MANILA, Philippines – The collective cries of girls huddled in a corner is often the soundtrack to a rescue operation. They fear they’ve done something wrong and could be arrested too. It’s not long before they realize they’re the ones being saved.
Things were no different during a late night rescue in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan: girls crying in the corner with towels over their heads, overwhelmed by the unfolding drama. Police with assault rifles sweeping the bar. A pimp in handcuffs, holding thousands in marked peso bills given to her by an undercover operative in exchange for sex with a minor.
The rescued girls were eventually taken away and processed individually by social workers.
The youngest girl being sold for sex that night was 14.
The raid operation was swift and done within hours. However, operations like these are often months in the making.
Weeks earlier, James* (not his real name) was sitting in the same bar, spending time with the girls. A foreigner in his 20s, James is an undercover operative with Destiny Rescue, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to liberating children trapped in sexual exploitation and slavery.
Founded over 18 years ago, Destiny Rescue operates with law enforcement agencies in several developing countries across Asia and Africa. In 2019 alone, their local and foreign operatives have assisted in saving over 190 minors from the hands of traffickers and pimps in Metro Manila and surrounding provinces.
CONFERENCE. Colonel Samuel Mina leads a briefing at the police headquarters in Quezon City prior to a rescue operation on August 8, 2019.
“I have to act like I’m just a dodgy tourist looking for sex with young girls,” said James, prior to a surveillance operation one evening in September 2019.
“The objective in a case like this is to build trust – with the girls and the pimps. We’ll visit a location several times over a matter of weeks or months to determine whether minors are being sold for sex,” he added.
Once Destiny Rescue’s operatives confirm a pimp is willing to sell minors, they’ll work to build a surveillance pack for police. A specialized police unit then undertakes their own undercover operations before a rescue, or “raid” can occur.
“Unfortunately, there’s really no shortage of people selling minors for sex. At any given time, we can have at least 5-10 surveillance cases open,” said Stephen,* Destiny Rescue’s head in the Philippines.
“The whole process can be very tricky and long-winded. Often the girls are reluctant to admit they are underage, and pimps aren’t always forthcoming with that information. So, we have to be patient and creative when gathering intel – there are many tactics we have for determining someone’s age,” he added.
Girls for sale
Exacerbated by poverty, the child sex trade has long been a burgeoning crisis in the Philippines. Often viewed in tandem with the rise of “sex tourism,” the United Nations estimates there are currently 60,000 children trapped in exploitation and slavery across the country.
Generally operating from bars, spas, or condos, pimps will sell minors – predominantly girls aged between 13 to 17 – for up to P5,000 each, with the price often dictating the sexual acts they will perform within an allowed time. Clients can be either local or foreign, depending on the type of trafficking operation.
William Macavinta, Chief of the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) Women and Children’s Protection Center, said many “higher-end” operations service foreigners exclusively.
“Just last month, we rescued 8 minors in Pasay. They were forced to serve foreign clients staying in high-end hotels and casinos in the areas nearby. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many cases like this in the Philippines,” he said.
However, while thousands of foreigners visit the Philippines each year to spend time in known “sex tourism” hot spots, James said this isn’t the rationale behind Destiny Rescue’s approach.
“In some of the areas we work, it’s quite uncommon to see tourists, so our strategy isn’t necessarily born from the ‘sex tourist’ stereotype. The main benefit of using foreigners is that it can be less suspicious – we can’t be police, so no one suspects you of being undercover, or being with an NGO.”
He added, “We, of course, still need to be very cautious, particularly during surveillance – there’s been plenty of close calls where our cover had almost been blown. If things go awry, you could be in some serious danger.”
Back at the PNP headquarters, prior to an October rescue operation in Marikina City, police loaded assault rifles while the rescue team was briefed on their targets – two bars on the same street, and two pimps both selling minors for sex.
Following the briefing and a quick meal, teams departed the headquarters in separate vehicles – those entering the bars as “undercovers” and those providing backup.
While operatives had completed this style of rescue hundreds of times before, tensions always run high en route to a target location – not because they don’t have faith in their approach, but because there are always unanswered questions: Will the pimp even show up? Will the confirmed minor even be there? Will anyone in the bar be armed with a weapon?
All rescue operations are not without risk, and Manila’s Friday night traffic does nothing to ease the anxieties of the group.
As the vehicles approached the target location, they split. James and other undercover operatives were deployed out of sight from the bars; allowing them to casually enter later in the evening. Backup operatives stationed themselves at agreed points within a one-kilometer radius of the targets; for them, it’s a waiting game.
Once inside their assigned location, James and his colleagues gravitated toward the confirmed minor – they all sat together at a table, alongside other girls. Drinks and snacks were served – and the evening began.
Through months of surveillance, the operatives were already familiar with everyone working in the bar – the pimp, the servers, the girls, the security guards. And while they had confirmed that at least one girl was a minor, they suspected others were too.
As the night wore on, they had to choose the perfect time to make the transaction – making it too soon, or too late, could raise suspicions.
When the moment arrived, it was P3,000 to go “all the way” – oral sex, intercourse, and a few hours with the girl. The marked money was handed over. The operative was led to a bleak room at the back of the bar where the girl was waiting. Once inside – out of sight from the pimp – the backup was notified via text.
Within seconds, vehicles arrived outside. Police with assault rifles stormed the bar to secure the area. Curious locals observed from across the street. The pimp was placed in handcuffs, while others were directed to sit down and not move.
The mixed emotions were palpable – confusion, anxiety, fear. One girl started to cry.
Soon, they were all in tears.
Social workers eventually arrived to console the girls. Towels were distributed so identities could be hidden from arriving media teams. The next steps were explained to the group – they would leave the bar with officers and travel to the PNP headquarters in Quezon City for processing. They would then be placed in one of several rescue centers within Metro Manila. Not one girl was left behind – all were taken, regardless of age.
"In most rescues, you'll have girls that don't want to come with you – generally the older ones. But they have no choice, even if they're not a minor – all are rescued and placed with a rescue center. It will be up to them whether they want to change their path going forward," said James.
Across the room, the pimp was read his rights and charges. His destination was a holding cell beneath the Women and Children’s Protection Center building, before facing a judge in the coming days.
By 5 am, the operation was over.
Only one minor was recorded within the group that evening. But for the operatives, that’s more than enough to justify the effort.
“That’s how it is sometimes – only one or two minors will be rescued from the group. Other times we’ve rescued 10 or 15. All operations are different – but at least a child is safe and abusers are off the streets,” said James.
The efficiency of Destiny Rescue and the PNP’s collective approach has been carefully refined over the years. It allowed them to save a record 471 minors in 2018, almost double the number of victims from 2017. During busier weeks in 2019, over 10 operations were conducted in Luzon, Cebu, and Mindanao.
This recent spike in rescues has cemented the Philippines’ status as the only country in Southeast Asia with a Tier 1 rating for addressing the issue of child and human trafficking. And while the numbers for 2019 have not yet reached similar levels in 2018, this rating is not set to change – the PNP still plans to finish the year with over 250 minors rescued from sex trafficking operations.
Working with partners
Such has been the success of their efforts in recent years that rescue centers in Metro Manila are currently nearing capacity.
Pressed on this being an ongoing challenge, Macavinta wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t think our goal should be to open more rescue centers – ultimately I want to deter people from abusing and trafficking minors. And while we may not have space in the metro at some points, there are other options within the provinces suitable for rescued victims,” he said.
“The biggest challenge we currently face is staying one step ahead of abusers. Online mediums are constantly changing how trafficking can be facilitated. In many instances, pimps will liaise with clients online before scheduling meeting locations. So we need to ensure we remain ahead of the game in this regard – working with our international partners in Australia and Europe has been hugely helpful on this front.
“We’re also looking to work more closely with local governments, to provide capacity-building for at-risk, poorer families on alternative livelihoods. Unfortunately, it’s often the parents or close relatives who drag children into the sex trade. While they won’t earn as much money in other jobs, at least they’ll be working in a capacity that isn’t illegal. More importantly, they won’t be putting their children through trauma,” he said.
Assessing what lies ahead for Destiny Rescue, James said they plan to target higher-end operations if they can source the funding.
“The majority of our current operations are typically within depressed areas of the country. However, there’s plenty of syndicates running operations for wealthier clients in wealthier areas, and these are on our radar," James said.
“But there’s limits. To rescue minors working from a bar in Bulacan, it might cost us anywhere between P70,000-P120,000 to conduct the rescue – and sometimes we hardly have the funds to even cover that. These higher-end operations will far exceed those figures, so we need to play the waiting game when it comes to funding. Their time will come,” he added.
“The bottomline is, we’re not going to stop even if we’re sometimes hamstrung by a lack of money. When you see young girls and boys living in such derelict environments – sleeping in seedy rooms at the back of bars with hardly any ventilation, only to wake up and get abused all day by paying customers – we're driven to continue.” – Rappler.com
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
TOP PHOTO. Rescued victims are led back to police headquarters in Quezon City after being rescued from a condominium complex in Marakina City on December 5. 2019.