Washington, DC,December 22,2014
Along the narrow roads leading into the Filipino village of Ibabao, billboards highlight traditional crafts such as baking cassava cakes, rope making, and sea-shell jewelry. There's no mention of a less salubrious trade that has swept the area in recent years: child porn.
The area has developed a reputation as a global center of the sexual exploitation of children largely due to Eileen Ontong, authorities say. For at least seven years, Ontong -- dubbed "the Queen of Cyberporn" by local media -- abused children on demand in front of a webcam for cash delivered via international wire transfer services, according to Philippines and U.S. police.
Investigators say as many as 35 children, some as young as five, passed through the door of Ontong's concrete and plywood home, adorned with a crucifix and a picture of Jesus, and into a makeshift cyber-den. There, they were molested, had sex with each other, or exposed themselves in front of a camera. It didn't take long for neighbors to offer their children for shows and set up similar operations at home, police say.
"This became a cottage industry in the area because they all saw Eileen Ontong making money," said Abdul Jamal Dimaporo, an agent with the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation, the country's equivalent of the FBI. "It's easier to earn a living doing this than working. They don't think what they are doing is wrong."
Police estimate Ontong netted about $200,000 over the years: Snapshots of naked children retailed for $50, nudity in front of the webcam cost $100, and a live sex show among children ran as high as $500. The children, or their parents, got $10-$18 per show. Members of Ontong's extended family participated from age 11. Her husband, Wilfredo, served as a watchman, police say.
The Ontongs today are being held 15 miles (24 kilometers) from their home, in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a hilltop prison designed for 1,400 inmates that houses 2,200. Charged with child pornography, child abuse and violating the country's human trafficking law, the Ontongs face life imprisonment, according to the Philippines NBI. They have pleaded not guilty, the NBI says. Their defense lawyer didn't respond to numerous phone calls and text messages.
Cat and Mouse
Away from the sandy beaches and blue waters that woo tourists to the Philippines, children have long been exploited in the sex trade. These days, though, instead of working as underage prostitutes on street corners or in hotels and discos, children from poor families in remote slums are being used for sex shows via online video calling services.
"When the money flows easily through the Internet, there are new ways to exploit children," said Mark Clookie, a former head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who oversees investigations at the International Justice Mission, a non-profit group that is helping prosecute the Ontongs.
About four years ago, Filipino police say they began receiving reports about online child porn streamed live from the Philippines to customers worldwide. Since then, underage sex shows have become the country's No. 1 cybercrime. Though a 2009 law requires Philippines Internet access providers to install software that can detect images and streams of pornography, those rules are often ignored because companies deem it too expensive to comply, said Ronald Aguto, head of the NBI's cybercrime unit.
"It's a cat and mouse kind of thing," Aguto said. "Our Internet providers are mandated to be law enforcers, but it's a big business and a lot of people are involved."
Until 2006, Eileen Ontong, now 36, worked at a factory that made electronic equipment in the neighboring city of Lapu Lapu. Wilfredo, now 38, had a motorized rickshaw that he used to ferry tourists around resort areas, according to Wilfredo's mother, Nenita Ontong, a slight woman of 56 who lives in a small stucco house with pink curtains and an air-conditioner -- relative luxury in the warren of tumbledown shacks. Eileen and Wilfredo's place, next door, was more humble.
"Look at their home," Nenita Ontong said, gesturing toward a small concrete structure where her son and daughter-in-law lived. "It's not the house of a queen."
After a friend taught Eileen how to use computers, she began frequenting local Internet cafes that offer private rooms for less than $1 an hour, Nenita said. There, Eileen engaged in chat sessions with foreign men, and she soon earned enough to buy her own computer and a high-speed Internet connection to start working from home. Several times a week, Eileen traveled to money-transfer outlets in Lapu Lapu to pick up funds sent via Western Union (WU) or other services, police say -- anywhere from $30 to $500 at a time.
"I knew Eileen was doing something using the Internet, and I advised her to stop but she ignored me," said Nenita. "I think some of our neighbors asked Eileen for help" in setting up their own cyberporn operations. She didn't say whether children were involved.
The NBI says it found thousands of images of child pornography on equipment seized from the house: scenes of Eileen Ontong sexually abusing a pre-teen member of her extended family, children having sex, a five-year-old girl exposing herself, young boys performing oral sex on each other.
About 60,000 Filipino children enter the sex trade every year, and perhaps 10,000 of them have worked in online porn, according to the Preda Foundation, which runs a shelter for abused girls. In a country where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a webcam show can put food on the table or pay for a new roof.
"Of course those who do it will always use poverty as an excuse," said Adelino Sitoy, mayor of the Cordova Municipality, which includes Ibabao. "What attracts them is easy money. All you have to do is tell your children to undress."
One child testified in the Ontong case on Dec. 8, and the next hearing is expected in March, according to the International Justice Mission. One girl found at Ontong's house during the arrests has also testified, but the other two children who were there that night fled and can't be located, according to the NBI.
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