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.
“We were angry that this could happen just near the day care,” she said. “I was also afraid, we didn’t know what could happen to our children if they went to school because there were many here who were doing that.”
Authorities say they do not know exactly when the trade arrived in Ibabao.
According to local social workers, a Philippine woman from outside the community believed to belong to an organized crime group relocated to the village several years ago and introduced locals to the get-rich-quick scheme.
That woman taught residents how to scout for clients in pornographic chat rooms and receive payments through international money transfers, according to the social workers, who did not want to be named for security reasons.
Some operators lured friends of their children into their homes and abused them, threatening to harm their parents if they told anyone, the social workers said.
One parent told reporters a neighbor who had tried to recruit her said clients paid as much as US$100 a session, a fortune in a region where the minimum daily wage is the equivalent of about US$7.
She said the neighbor justified the trade by saying that no actual physical contact took place.
“I was angry. We were always taught to protect and love our children,” the woman said.
“We are not rich, but we are also not poor and desperate. It was an evil thing to do,” she added.
Nevertheless, she said that staying silent and steering clear of those involved in the trade was the best thing to do, to avoid any trouble.
In announcing the dismantling of the pedophile network, Britain’s National Crime Agency said in the middle of this month that 11 people had been arrested in the Philippines and 18 elsewhere around the world. Another 733 suspects were being investigated, the agency added.
Andrey Sawchenko, Philippine head of the Washington-based International Justice Mission who helped in the arrests, said 39 children had been rescued in Ibabao and elsewhere in the Philippines.
Yet this is widely believed to be just the tip of the iceberg, with the British crime agency describing online child sex abuse as a “significant and emerging threat.”
“Extreme poverty, the increasing availability of high speed Internet and the existence of a vast and comparatively wealthy overseas customer base has led to organized crime groups exploiting children for financial gain,” it said.
Dutch advocate group Terre des Hommes estimates that “tens of thousands” of children are being abused through the cybersex industry in the Philippines alone.
Last year, the group created a virtual 10-year-old Filipina girl that was deployed in Internet chat rooms to lure pedophiles.
Over 10 weeks, 20,000 people from 71 countries approached the fake girl asking for sexual performances, according to Terre des Hommes, which passed the details of the people who made the requests onto Philippine police.