Encounter with a child trafficker
In its July 1, 2011 annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department announced that it had elevated the Philippines to “Tier 2” status — countries that do not fully meet standards on human trafficking but are making efforts to do so. The Philippines had faced a cutoff of US assistance if it remained (Tier 3) unresponsive in fighting human trafficking.
While most of the attention has been focused on the trafficking of Filipino women to work as indentured prostitutes abroad, the issue of child trafficking at home has been largely ignored although it is a booming business where children are often lured from remote villages with promises of high-paying jobs in Manila.
According to a 2009 report by Santosh Digal in AsiaNews, child labor is “a curse that touches the lives of about four million Filipino children … victims of prostitution rings, sex slaves for hire, forced to work in high seas or open fields for up to 15 hours a day. They till the land, labor in the mines or scrub floors as domestic workers on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 15 hours a day.”
One such child trafficking victim is Janus, a 15 year old boy from a remote village outside Bacolod in Negros Occidental. Six months ago, he was enticed to leave his home by the promise of a high-paying job in Manila from a man known by authorities in the province as a child trafficker. Janus had not been heard from until recently when he managed to text a sister in Caloocan City about his whereabouts in Nueva Ecija.
The sister’s husband, Jerry, then tracked his brother-in-law, the ring-bearer at his wedding, to a farm in the outskirts of Munoz, Nueva Ecija where he spotted him working in a piggery. When he pleaded with the owner to let Janus go, the owner threatened Jerry that if he ever set foot on his farm again, he would kill him. He also promised Jerry that if Janus ever escaped, he would track him down and kill him and even boasted to Jerry that he had killed many men before.
Jerry returned back to his wife in Caloocan City to report the slave owner’s threats. They concluded that it was useless to call the police authorities because they would just be unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
In desperation, Jerry reported the matter to his sister who happens to be married to “John”, an American businessman living in a Manila suburb.
At a dinner in Saratoga, California last week, John told me that when he heard Jerry’s story, he could barely sleep for several nights. “I just had to do something,” he said.
John personally knew officers in the Philippine National Police (PNP) but he agreed with Jerry that they wouldn’t be much help. So he surfed the Internet to find out which government agency dealt with the issue of child trafficking. He could not believe it when he learned that it was the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO).
“I was curious why something by that name would be tasked with something domestic but I called and, in very short order, found that the case was escalated. My primary initial CFO contact was a young attorney named Arthur Vitasa,” he narrated.
John then drove Jerry to the CFO office in Manila to meet Arthur and two other CFO officials, Cheng Veniles and Rommel Marcos.
“Having lived now in the Philippines for many years, I’ve come to expect the very worst from government, however, before my eyes were three very impressive, highly devoted professionals who really cared about what they were doing,” he wrote.
The CFO contacted the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) to involve them in a rescue operation. A week later, John found himself with Jerry in a five vehicle convoy of armed NBI and DoJ operatives headed for Munoz, Nueva Ecija.
“I was a bit shocked and frightened to learn that the NBI had done no ground surveillance and no background check on the slave master/criminal, nor had they even obtained court orders to be able to enter the premises of the farm. Thus the NBI commandant said that his forces (absurdly) could not enter the farm without the owner’s permission.”
“We did not know how truly violent the bad guy was, how many guns he had, nor if had he had other armed forces there. Therefore, it was required that Arthur Vitasa and a social worker enter into the gate of the farm to talk to the slave master.”
The presence of 17 armed government men at the gates of his pig farm may have done more than the CFO official’s words to convince the slave owner to give up Janus. But all that mattered was that Janus was freed and reunited with Jerry and his family.
John recounted that after the rescue, he went for a drink at a local sari-sari store where he met the Barangay Captain who assured him that the slave owner was “really a nice guy”. He told John of an incident last November when a child worker was killed at the man’s pig farm perhaps trying to escape. “Yes he’s always hired child laborers, but oh, he’s not so bad.” Hired? Not so bad?
One DoJ operative told John that “this area seemed like rebel territory, that if someone wants to kill you they can, they will, nothing will be done, that slavery is an accepted fact of life, that’s just the way it is.”
The experience with rescuing Janus got John to wonder “how there must be far more child slaves in the Philippines than there are even distressed offshore adult workers, and to further wonder why there isn’t an agency exclusively tasked with just this domestic scourge.”
“The CFO staff and agency and the NBI performed admirably, bravely in fact. But with no agency exclusively tasked with attacking the scourge of domestic child slavery, I fear that the problem will be treated as a national shame best hidden under the larger headlines covering offshore distressed Filipino workers,” he wrote.
Kudos to the CFO. But clearly more needs to be done.
(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).
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