It's an exotic vacation destination, with ancient cities, bold colors, legendary temples, remarkable beauty — and horrendous crimes that go on behind closed doors. Children, some as young as 5 years old, are being sold as slaves for sex. It's a shameful secret that's now capturing the attention of the world and the White House, a secret that has been exposed by Dateline's hidden cameras. Dateline ventured into this dark place, where sexual predators can gain access to terrified children for a handful of cash. How could this be happening? And how can it be stopped?
Inside the world of child sex trafficking, each year, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of girls and boys are bought, sold or kidnapped and then forced to have sex with grown men. Dateline’s investigation leads to the troubled and distant land of Cambodia. We reveal what “tourists,” like one American doctor, may be up to, and we'll take you inside a dramatic operation to rescue the children.
The night clubs of Bangkok and the windows of Amsterdam are among the most well-known destinations in what has become a multibillion-dollar industry: sex tourism. But the business is not all about adult prostitution. There are some places you might never have heard about, notorious places, the kind of places a sexual predator would be willing to travel halfway around the world to reach — destinations like a dusty village in Southeast Asia, where the prey is plentiful and easy to stalk.
They are children born into poverty and sold for sex. And while the thousands of men who flock here each year — many of them Americans — may think that they're involved in nothing more than prostitution, by any definition it is rape.
The small Buddhist country of Cambodia has a rich cultural heritage, but it has become a magnet for people who prey on the young and innocent. To follow their trail, we'll have to infiltrate their perverted world and pretend we're predators ourselves. It’s the only way we'll be able to see first-hand how serious the problem really is — so serious that President Bush told the United Nations it has become a top priority for his administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell is leading the administration's efforts and has a special office dedicated to the problem.
Chris Hansen: “Why has child sex trafficking become such an important issue for you and the Bush administration?”
Colin Powell: “Because it's the worst kind of human exploitation imaginable. Can you imagine young children, learning their ABCs or whatever the equivalent is in their language, being used as sexual slaves for predators? It is a sin against humanity, and it is a horrendous crime.”
On the front lines
To combat that crime, increasingly the administration has been turning to people like Gary Haugen, a former federal prosecutor who runs a human rights group called the International Justice Mission. Haugen's group uses tactics that are considered controversial by some in the human rights community. He sends his investigators undercover to gather evidence of sex slavery in other countries, then takes the evidence to local authorities to persuade them to take action. Their work helped rescue hundreds of women and children around the world.
This time the target is Cambodia, and a Dateline team is headed there undercover.
After an 11,000-mile journey, our producer and cameraman set up shop in a hotel in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where they assemble our state-of-the-art equipment and rig themselves with hidden cameras.
Cambodia still suffers from a traumatic past. In the 1970s and ’80s, an estimated 2 million Cambodians died because of war, famine and a brutal dictatorship.
Now there are signs of recovery, thanks in part to the three-quarters-of-a-million foreign visitors who come to Cambodia each year. Our hidden cameras found that many tourists come not to visit the historic sites, but for another purpose. They go to a place like Martinis. It's a nightclub where young women outnumber men 10 to one, and many of the women are for sale.
Even though prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, finding a girlfriend for the night at Martinis takes just a few words, a few dollars, and a stroll out the door. But the action at Martinis pales compared with what else we're about to see in Cambodia.
Early one morning, our producer walks out the front door of the hotel and is greeted by a local motor bike taxi driver, who explains how easy it is to find girls for sale:
Twelve-year-olds for sale. As shocking as that sounds, we're about to find out in some places that's considered old. Children who should be in elementary school are being exploited by adults.
A human rights investigator we'll call Robert is acting as a sex tour guide for a Dateline producer and cameraman posing undercover. The investigator is a former police detective from New Zealand. We agreed not to show his face or use his real name, because of his ongoing undercover work.
Robert has developed local contacts who know where to go and whom to see. All it takes is a quick phone call for this man to arrange a visit to a brothel in Phnom Penh.
The producers and investigators arrive across from what looks like a local café, but it's really a brothel. The owner is a woman who goes by the name Madam Lang. She's eager to do business. She leads the group through the café and up a back staircase to meet some girls for hire. And when she says they're girls, she means it literally: young girls, younger than we even imagined. And as an extra attraction, she says they're still virgins.
Trapped in tragedy
Many sex tourists come to Cambodia for exactly that reason, and they're willing to pay a premium. Madam Lang tells us her virgins go for $600, and for that price she says we can take a girl back to the hotel and keep her there for up to three days. When she brings out the girl, the 15-year-old looks paralyzed with fear.
A child's tragic journey into the sex trade often begins in a family struggling for survival. This is a country where the average income is less than $300 a year. Some children are sold by their own parents. Others are lured by what they think are legitimate job offers like waitressing, but then are forced into prostitution.
One 14-year-old, who was recently freed from a brothel, says she came from an extremely poor family in the country next door, Vietnam. She says when she was walking home from school one day, she was approached by a woman offering work in a café. But the café turned out to be a brothel. With no money and no way to get home, she didn't have much of a choice and was forced into sex with grown men, many of them American.
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