Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The intrepid undercover report by ABC News may have cast a dark light on the problem of prostitution in the Philippines but that’s hardly news back home where people walk by these dens, aware but powerless or, worse, ambivalent to what happens inside.

When US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. was in town, he spoke before an Asian-American forum where he sort of matter-of-factly claimed that 40 percent of American men visiting the Philippines go there for sex. A few days later an old colleague from ABS-CBN asked if he really said that. Yes, I replied but I didn’t mention it in the article I posted because I didn’t think it jumped out.

Well, Mr. Thomas repeated that allegation in Manila and it landed him in hot water. Using every trick in crisis diplomacy, he was finally able to wiggle out of the public outrage and indignation. I would imagine the angry reaction surprised him because you didn’t have to look too hard to see that what he said was true.

The ABC News report, facilitated by Fr. Shay Cullen, merely brought the problem to a larger audience.

What jumped out for me though was reading that the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) was involved in an operation to arrest and possibly prosecute an American national, identified in the report as Arthur Benjamin of Texas.

The report suggested the feds were interested in Benjamin for allegedly having sex with a minor and operating a bar that employed underaged girls for prostitution. This sounded like a warning and a reminder to all Americans that their citizenship made them subject to US laws wherever they may be.

While the ABC News report focused on Benjamin’s alleged bar in Subic, Zambales, it’s also widely known that some of the seediest establishments in Angeles, Pampanga are also owned by Americans.

They are mostly left-overs of the US bases in those towns, where in some cases generations of girls have been trapped in the “world’s oldest profession”. Some vestiges are more personal, girls sired by US servicemen – especially at the height of the Vietnam War when Subic and Angeles City were synonymous with “R&R” – with prostitutes who have themselves been sucked into the “trade”.

Of course, much of this is fueled by poverty and corruption. Occasionally the police would raid these establishments, reporters and TV cameras in tow, especially when there’s a new commander at the post or a new face in city hall.

Scribes who pounded the community and police beats even coined a “code” for them “Oplan Pakilala” – translated as Operation Introduction – that let the bar managers know who to give the protection money (or favors) to.

There might be some questions about American law enforcers joining anti-vice operations in a sovereign country, thousands of miles away. It’s certainly embarrassing for the Philippine police. 

Prostitution has sometimes been described as a “victim-less crime” but that’s not true. Prostitution like human trafficking is an “equal opportunity crime” because it corrupts indiscriminately and so completely. And the damage is more pernicious where children are concerned.

Only recently, a federal investigation into alleged weapons smuggling from the Philippines was blindsided by revelations some FBI agents may have paid for Filipina prostitutes using taxpayer’s money as part of undercover operations.

If the charges turn out to be true – together with the assertion that its nationals are among the chief drivers of the prostitution problem in the Philippines – then the US is right to intervene. If they can send their drones to knock out terrorists – even Americans – across the globe, I don’t think too many will complain if they haul misbehaving citizens like Mr. Benjamin to jail. 

Those parts of Subic or Angeles are not much different from, say, Bangkok's Patpong or any other notorious (or "popular"?) red light district in the world. They hardly represent the country or even the cities where they’re located. Still, they taint Filipino women. 

Mr. Thomas has promised US help to prosecute Americans involved in the sex trade and human trafficking in the Philippines. We hope that in addition to aiding local law enforcers, they would also help groups like those of Fr. Shay who has spent a lifetime helping young Filipinos.

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