In a remote Philippine village, toddlers played oblivious at a nursery as the house next door became part of a horrifying child pornography ring, with live footage of children performing sex acts being streamed online to pedophiles around the world.
The depraved scenes in the bungalow were being repeated in many homes throughout Ibabao, a secluded community on the island of Cebu, where Internet child pornography had for some of its 5,000 residents become more lucrative than fishing or factory work.
“In the beginning I was shocked, I could not believe this was happening in my town,” Ibabao Mayor Adelino Sitoy told reporters last week, shortly after Philippine police announced they had cracked a global live-streaming pedophile ring in which Ibabao was a key source of the child pornography.
Yet while the village is currently in the spotlight, Philippine authorities and child rights advocates say the fast-growing global industry is infecting many parts of the mostly poor Philippines, with thousands of children having been abused.
At first look, the coastal community of Ibabao, 550km south of Manila, is a typical close-knit rural Philippine village, where many of the long-time residents are relatives or enjoy close and longstanding ties.
In scenes echoed across the Philippines, its residents regularly attend Catholic masses held in quaint chapels along narrow footpaths and dirt roads.
Yet police and authorities said that behind the closed doors of the tiny wooden and brick homes, many parents directed their children for sex videos in front of webcams connected via the Internet to paying pedophiles overseas.
Other children were lured into the homes of neighbors and forced to perform sex acts in front of webcams, they said.
Sitoy said the trade thrived because children were locked secretly inside homes, as well as Ibabao’s remote location and the fact that some elected village leaders with relatives involved ignored the crimes.
However, some of the videos eventually found their way into the computer files of a known British pedophiles two years ago, triggering a global manhunt to track down the perpetrators.
The British man was convicted in March last year and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Shortly afterward, police in the Philippines began carrying out raids in Ibabao and nearby areas with the help of British, Australian and US authorities.
One of the raids saw dozens of Philippine police and social workers break into the bungalow next to the day care center in September last year, arresting a couple and rescuing their three children, aged three, nine and 11.
Two days later, 13 other children who were being abused in other Ibabao homes were rescued, according to Philippine police.
Residents are generally wary of outsiders, but some allowed reporters to interview them on condition of anonymity.
They said “cybersex dens” remained in operation, but security fears and the Philippine tradition of not interfering with a neighbor’s affairs helped to ensure that people did not pry further or try to stop it.
Housewife Jennifer Canete, 38, was willing to talk openly about the crimes, saying many people in the community were involved and that she feared that her four young children could become victims.
Canete said one of her children attended the nursery located next to the house where the three children were being abused.