Online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) surged during the pandemic, when many Filipinos lost their jobs. Tech companies reported more than 1.29 million images and videos of child abuse materials produced in the country in 2020 – triple the number in 2019.
Warning: This article contains depictions of child sexual abuse
The coronavirus pandemic forced Carmen Lirio*, 31, to close down in March 2020 a snack stand she was running in front of a school in the town of Baliwag in Bulacan, a province just outside the country’s capital.
She has five children. Unless she found another way to earn money, the entire family would have to rely on her husband’s meager salary as barangay tanod or village watchman.
This was the quandary that led Carmen to sell her children online for sexual exploitation. She was arrested in January 2021 over allegations that she had streamed live shows of her 8-year-old daughter and sent naked clips and photos of her 11-year-old son to paying customers abroad.
“[My husband] earns P1,600 ($32) monthly. My baby still needs infant milk formula,” Carmen told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) as she attempted to explain how she could do such things to her own children.
PCIJ met Carmen in January at the Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) inside the police headquarters in Camp Crame, where she was detained. She agreed to be interviewed.
Carmen said she started out doing live shows on the internet and sending her photos to customers in Australia, the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK). She did not finish elementary school, but her English was enough for the necessary communication.
“I wrote in my profile that I was looking for help to buy food. They told me they’d take care of it,” she said.
One day, a frequent customer seemed uninterested during a call. She got worried. “I asked the foreigner if he wanted a solo show. He said no. He wasn’t talking much. I thought to myself, maybe he wanted a child and he just didn’t want to say it,” she recalled.
“When I told him I had a daughter, he suddenly became jumpy. I sent him videos of my child.”
For months until her arrest, she allegedly sold clips of her children doing various performances for fees that ranged from P150 ($3) to P2,500 ($50).
Livestream abuse, where the perpetrators can talk to their victims and instruct them to perform specific sexual acts on camera, are more expensive compared with taped videos and photos.
1.29M images, videos of child abuse
The Philippines has been tagged as the global epicenter of livestream sexual trafficking of children, based on data from the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC).
Cases surged during the pandemic as many Filipinos lost their jobs. Tech companies reported that more than 1.29 million images and videos of child pornography came from the Philippines in 2020. This was more than triple the number in 2019 or before the pandemic hit.
From March 1 to May 24, 2020 – in the early weeks of the lockdown – the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported 202,605 cases of OSEC or a 265% increase compared with the same period the previous year.
Social networking giant Facebook also found 279,166 images of child sexual abuse and similar content on its site from March to May 2020.
According to a study by the Washington-based International Justice Mission (IJM), the children’s own mother or another female relative is often the trafficker in many cases in the Philippines.
Col. Sheila Portento, who leads the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division of the WCPC, said the mothers often justified their actions by saying they did not inflict harm on their children because there was no physical contact with the pedophiles.
WCPC is the lead unit of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in dealing with OSEC.
Mothers also told their children that “it wouldn’t hurt if mommy” touched them upon the instructions of the customers, she said.
“I keep asking myself if they’re not terrified of their actions. It seems not. Their moral fiber seems very thin,” said Portento.
There were more than a dozen inmates at the WCPC lock-up cell in Camp Crame during PCIJ’s visit. Most of them, like Carmen, were mothers who sold their own children for sexual abuse online.
One who was weeping inside her cell, and who was holding a rosary so tightly in her fist, admitted to taking videos of her nine-year-old daughter performing oral sex on her father. Investigators who rescued the child found the video in her storage disks.
She, Carmen, and the rest of the women gathered to pray when the sun was about to set at 6 p.m.
The disconnect has left a bad taste in the mouth of the police, many of them also Catholics. An investigator said one of the inmates had a Santo Niño statue – a Filipino representation of Jesus when he was a child – outside the room where her child was being abused.
Short of saying that they are not faithful Catholics, Irish priest Shay Cullen said these kinds of people only performed the rituals of the church but did not understand that faith also demanded commitment to human rights and human dignity.
Cullen founded a child rights organization in Olongapo City, Preda Foundation, which rescues sexually and physically abused children and offers them treatment and recovery programs.
“(For them) it’s only rituals. Like you go there, you get the sacrament and you’re saved,” he said.
Mothers blackmailing children
The relationship between mothers and abused children is often complicated. In many instances, the children are subjected to different forms of emotional blackmail, said Portento.
She recalled a rescue operation in Pampanga province in 2020, where a 16-year-old victim screamed at the sight of police officers who were there to rescue her. She was quick to defend her mother and tried to drive the cops away from the house where she was being abused.
But the girl’s attitude changed when the cops whisked her mother away in handcuffs. “Will my mother be jailed?” she asked the social workers.
When they told her she might, the girl said: “I hope she rots in prison because she’s a demon.”
In another rescue operation in Batangas province, Portento recalled a 10-year-old victim bawling inconsolably when her mother was arrested. She carried the child to a room where she couldn’t see her mother in handcuffs and spoke with her to ask why she was still defending her mother.
The girl replied: “If I don't do as I’m told, we can’t buy milk for my younger sibling.”
“Convincing, guilting the child was easy,” said Portento. “Mothers don’t even have to lift a finger because their children trust them. If there’s one person the child knows would protect them at all costs, it’s [supposed to be] their mother.”
Mothers have also blackmailed their children into thinking that their family’s livelihood and survival depended on their cooperation.
“I talked to a mother facilitating OSEC. She was the same age as I was, and her kid was the same age as my youngest daughter. I told her: ‘How could you do this? How did you convince her to do this?” Portento said.
The mother supposedly told her daughter that their electricity supply would be cut if she didn’t perform for the online customers.
But they weren’t as cash-strapped as the mother would like her to believe. When the cash transfer was made, the mother told her she’d buy her new shoes in exchange for the “trouble.”
“That’s how shallow and selfish [these mothers could be],” Portento said.
Help from other countries
The real extent of online child abuse in the country is hard to ascertain. In many cases, OSEC is a secret crime, one that usually has no witnesses.
IJM reported that 793 OSEC victims were rescued in law enforcement operations from 2011 to May 2020. About half were under 12 years old and 57% of the perpetrators were relatives or close family friends of the victims. The youngest was a three-month-old infant.
IJM is part of PICACC, an alliance also composed of the PNP and the National Bureau of Investigation, as well as the UK’s National Crime Agency, the Dutch National Police and the Australian Federal Police.
The total number for 2020 was not yet available as of posting. (The NBI declined to provide data to PCIJ, citing confidentiality.)
OSEC was once run by organized criminal syndicates but it turned into a cottage industry in the past decade, with perpetrators driven by poverty and aided by technological advancements that allowed easy connection to paying customers.
A cheap web camera and an internet connection are basically what they need to set it up.
Widespread English proficiency among Filipinos is another factor why OSEC thrives.
The countries where the paying customers come from have come to help the Philippines address the problem.
The DOJ receives cyber tip line reports from the NCMEC, for example.
The organization established by the US Congress receives millions of reports of child sexual abuse and exploitation from social networking and electronic service companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter and more.
The tips typically include the IP addresses of Filipino facilitators and other perpetrators of abuse.
A study published by IJM in 2020 showed that 64% of OSEC cases filed in the Philippines from 2014 to 2017 were initiated by referrals from international law enforcement agencies. Most cases came from the US or Scandinavian nations (22%), Australia (12%), UK (7%), Canada and New Zealand (2%).
“Referrals from foreign law enforcement counterparts have exploded during the pandemic. Kids are forced to stay at home and many people lost their jobs,” said Lt. Noeralyn Tamayo, a PICACC Philippine police deputy.
One way the crime is being tracked is through the remittance centers. The financial service providers that allowed the country’s army of overseas Fipino workers to easily send money to their relatives back home have also been used by foreigners abusing Filipino children online to pay the facilitators.
The Philippine government’s Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) has required remittance centers to submit suspicious transaction reports (STRs) based on a study containing a “typology” of OSEC-related transactions.
AMLC Executive Director Mel Georgie Racela said the typology was essentially a list of red flags that should prompt financial institutions to report a transaction as suspicious and related to OSEC.
“What you’ll do is scrub that database to determine whether or not your customers are part of that study and then you will report an STR on those customers or persons of interest in the study,” Racela told the PCIJ.
For example: If the amount of money sent to the Philippines was worth at least P2,500, came from a country under the AMLC’s watchlist on OSEC, and did not come from a relative, the compliance officers of remittance centers, banks and electronic money apps can flag these transactions and send them to the AMLC for investigation. The AMLC sends these reports to law enforcement agencies like the PNP and NBI.
From January 2019 to June 2020, remittances from the US recorded the most number and the highest value of suspicious transactions – 10,927 reports involving P39.6 billion.
Recipients of these suspicious transactions were mostly in the provinces of Rizal, Cebu, Davao del Sur, Bohol, Iloilo, Bulacan, Quezon, and the cities of Taguig and Manila.
From 2015 to 2018, about 3,000 persons of interest in child trafficking and exploitation were referred to the AMLC for money laundering probes, Racela said .
“We did an update to cover 2019 to the first half of 2020. So that’s one and a half years, and you’ll be interested to know that persons of interest increased from 3,000 to 23,000 only for that period. So adding it up, it would be 26,000 POIs,” Racela told PCIJ.
The AMLC has yet to publish a new study, but Racela said they were also expecting an “exponential increase.”
Since the PNP hatched its first operation against OSEC in 2015, it has rescued 680 children sexually trafficked online in 202 operations.
From March 2020 to May 2021 alone, police rescued 245 kids in 75 different operations.
“I get the creeps. I am distressed for the victims,” said Police Lt. Col. Lucrecio Rodrigueza Jr.
“This country prides itself with the maxim: ‘Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan (the youth is the hope of the nation),’ but because of these crimes, not only are we destroying the future of these kids, we’re also destroying our country’s future,” he said.
He joined a team that rescued eight children in Camarines Sur on May 7, in an operation that required officers to wear hazmat suits as protection against the coronavirus pandemic. He couldn’t shake the image of a two-month-old infant bawling in the arms of a police officer as they arrested the mother, Jocelyn, who exploited her 12-year-old daughter.
She had forced her to undress in front of a laptop while pedophiles from the US, Europe, Australia and even the Philippines asked her to spread her legs and perform sexual acts. Sometimes her mother guided her hands. Police suspected that a sex toy they found during the search was also used on the child.
He shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to the baby if a pedophile heard it wailing at the background of her sister’s live show.
The criminals are fast to adapt to increased monitoring from law enforcement agencies, however, underscoring the challenges in making significant gains against OSEC.
Perpetrators used to be concentrated in Metro Manila, where facilitators set up dens that looked like call centers. “Since more busts and raids have been conducted, they have dispersed into provinces,” said Police Maj. Joseph Villaran, ACG’s spokesman at the time of the interview. He now teaches digital forensics at the PNP Academy.
They’ve also changed their set up into guerilla-type operations, he said. “They make use of one computer nowadays, which makes it difficult [for law enforcers] because they have decentralized. Not only one person is handling the whole operation, they’ve multiplied,” he added.
An IJM heat map identified Metro Manila and Cebu as the areas with the most number of OSEC facilitators from 2010 to 2017.
In Pampanga and Lanao del Norte, at least six to 21 facilitators have been identified, while there were at least four in Cavite and Negros Occidental.
Bulacan, Batangas, Leyte, Bohol and Davao del Sur, had one to three facilitators each.
The toll on investigators
It’s a job that has taken its toll on investigators
There has been a surge in referrals and cyber tip line reports, but the WCPC remains understaffed.
The shortage is still manageable, according to Portento. But poring through horrendous images of abuse and exploitation has affected the officers’ emotional wellbeing.
“We can’t help but be emotionally affected, too. But we have to fight it,” Rodrigueza said.
WCPC has field units in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. This means that if the field unit in Visayas, which is located in Cebu City, needs to conduct an operation for OSEC in Tacloban City, agents need to travel for hours to get there.
The Women and Children Protection Desks in cities and municipalities mainly deal with cases of violence against women and children. They are not allowed to handle OSEC cases.
“Dealing with OSEC needs technical skills,” Portento said.
The typical training program in handling OSEC cases, both in operational and cybercrime capacities, is largely offered abroad. Aside from cybersecurity and operations, WCPC officers also work with foreign law enforcement agencies when Filipinos fall victim to trafficking schemes in other countries.
Right now, the PNP leadership and lobbyists are thinking of prodding Congress to turn the WCPC into the Women and Children’s Protection Group, which would mean increased staffing and more resources.
The WCPC investigators said the public also has a big role to play in fighting OSEC. It can stop an online culture where men fetishize children and contribute to their continued abuse, for example.
While females appear mainly responsible for facilitating the exploitation of children, males have been the target of pornsite channels that promote videos using search engine keywords that intentionally or unintentionally make sexual objects out of children, even if the actors in these videos aren’t children.
These porn sites have been the subject of investigations last year by the US media for allowing channels to monetize child rape content.
Police Maj. Lalaine Marty, a PNP child cybercrime protection officer, said these channels should not be allowed to monetize content that use such titles and keywords. People should cringe – not get sexually stimulated – when they see these materials, he said.
People should recognize that it’s not pornography. It’s abuse, she said. It’s a crime.
*Names of perpetrators are also withheld to protect the identity of their victims, with whom they are related. All quotes were translated into English.
*Neil Jayson Servallos, an M.A. Journalism student at the UST Graduate School, originally wrote this story for one of his reporting classes. It was expanded into a series with the editorial guidance of the PCIJ.
*Illustration by Alexandra Paredes
*This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute’s Asian Stories project, in collaboration with ABS-CBN News, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times and Tempo in Indonesia.