When an anti-human trafficking group recently reported a 73 percent drop in the sale of children for sex, another referenced its list of 15 establishments offering minors to predators as evidence to the contrary.
That was three weeks ago. And according to the latter group, 13 of those establishments remain in operation.
Thirteen years after the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police was established under the Interior Ministry, the overt abuse of minors has significantly decreased. However, police and investigators say criminal networks have become more sophisticated, taking their trade underground, where legal loopholes and a lack of resources leave young victims at the mercy of their masters.
As a result of a 2010 amendment to the penal code broadly criminalizing the covert collection of audio, video and photographs of persons, police are forced to build cases against suspected offenders without using evidence gathered undercover. So NGOs, with their own investigative teams specialized in the sex trade, often identify a case first, then work alongside police to convince prosecutors to sign off on a raid.
“It is just a matter of doing one at a time, or two at a time if you can, and just going through them,” said Eric Meldrum, the investigations director of Agape International Missions’ AIM SWAT team, which is working toward obtaining warrants to raid the remaining 13 establishments it has identified as selling underage girls. “We don’t have enough resources —police and us—to organize 15 at a time.”
Coffee shops, karaoke parlors and massage parlors are commonly used as fronts for the sex trade. Past investigations into such operations have uncovered links to police—Mr. Meldrum said leaks thwarted more than one AIM raid last year—leaving the NGOs reticent to work outside small groups of trained and trusted police, another factor that significantly slows the process.
“Obviously, keeping your intelligence in house is a big part of it,” said Mr. Meldrum, who now believes his network is watertight. “Like I say, we work with specific teams and it is one job at a time.”
For two years, the International Justice Mission (IJM) has been working with the Justice Ministry to tweak the law to allow anti-human trafficking police to go back undercover (police working on corruption and drugs cases do have undercover investigative authority, or UIA), and with the Interior Ministry to develop a code of conduct for covert police operations.
At an IJM seminar in Phnom Penh last week, however, Ith Rady, an undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry, said their studies into how to effectively implement UIA, which is common across both Asia and the West, had turned up “nothing significant.”
On the sidelines of the event, John Roberts, IJM’s investigations director, explained how investigations into “offsite” child abuse—when a victim is taken away from an establishment or from a pimp, or off the street—are also hamstrung without UIA.
“You are having to wait for the person to be victimized before you can act,” Mr. Roberts said, adding that agents could be watching suspects for months, sure that they are abusing children behind closed doors, yet unable to take action.
“You are having to react to the flagrant offense of the victimization happening, whereas with undercover you are able to identify the victimization that is intended to happen and you can interrupt it,” he said.
Just as alarming, Mr. Roberts said, is the fact that predators are familiar with the legal system and act with no fear of encountering an undercover officer or being set up in a sting.
Action Pour Les Enfants is the most visible child-protection NGO in Cambodia and has come under fire in the past for being slow to rescue victims from abusive situations.
Its director, Samleang Seila, said it takes an average of three or four months to extract victims, a wait that is not the fault of his team.
With no UIA, he said, police and investigators rely on statements from victims to build a case. But convincing an underage girl trapped in a human-trafficking network to inculpate her master is no easy task.
“Sometimes they don’t trust police, they are conditioned to their situation and they do not cooperate,” Mr. Seila said, adding that girls who do give statements often return to their masters and live in fear while they wait for a prosecutor to authorize a raid.
“If victims do not cooperate in the process, it can take years and years [to create a case] because there is no evidence at all that can be collected if we are unable to conduct an undercover investigation,” he said.
At IJM’s seminar last week, police and prosecutors from across the country, as well as child-protection NGOs and officials from the ministries of interior, justice and social affairs, discussed the current state of play. UIA featured heavily.
Comments from two Justice Ministry officials, however, showed an apparent lack of understanding of the issue.
Responding to a participant who noted that police in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines are allowed to go undercover to investigate child sex cases, Pen Pich Saly, director-general of the ministry’s department of criminal affairs and prosecutions, argued that Australian police were not authorized to do so. In fact, they are.
Mr. Pich Saly also said that UIA was problematic because “you have to commit the crime to catch the criminal.”
Mr. Rady, the undersecretary of state, who also sits on the Supreme Council of Magistracy, urged police to find ways to skirt laws that prohibit UIA—if they are not doing so already. “Actually, police can use [UIA] any time; it’s about using tactics,” he said.
“It’s a technicality, that’s why we have to be careful of our use of words.”
He warned, however, that police going into brothels undercover without proper training could cause ethical and legal dilemmas.
Contacted by telephone Tuesday, officials at the Justice Ministry would not explain why UIA had yet to be adopted.
At the IJM seminar, Lieutenant General Pol Phiethey, head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said that while police still needed to be trained to use UIA safely and ethically, it was a necessary tool of the trade.
He said his department had been wiped clean of untrusted and unruly officers, and that it was time to give them the power to go underground and attack the child sex trade at its root. “Why do we need UIA? To do our job on time,” Lt. Gen. Phiethey said.
“It’s simple: If we have UIA, we can rescue more victims, faster.”