With the click of a button, child sex abuse images can be sent around the world. The sharing often continues long after the abuse ends and survivors live with the knowledge their most traumatic moments are circulating – often traded for money in an industry worth $20 billion. Edward Gay and Catrin Owen report.
Dressed in jandals, shorts and a T-shirt, a man carrying his 2-year-old stepson walked off a sticky downtown Manila street into the comparative cool of a hotel lobby.
He appeared casual and relaxed as he scanned the faces of those inside.
Slung over his shoulder was a backpack containing fresh clothes, nappies and wet wipes for the toddler.
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He could have been dropping his boy at kindergarten. But instead he’s arranged to meet a New Zealander – a stranger who he’s talked to online and sold videos to of him sexually abusing his boy.
The stepfather had been careful. It had taken the stranger months to win over his trust.
In the weeks before, the stepfather insisted the stranger provide photographs of his passport and plane ticket.
There were months of messages and phone calls.
On the morning of the meeting, the stepfather sent a message to the stranger which read: “Hey, for an extra 25,000 pesos, you’re free to do whatever you like to the child, but I want the money now.”
For less than NZ$750, the stepfather was willing to let the New Zealander sexually abuse his stepson.
Inside the hotel lobby, couples were checking in luggage. Groups sat around tables at its modest cafe, chatting and laughing.
The stepfather recognised a foreigner, a white man, at the edge of the lobby.
The moment the stepfather stretched out his arm for a handshake was the go-signal.
Once the man handed the boy over, members of Child Rescue, which works in Southeast Asia to save children from sexual exploitation, blocked the main exit.
Other members stopped pretending to be couples at the check-in counter and customers of the cafe.
Federal agents of the Philippines swooped on the stepfather who was arrested.
For Child Rescue local manager Frank Juarez*, it was a “mixed bag” of emotions. Waves of relief that the boy was now in the hands of authorities but feelings of despair that a man could do this to his stepson.
Juarez had to keep his cool as there were four more operations to carry out that day that would not end until 2am.
“This is one of the cases where it was quite difficult to keep it together. Just seeing how young the kid was and how casual the stepdad was … he’s not even looking over his shoulder.”
Juarez wonders how many times the man had sold his stepson to a stranger.
“So all of that prep, all of that organisation behind the scene, it’s all for this boy, and he’s safe now. It was a massive weight off our shoulders. ‘OK, great this kid’s OK now, he’s going to get the treatment that he needs, he’s going to get the attention that he deserves’. We were just over the moon.”
Juarez says a search of the stepfather’s phone revealed more “customers”.
“This guy was making a living out of this evil.”
It had been the culmination of a months-long investigation carried out by Child Rescue, alongside authorities in the Philippines and the UK.
It started with a New Zealander being stopped at the British border.
Authorities searched his phone and found child sexual abuse images and videos. One of those was the video of the boy being tortured and sexually abused. It was 70 minutes long.
“It was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. We’ve seen some crap over here, but this was the worst,” Juarez says.
The boy’s mother was in the background, calmly folding washing as if his screams were coming from the nearby television instead.
It was through the video and communications between the New Zealander and the stepfather that authorities were able to trace its origin to Manila, where federal agents turned to Child Rescue for help.
Its volunteers bust children out of bars and brothels.
Sometimes it’s the neighbourhood karaoke bar, other times it’s a complex organised criminal group trafficking girls often addicted to drugs.
One of those volunteers is Vincent*, who works as a cop on Auckland’s North Shore.
Vincent’s holidays are a little different to most. Instead of bar hopping, surfing or shopping, he flies to Southeast Asia and goes undercover.
“The only way to get into these places is to actually pose as a client. Sometimes it is really easy in the low-key karaoke bar, you have a beer and sing a song.
“You start building a relationship with the mother of the house … She’ll start talking about what is available for the children.”
In some countries, Child Rescue teams up with local police to put together a sting operation, as in the stepfather’s case.
The organisation works, where it can, with local authorities to secure convictions and ensure the children get the help they need.
“Our end goal is to ensure the victims get the support they need to reintegrate back into their culture. We try to make sure that when they leave our care or the care of a partner organisation, they’re not going to be left in a position where they’re going to be trafficked again or taken advantage of.”
Vincent says although child exploitation has been online for years, as internet coverage widens and technology becomes cheaper, it’s increasingly easier to access.
Travel restrictions following the Covid-19 outbreak have forced sex offenders to go online but, for some, online viewing is just the start of their offending, Vincent says.
“The craving continues, and it escalates for a desire for more and more and it sort of gets to the point where digital contact isn’t quite enough, and they’ll then come into the country.”
Vincent says paedophiles use the dark web – a covert online platform used for a string of illegal activity – to share and sell information and contact details – an unofficial network of parents, caregivers or kidnappers willing to sell children for sex.
Others are tired of travelling or can’t afford the thousands of dollars in airfares, so they use live-streaming and images to abuse children living in poverty from the comfort of their own homes.
But who are these men – and it is predominantly men – and why do they do what they do?
“We do see a lot more older and overweight gentlemen, I take that back, they’re not gentlemen … I think online it is any and everyone … Some are teenagers or in college. I really don’t know what the markers are that indicate someone has that tendency,” Vincent says.
John Michael, deputy director of the Department of Internal Affairs’ (DIA) digital safety team, agreed and says the only similarity between the offenders was their sexual attraction to children and young people.
“It amazes us, it’s not always a middle-aged male sitting at home.”
The case of the young boy in Manila is a reminder that online images of children being sexually abused involve real children. Paedophiles who document their abuse and share it online, often in exchange for money, are re-victimising those children each time that image is shared. As those children grow up, the shadow of their abuse and the knowledge it could be online forever stays with them.
The case demonstrates the global reach of child exploitation and the fallacy that sharing images of abuse is a victimless crime.
Sitting in a room behind a screen looking at such images may be unimaginable to most, but for some that’s their 9-5.
It is their job to trawl the deepest recesses of the internet and the dark web – an area only accessible through specially-designed software.
There is nothing inherently unlawful about it, however, as users operate anonymously, and covertly, it tends to lead to unlawful activity.
Dark web users are nameless and faceless which creates new challenges for authorities trying to rescue children and unmask offenders.
It provides a vehicle that enables the $20USD billion ($29NZD billion) global industry in child sexual exploitation to continue operating.
Investigators pose as men interested in children, but they also pose as children in an attempt to identify victims.
When tips arrive from overseas authorities, a specialist team is formed, code-named Operation Ruru, that includes members of Customs, the DIA and police.
They specialise in victim identification and work on overseas investigations alongside expert groups such as international police organisation Interpol.
They could be led to victims via the brand of toilet paper featured in a photograph, or an item of clothing, a programme on the television in the background, a light switch or even the brand of a stool.
John Michael led the Online Child Exploitation Across New Zealand (OCEANZ) team – a specialist unit working as part of an international taskforce to protect children from online abuse until he left New Zealand Police over 10 years later in March 2020.
OCEANZ coordinates international investigations into online paedophile networks, identifies child sexual offenders by monitoring social networks and targets exploitation sites based in New Zealand.
As technology has developed, offenders are able to stay hidden more easily, Michael says.
“These aren’t just images, these are little kids who are being horrifically abused, think of it as crime scene photos … they are evidence of crimes being committed.”
“It doesn’t matter whether a child is in New Zealand or overseas, it’s incumbent on us to identify them.”
Investigators look for clues in the images and videos that point to a location. They’re trained to look past the abuse because that’s not necessarily going to help them identify who it is, but they look for clues in the images to try to identify the location.
Specialist investigator and chief Customs officer Simon Peterson says their work is two-fold.
“We have to go through every single image that we seize because that becomes relevant to the offending of the charges, the second part … we need to be aware of the victims and if any of them are unknown and whether or not there’s anything we can contribute internationally to get those kids rescued.
“If we have an indication that a victim is in New Zealand or any of the Pacific Islands then we’ll down tools and deal with that one until we can try and resolve it.”
Peterson says the exploitation of children happens wherever children are vulnerable.
“To think it’s not happening in New Zealand is foolish … it’s more widespread than we would hazard a guess.”
Peterson recalled a case where a man in Waikato was prosecuted for exporting and distributing images. A subsequent search of his phone found a video.
Using specialist techniques, authorities were able to find the offender and victim through the offender’s belt buckle.
“There were some features in that video that were really useful from a victim identification side, we identified pretty quickly which country it had come from and sent it off to that country through the network,” Peterson says.
“They did a tonne of work to narrow it down, all from a belt a guy was wearing and identified the offender and the wee girl that was involved,” Peterson says.
While the investigation took three months, it illustrated how a seemingly banal piece of evidence could lead to cracking a case.
“One video sent to the right people at the right time … she [the victim] will never know who we are, but that’s the whole point.”
Customs operations manager of investigations Stephen Waugh, who has posed as children in a bid to trap offenders, says their priority is always to rescue victims.
“If we make relationships with the offenders then we get a better chance to rescue children and that’s why we go sitting in those rooms to make those relationships, to see who is abusing children. We target those people and then move.”
“Years ago, I couldn’t do the paedo dad, but I ran child profiles.”
At the time, Waugh’s daughter was a similar age as the person he was posing as, and she helped create his first ever child profile.
“I started out not knowing about the internet, and she was my motivation.”
Once Customs identifies an offender they alert the local authorities and an arrest is made.
Often the material will get sent to the chief censor for his office to classify it as objectionable.
“We see the full range of material, at the very high end of deeply terrible videos of actual child rape – which is absolutely horrendous and difficult material to deal with, but we also get material classified as edge cases where the age of the subjects might be unclear,” chief censor David Shanks says.
Shanks says the global Covid-19 pandemic had created the “perfect storm” for sexual predators to increase online activities.
“The drive means kids haven’t been going to school, in some cases they’re trapped in the house in situations that may be unsafe for them.”
Shanks says there had been at least a 25 to 30 per cent increase in offending, and says there’d been a 100 per cent increase in reports of child sex abuse material.
During March and April last year, when most of the world was in various states of lockdown, there was an 80 per cent reduction in online child sex abuse pages being removed as internet giants, such as Facebook, sent their moderators home.
In New Zealand, from 2014 to 2018 there were 35 million attempts to access blocked internet sites containing child sex abuse material – about 20,000 attempts a day.
“I think the evidence emerging is that there’s a much bigger problem.”
Only a fraction of those cases result in charges and are brought before the courts.
*Names of operatives have been withheld for safety reasons.
Where to get help for sexual violence
- Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00, click link for local helplines.
- Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline 0800 842 846, text 4334, webchat safetotalk.nz or email email@example.com.
- The Harbour Online support and information for people affected by sexual abuse.
- Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 (females only)
- Male Survivors Aotearoa Helplines across NZ, click to find out more (males only)
- If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.
Need help? If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, click the Shielded icon at the bottom of this website to contact Women’s Refuge in a safe and anonymous way without it being traced in your browser history. If you’re in our app, visit the mobile website here to access Shielded.