The hunt for child-sex offenders begins in front of the Royal Palace, leads to
the lawn of Hun Sen Park, and winds up under the lights of Phnom Penh's
The man walking a young boy across the street in Phnom Penh has been under investigation by child protection NGO Action Pour Les Enfants for several weeks. Child sex abuse monitors are constantly challenged to distinguish truly kind behavior from malicious intent.
It's about 10 pm in the city; and the backdrop of
balloons - of teddy bears, candy bars and kiddie rides - make for a difficult
place to define the line between the honorable and the inhumane.
37-year-old social worker Map, it's his job.
The Phnom Penh native and
father of two works as a field investigator for child protection NGO Action Pour
Les Enfants (APLE). Five days a week, from 5 pm to midnight, he shadows Western
men who are under APLE investigations for child sex abuse.
It's a life of
hidden cameras, false identities and detective work. Part sleuth and part spy,
Map is part of a network of field monitors and investigation teams meant to
provide "street presence" in the battle against child sex abuse.
don't make arrests, but collect crucial evidence for the courts and police and
maintain a web of informants, look-outs and assistants.
offenders are changing their modus operandi," said Katherine Keane, APLE country
director. "They're becoming more aware and increasingly using intermediaries. So
we've changed accordingly.
"Our network includes children themselves,
ex-pats, social workers, hotel staff. They report what they believe to be
suspicious behavior. When we feel we have enough evidence, we ring the police
and then they get involved. Sometimes we monitor for quite a long time: some
cases take two hours, some take two months."
APLE is one of many NGOs
working with the government to thwart child sex abuse. Funded originally by
Spanish humanitarian organization Global Humanitaria, APLE was founded in France
in 1994 and came to Cambodia in 2003. The organization works in partnership with
the Department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection and the
Juvenile Protection Unit of the Phnom Penh Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking
Hurni Hans Ulrich climbs out of a police transport vehicle in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on March 6. He would be sentenced to 11 years in prison for the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl. In a March 8 interview with researchers from the Spanish organization Global Humanitaria, Ulrich said, "I do like to go to the limits of a human being's possibilities. All the time I tried to live exciting experiences. I have always risked myself falling to the bottom. Now, I am there."
"We been able to successfully crack down on pedophilia because we
have good people and NGOs such as APLE that provide us with information," said
Than Phanith, chief of the juvenile protection unit of the Phnom Penh municipal
anti-human trafficking police bureau, on March 7.
"APLE have their own
investigators on pedophilia. The information provided by APLE is very useful and
most of the cases provided by APLE we pursue. After APLE provided us with
evidence, we go immediately to the place to arrest the assailant. But before we
arrest them we also do more research at the scene in order to know clearly
whether the victim is really a child under 15 years old or not."
the 12 other APLE investigators, work two shifts: day and night. They stalk
suspects or slink around "active" areas where large numbers of children are
targets for abuse.
Map's best ruse is to pose as an over-friendly
moto-driver. It's common, he says, to feign friendship with suspects in order to
glean information. He said he once shared dinner with a man who was later
arrested based on evidence he provided. Although the majority of child-sex
offenders in Cambodia are not Westerners (Oung Chanthol, executive director of
the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, estimates less than one percent of sex
crimes by foreigners) they are APLE's priority.
"Street-based child sex
offenders tend to be Western men," Keane said. "Child-sex offenders from Asian
nations, especially virginity seekers, come to Cambodia, but tend to stay in
establishments: private clubs, karaoke parlors. Cambodians commit abuses in
their own communities. It can be a step-father or a friend of a family. We don't
work just on street-based sex, but to our knowledge we are the only one whose
major focus is on street-based child-sex offenders."
On the night Map
takes the Post out to track "Jimmy" - an alleged sexual predator who's been
under investigation for over a month. The suspect is found at the carnival with
two young girls, but his actions appear to be fatherly and kind. According to
Map, he's become very close to the girls' mother and there is still not enough
evidence to present to his supervisor. As the night ends, the suspect lifts the
girls into a tuk-tuk and heads off into the night.
"We don't know if the
suspect is a good man or a bad man," Map said. "There's no typical physical type
for these pedophiles, but there is typical behavior. Normally, a sex offender
will exhibit a lot of physical contact and buy gifts, clothes or toys. But it's
still difficult, because this same behavior can be done by a good
Distinguishing truly benevolent behavior from evil is the most
difficult part of the job, Map said. And Keane is adamant that cases only go
forward if there is an obviously sinister element. Investigators receive the
same monthly pay whether they lead to arrests or not.
"We don't have to
create cases; I would say there's enough bad guys to create cases," Keane said.
"We act as support for the police. There are checks and balances in place. For
example, we don't handle arrests or convictions. We hand them over to the police
- and offer an initial support group."
And although angered, at times, by
the grim realities of the Cambodian sex trade, Keane says APLE is not a punitive
"We enforce the law. We don't beat people up. We have to put
emotions aside, we do this work because it makes us angry - but you must
translate that passion into development of the law - not into crucifying
people," she said. "Overall, things are improving. Cambodia is less and less a
haven for child-sex offenders - the police and courts are doing their job in
this area. The court system is still not fixed, but with in law enforcement and
some parts of the judiciary the will is improving."