there are signs that the Philippines government is focusing more on the issue.
In 2011, the Philippines successfully prosecuted its first case of cyber-sex trafficking against two Swedish nationals and three Filipinos. Although there have been more than 100 convictions under the country’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons law of 2003, this was the first case that specifically punished someone for cyber-sex operations.
“It gives a strong message to the traffickers: ‘We know you are out there now and we are going to get you,'” said Ramores. It also serves as a wake-up call for Filipinos in a country where law enforcement and the public have been largely unaware of the problem.
The government has initiated a nationwide advocacy and media campaign that focuses on awareness of this new face of commercial sexual exploitation. This includes training seminars held to teach those on the front lines — law enforcement, prosecutors, government agencies, and NGOs — to combat these crimes.
The Philippines Congress has also passed the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, which increases funding to government agencies, provides greater protection to victims and is designed to strengthen the prosecution of those engaged in human trafficking.
Ramores says it’s essential for the public to have a new context in which to interpret any suspicious behavior: “Unless there will be whistle-blowers, we won’t be able to catch them. We need people to be aware and to cooperate with us in order for us to track these kinds of crimes.”
Andrea was rescued after being held for three months, when one of the other girls escaped and told the authorities. She is now a star witness in a case against her abusers, but she said she has received death threats and that has prevented the case from progressing. “I want them to be punished but I have moved far away to Manila because I am scared for my life,” she said.
Scars of abuse
Milet Paguio, a social worker working with commercially exploited children in the Philippines, said that many rescued girls, who have often spent years in the cyber-dens, are often uncooperative with rescuers and confused at first. They fear they will be the ones punished, and in the cases when family members are being accused, the girls often want to protect them. The crime may be a virtual one but the emotional scars are very real.
“They have low self-esteem, don’t respect themselves, and for those who spent a long time in the dens — they often behave in a way that is very flirty … when they see men, they sometimes cannot control themselves,” she said.
In many ways, cyber-sex trafficking appears to be the perfect 21st century crime. Technology has made it easier to access and exploit the vulnerable, operate illegal activities across borders and more difficult to discover the identities of those who are behind the crime.
Information technology evolves quickly and in the Philippines, perpetrators often have more financial and technological resources than those trying to catch them.
According to Sawchenko, close cooperation with international law enforcement authorities — providing training to local police and working together to catch those involved in both countries — has made a vital difference.
Sawchenko points to an increase in the number of victims being rescued and an increase in the number of cases being filed against perpetrators in recent years, as an example.
Eric Mcloughlin, Deputy Attache at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security Investigations agency (HSI), is among those working with authorities in the Philippines to fight cyber-crimes. “Because of the nature of the Internet and cyber-crimes, criminals feel it’s easier to operate with anonymity behind these virtual barriers,” he said. “It’s a challenge for law enforcement to identify them and make sure they are held accountable.
“In addition to cyber-operations being more complex criminal syndicates, there are also many mom and pop shops — if you take one down there could be several on the same street who are doing the same acts that might not have connections to each other.”
Even customers abroad are not safe — officials in the Philippines are working with U.S. domestic agencies to identify offenders.
Recently, CNN reported that the testimony of three girls in the Philippines helped convict a Pennsylvania man who had been involved in a cyber-den. He has been sentenced to 12 years in a U.S. federal prison for child pornography.
“Rescuing victims is a priority but if we don’t continue to investigate the ones purchasing their services, we are only doing half the job,” said McLaughlin.
“Catching those running the cyber-dens is the first step of what could be a big domino effect with lots of challenges. If we go to digital analysis and the forensics of hard drives, we can find that they were communicating with thousands of customers around the world — this involves different jurisdictions and we need evidence to go after all those individuals.”
Andrea, now 20 and in college, hopes to become a social worker so she can help victims. She offered advice from her own experience: “If you want to find a job, know everything about the recruiter, the kind of job and the payment. Don’t be blinded by the money. You can find a decent job, just don’t give up. And do not trust people so easily — just because someone is your family it does not mean they are good.”
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