On 25 October plainclothes police barged through the red door of a family home in a dense neighbourhood in Rizal, a province two hours away from Manila.
There they arrested a mother who was allegedly sexually exploiting her own 12-year-old daughter. The 45-year-old woman was clutching her phone. Police took it and then handcuffed her.
A video provided by International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organisation fighting human trafficking that provided assistance to the police, shows the daughter nearby, her head covered by a towel, nodding at police. The rest of the family watched.
The mother did not deny her alleged crime, said Major Michael Virtudazo of the police Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATIP-D). He is confident a court inspection of her mobile phone will confirm information they had been given by a specialised police unit more than 6000km away in Australia.
The woman had allegedly been live-streaming her daughter posing in sexual positions to customers abroad, in exchange for cash she received through a nearby money transfer business.
One of those customers is alleged to be an Australian from Sydney, who is accused of paying to watch her daughter.
Technological advances have turned the Phillipines, a traditional destination for traveling sex offenders, into a hub of live-streamed sexual abuse.
John Tanagho, IJM field director in the Philippines, said the country’s robust money remittance infrastructure is one of the enabling factors that drive the crime – along with widespread internet access and the availability of cheap broadcast-capable mobile devices.
The same financial facility that millions of overseas Filipino workers use to easily send money back home has allowed sex offenders to pay for live-streamed content.
“Livestreaming online sexual exploitation of children is not unique to the Philippines but it is believed to be worse in the Philippines than other countries,” Tanagho told The Guardian.
“One more critical factor is people speak English well. They’re able to communicate with the online sex offenders from Western countries who speak in English.”
Westpac probe exposes extent of problem
The Philippines has grappled with the problem for decades. It doesn’t help that it has become a family business for some, making investigations difficult when children refuse to report their parents.
In poor villages in the country, many are drawn into the lucrative crime that could earn traffickers in one day what they would probably make earning minimum wage jobs for a month.
It is why the role of financial institutions is critical. “In the first place, the demand comes from other countries. We can stop production here if they are able to flag suspicious transactions abroad. If there is no demand, there is no supply,” Virtudazo said.
Tanagho said: “They can and they should detect red flags. When they detect red flags, they should, in reasonable fashion, cooperate with government agencies so that those traffickers and those offenders can be arrested and restrained after a proper law enforcement investigation.”
The extent of the problem was exposed in a legal action the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, the government financial intelligence agency known as Austrac, launched against one of the country’s biggest banks, Westpac, accusing it of legal breaches that allowed its customers to pay for child abuse undetected.
At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Westpac’s board decided to appoint what it described as “independent experts” to investigate who was to blame for the breaches.
“The notion that any child has been hurt as a result of any failings by Westpac is deeply distressing and we are truly sorry,” chairman Lindsay Maxsted said in his first public statement since Austrac filed its lawsuit on Wednesday morning.
“The board unreservedly apologises.”
Austrac said Westpac failed to carry out appropriate due diligence on customers sending money to the Philippines and Southeast Asia for known child exploitation risks. The financial intelligence identified at least six Westpac customers with questionable transactions and a history of travel to the Philippines.
“In October 2014 and November 2014 Customer 1 transferred money to a person located in the Philippines who was later arrested in November 2015 for child trafficking and child exploitation involving live streaming of child sex shows and offering children for sex,” read Austrac’s statement of claim. The customer transferred $136,000 to the Philippines between November 2013 and July this year and made travels to the Philippines in 2014 and 2016, according to the allegations.
Tanagho says a robust monitoring system is critical. “Banks around the world are monitoring suspicious transactions related to money laundering. In the same way banks and money transfer agencies should be monitoring suspicious transactions related to online sexual exploitation of children,” said Tanagho.
The arrest in Rizal was remarkable for a crime that is largely hidden, usually requiring police to take a deep dive into the dark corners of the internet.
In this case, it was dedicated work by groups in Sydney and cooperation between police in Australia and the Philippines that led to an arrest.
The investigation began in July when the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children referred to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation an Australian user who uploaded child abuse material to social media.
The Australian federal police commenced Operation Culgoa, resulting in the arrest of an unnamed 63-year-old Sydney man. A subsequent search of his home in the Sydney suburb of North Rocks showed electronic devices containing more child abuse materials that law enforcement would later trace to the town of Taytay in the Philippines.
The woman will face charges related to trafficking, child pornography, and cybercrime. The 63-year-old Sydney man appeared in the Parramatta local court on Friday.
The case highlights the importance of transnational cooperation. Virtudazo told the Guardian many of the successful arrests in the country stemmed from referrals made by other countries, allowing them to jumpstart investigations.
“Because it is a global crime, it requires a global response,” said Tanagho.
There’s a lot of cooperation going on in the Philippines. In February this year, the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Centre was created as a hub for international law enforcement agencies to send referrals to the Philippines and allow local police to start an investigation.
But there are concerns, because technological advances are often a step ahead of law enforcement. Tanagho is particularly concerned with plans to have end-to-end encryption for messaging applications.
“It’s everyone’s collective responsibility to make it easier to detect crime and not harder to detect crime. It is important for technology companies to always to keep in mind protection of vulnerable children when they are designing their products,” he said.