MARA* (real name withheld) was only 11 years old when her female cousin Jade first livestreamed her sexual abuse for a paying customer abroad.
Jade’s male live-in partner also sexually abused Mara.
The child’s ordeal ended only after two years when personnel from the Philippine National Police’s Women and Children Protection Center-Visayas Field Unit (WCPC-VFU) rescued her in 2019 following a tip from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which was investigating US-based child sex offender Alan Dennis Wolff.
Jade, 25, and her live-in partner were arrested in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu on April 6, 2020 on the strength of arrest warrants issued by a Lapu-Lapu City court judge for violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, Anti-Child Abuse Law, and Anti-Child Pornography Act in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Act, the International Justice Mission (IJM) reported.
Up north, in Daanbantayan town, a 29-year-old woman was arrested in March after getting caught in an online transaction offering to sexually abuse her daughter and two other female relatives, aged 5 to 12, for money from a foreign sex offender.
The arrest also came after a referral given to the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (Picacc), this time from the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service regarding an American suspected of sending money to the Philippines for explicit pictures of minors.
The Picacc is a cooperation among the Philippine National Police WCPC, the National Bureau of Investigation’s Anti-Human Trafficking Division, the Australian Federal Police and the United Kingdom National Crime Agency with nongovernment organization IJM.
The sexual exploitation of children is not new. But the global deployment of low-cost, high-speed internet has now made it easier for pedophiles to find children to abuse anywhere in the world.
Whereas before, pedophiles had to physically travel to the Philippines to sexually abuse children, today they can simply “go online, anonymously wire payment, and direct the live sexual abuse of the child from the safety and comfort of their home,” said John Tanagho, IJM End Osec Center director, in a 2019 video on the rescue of the child Joy* in Cebu City after eight years of such abuse. Joy was only nine when her abuse began.
The Philippines is the world’s largest known source of cases of online sexual exploitation of children (Osec), according to a study released in May.
The IJM defines Osec as the production, for the purpose of online publication or transmission, of visual depictions (e.g., photos, videos, live streaming) of the sexual abuse or exploitation of a minor for a third party who is not in the physical presence of the victim, in exchange for compensation.
According to the study entitled “Online Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Philippines: Analysis and Recommendations for Governments, Industry and Civil Society,” 64 percent of Philippine Osec cases from 2010-2017 started with referrals from international law enforcement agencies, and over this period, the Philippines received a whopping 76 percent of all referrals of Osec cases made by international law enforcement agencies investigating customers in their countries.
The Philippines received 237 referrals. Mexico was a far second with 27 referrals; followed by Brazil, 19; India, 18; Thailand, five; Romania, four; and Cambodia, three, according to the study led by the IJM in partnership with the US Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and the Philippine Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking.
Most of the international referrals involved customers from the United States (31 cases), Sweden (11 cases), Australia (seven cases), and the United Kingdom (four cases).
There were also customers from Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Israel.
The Philippines’ large English-speaking population, availability of cheap broadcast-capable mobile devices and internet access, and strong money remittance infrastructure were seen as factors that enabled traffickers to get into the business of directing or committing the contact abuse of children for the remote viewing of foreign clients.
Hard to find
The study reviewed 92 Osec cases investigated in the Philippines involving at least 381 victims. But this does not mean these were the only Osec victims during this period.
There could have been hundreds more because most Osec cases remain unreported.
US-based electronic service providers (ESPs), many of which have a global user base, are required by US law to report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) incidents of internet-based child sexual exploitation occurring on their platforms.
But the use of livestreaming to deliver child sex exploitation material (CSEM) to customers during Osec makes the crime difficult to track. Livestreaming is the preferred mode of delivery of CSEM because it allows the customer to direct the actions of the trafficker and exploited children in real time.
However, ESPs do not typically monitor live streams for CSEM because while ESPs can pick up stored images or video files that may point to internet crimes against children, “ESPs do not yet have the algorithms to automatically scan video images as they can still images,” the study noted.
Instead, the evidence against most traffickers in the study was found on social media or personal messaging sites, email, or dating or adult websites that they used to communicate or exchange materials with customers.
The threat to Filipino children has grown rapidly.
The study revealed that the estimated number of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used for child sexual exploitation (CSE) linked to the Philippines more than tripled from 23,333 in 2014 to 81,723 in 2017.
“This corresponds to a growth in the prevalence rate from about 43 out of every 10,000 IP addresses being used for CSE in 2014 to 149 out of every 10,000 IP addresses being used for CSE in 2017,” it said.
The trend is worrisome because the persons supposed to protect children from such a threat are the ones behind them.
The study revealed that the average age of Osec victims at the time of referral or rescue was 11 years old. The youngest victims were less than a year old. Eighty-six percent of the victims were girls.
Their own parents facilitated the abuse of 41 percent of all victims; other relatives enabled the abuse of another 42 percent of victims.
The vast majority, or 96 percent, of the victims were victimized with other family members, including siblings. Some had been abused for up to four years.
The traffickers, on the other hand, ranged from 15 to 76 years old, with the median age at 27. Most of the traffickers, or 66 percent, were female. Ninety-six percent of the traffickers were Filipino.
The involvement of the family in Osec and youth of the victims are some reasons few victims report the crime, keeping the true number of victims hidden.
Police Major Niño Lawrence Ibo, who has been detailed at WCPC-VFU for five years, told SunStar Cebu Thursday: “The children who are abused think it’s normal because it’s their own parents or relatives perpetrating it.”
For older children already aware that what is being done to them is wrong, threats prevent them from telling on their traffickers.
Ibo cited the case of a teenager in Mandaue City, who wanted to stop performing for the cameras but was threatened with the release of her videos on the internet by her trafficker if she did.
The IJM study showed that the customers were typically older men from developed Western countries aged 40 to 72 years old.
Some of them had a history of travel to the Philippines, and others, a history of contact abuse of children in the Philippines.
Indeed, the study notes that “a historic commercial sex industry and underground reputation as a sex trafficking source country and destination for traveling sex offenders” were likely factors in the Philippines being a preferred source of livestreamed CSEM.
And the price the traffickers charged for the CSEM?
Just days’ or weeks’ worth of pay at the Philippine minimum wage.
The daily minimum wage in Metro Cebu is P404 or US$8, a pittance for foreign clients, but a lucrative deal for traffickers, especially if they abuse their victims for years.
Are the traffickers so poor that they would accept so low a price for their children’s innocence?
“We can’t say that they are really poor,” Ibo said. “They have internet and cell phones. They just used Osec as a source of living. They don’t want to work anymore. Most of them don’t have work, but their houses are complete with gadgets and appliances, like TV and air conditioner.”
Just because no customers were identified under age 40 does not mean there are no young sex offenders engaged in Osec. Younger clients could just be more technologically savvy and better able to evade detection on the internet.
The customers who got caught conducted Osec with traffickers on the surface of the internet or on public online spaces, the study said.
But Osec also occurs in the dark web, as pedophile-oriented web forums on the dark web are known venues for the trading of photos and videos, IJM said.
In fact, Europol’s most wanted person, a Filipino named Nelson Turayno, 32, was arrested in Barangay Luz, Cebu City on April 12, 2019 for being the source of most of the CSEM uploaded in their monitored dark web.
The Australian Federal Police linked Turayno to European pedophiles on the dark web.
His arrest led to the rescue of eight victims—aged three to 11—and the recovery of thousands of images, including videos depicting children being sexually abused by an adult.
The dark web is the deep corners of the internet that give users anonymity through complex encryption processes. Australia’s Foundation against Child Exploitation estimates that four of five visits to the hidden websites of the dark web are related to child sexual exploitation.
“According to the FBI, at any given moment of the day, around 750,000 men are seeking online sex with children,” warns the international children’s rights charitable organization Terre des Hommes.
In just a 10-week period in 19 public chatrooms in 2013, Terre des Hommes Netherlands identified 1,000 predators across 71 countries who offered money to have a girl they believed to be a 10-year-old from the Philippines perform online sex acts.
In fact, the girl, “Sweetie,” was a virtual girl used in a webcam child sex tourism sting, and the pedophiles were actually conversing online with investigators in Amsterdam.
The group said Filipino children “have an extraordinary appeal to both casual and hardcore pedophiles wanting to offer financial rewards to children forced to perform sexually in front of the camera.”
This, it learned after reception was lackluster when it tried other nationalities, but “overwhelming” when Sweetie revealed herself to be Filipino.
The sheer number of predators is not the only thing children must contend with. Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), whose mission is to eliminate online child sexual abuse from the internet, said that since 2014, it had noted a trend for images of younger children to show more severe forms of abuse.
In 2018, it said, 35 percent of images of children 10 years old or younger in child sex abuse URLs or web addresses analyzed by the IWF, showed “sexual activity between adults and children including rape or sexual torture.”
“This crime is happening because people with power are exploiting children for easy profit. And they do it because they think they can get away with it. But that will change,” said IJM’s Tanagho.
Since taking on its first Osec case in the Philippines in 2011, IJM and its government partners have conducted 182 operations in the Philippines, rescuing 613 victims, the group said in May. As of 2019, IJM had scored 76 convictions.
In Cebu, 65 operations have been conducted and 194 victims rescued as of July 10, 2020, according to Lucille Dejito, IJM Cebu Field Office director.
Thirty-three perpetrators have been convicted out of 68 suspects charged in Cebu since 2011.
This year alone, there have been four operations in Cebu, one each in Daanbantayan and Dalaguete towns, Lapu-Lapu City and Cebu City, resulting in the rescue of seven victims, she said.
To send a strong message to criminals, the Philippines has crafted laws with heavy penalties for those who commit Osec: the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act or Republic Act (RA) 9208 (as amended by RA 10364), which comes with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a fine of P2 million to P5 million; Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 (RA 9775) and Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act (RA 7610), both of which have penalties of up to 20 to 40 years in jail; and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (RA 10175), which imposes a penalty one degree higher than that provided for in RA 9775.
To provide a stronger deterrent to demand-side sex offenders, Australia also passed legislation last June 22 to hike penalties for those fueling the demand for the trafficking of children for cybersex.
Those who watch a livestream of child sexual exploitation are now treated the same as those who commit in-person sexual abuse of children.
It also recognized more acts linked to Osec as offenses, such as the grooming of a person to make it easier to engage in sexual activity with a child outside Australia. Life imprisonment is now among the penalties for some of these offenses.
IJM’s Tanagho also called on Germany to be tougher on child sex offenders, after a court in Berlin, Germany last July 6, sentenced German child sex offender Dennis S., 38, to a mere five years in prison for sexually abusing his three-year-old son for the production of CSEM.
His arrest came after a tip from Philippine authorities who, in 2019, had arrested a different German sex offender in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, later found to have exchanged CSEM with Dennis S.
The arrest and conviction of traffickers ends their physical abuse of the children. But the harm to the rescued children continues.
Customers who paid to watch their sexual exploitation online also produce CSEM by recording the sexual abuse remotely. They then use this to gain entry to discussion boards, websites, and peer-to-peer exchange sites where like-minded predators exchange CSEM for free. Instead of paying for access to the exchange sites, they may be admitted if they upload new abuse material, according to the IJM study.
This creates long-term anxiety among rescued children who run the risk of being recognized when the images are constantly shared.
The IWF shares the story of Olivia* who, from age three to eight, was photographed and filmed as she was repeatedly raped and sexually tortured. Five years after her rescue, her images continued to circulate online, resulting in “repeat victimization.”
Over a three-month period, IWF counted the times it saw her image.
“We saw her at least 347 times. On average, that’s five times each and every working day. In three out of five times she was being raped, or sexually tortured. Some of her images were found on commercial sites. This means that in these cases, the site operator was profiting from this child’s abuse,” an IWF analyst said.
Offline, victims have trust issues and must deal with the challenges of reintegration.
Social worker Jenny Zamora of the Cebu City Department of Social Welfare and Services (DSWS) said children typically stay in a shelter for up to six months after their rescue, during which the DSWS looks for extended family members with whom the child can be placed if the immediate family members were the perpetrators.
“We do the family assessment on the placement of the child,” she said. “We give counseling to the family.”
But IJM noted that reintegration of Osec survivors poses a challenge as family members and communities to whom they return may have supported or tolerated the crime, opening the survivors up to revictimization.
If there are no relatives to whom the child can be safely returned, then the child is given training to become independent if the child is already near 18, Zamora said.
There have been good outcomes.
In a webinar in May on the protection of children against Osec, Rey Bicol, IJM Manila field office director, said more than 600 children in the country rescued from Osec were now leading new lives.
“Some already finished social work. Some are studying in school. Some are already advocates and leaders,” he said.
But there are also cautionary tales.
The IJM found that nearly five percent of the traffickers in its study were former Osec victims. All were female. Half were 21 years old or younger.