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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
'Chairman' reveals seedy world of trafficking
The BBC's Asia correspondent Andrew Harding has a rare encounter with a conscience-stricken Philippines gangland boss who runs a network trafficking underaged girls to work in brothels. He agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.

He looks like a bank manager, on holiday. Grey hair, steel-rimmed glasses, polo shirt and paunch.

We have arranged to meet in a hotel lobby, and I am late. His two bodyguards are sitting by the door - pistols tucked none too subtly under their shirts.

Philippine sex trafficker
The "chairman" has been trafficking girls for 30 years now
Later, I find out that the guards are actually off-duty policemen - doing a little freelance work for the local underworld boss. Welcome to the Philippines.

The boss is introduced to me by my local contact as "the chairman" - and half-jokingly "the underworld king". At this, the chairman smiles tightly - and it is hard to tell if he is flattered or angry.

I am not sure why he has agreed to talk to me. But as we all squeeze into the lift on the way up to my room, he mentions his conscience. Apparently it has been troubling him.

For 30 years now, the chairman has been trafficking girls. He used to be a police sergeant, but says he got kicked off the force for adultery. Twice.

His second wife worked in a brothel. One thing led to another, and soon he was travelling around the countryside, recruiting children.

He is disarmingly open about all this - explaining how he lies to the families, buys the girls, and then forces them into brothels.

No-one is sure about the figures. But it is thought there could be 100,000 Philippine children involved in the local sex trade.

Others are forced into domestic work or mining or sugar plantations, or shipped abroad.

They are victims of a trafficking empire that has become one of the world's most lucrative criminal industries.

Safe-house escape

Over the years, the chairman has worked his way up, from trainee field recruiter, to running individual brothels, and now to overseeing an entire network - an underworld association, he calls it. Hence his official title.

He agrees to show me round his patch. A maze of dark crowded alleys, throbbing with karaoke music. Young girls hover inside the bars - some smiling, some not.

Stephanie in a Manila slum
Stephanie, 14, says she was trafficked away from Manila to work in a brothel
It is late evening by the time we walk through the slum. Actually it is more like a jog. The chairman is worried my unexplained presence could attract the attention of rival gangs. So we leave within minutes.

I do not get a chance to talk to any of his employees. But I have already seen plenty of victims at a safe-house in Manila.

Some had managed to run away, a few had been rescued by the police.

I met one girl who was 11. And another 14-year-old who believed she had been hired as a waitress, but ended up being raped by a Korean tourist who had paid for sex with a virgin.

The victims hardly ever press charges. They are either too scared, or they have been paid off, or both.

The chairman drives me to another slightly less seedy part of town and we sit drinking cold beer on the street.

The bodyguards sip theirs and make a show of bringing out their pistols.

Dozens of prostitutes line the uneven pavement behind us. There is neon overhead and puddles underfoot.

After a while, I start chatting to a small, cheerful woman called Tess, the madam of a tiny club just down the road.

She's 50, and, like the chairman, has spent many years in the countryside as a recruiter.

Now she has got 17 girls working for her - all, she insists, are there out of choice, and aged 18 or older.

Bizarrely, she claims they are all distant relatives. I only recruit my own, she explains.

She is proud of the business she has set up. It provides a regular income for girls who would otherwise be trapped in poverty.

Half of Tess's prostitutes live at home with her immediate family. My children are understanding of my business, she says, before heading back inside her club.

Moral mire

The chairman has to go soon too. We have one last round of beer. As we've been talking, it has become clear he cannot quite decide how to portray himself.

I have agreed not to reveal his identity, so he is frank about the crimes he has committed - trafficking girls, bribing police and so on.

But sometimes the chairman in him takes over from the crook.

He suddenly insists he never pays bribes, then describes, with apparent conviction, how he no longer wants to hire under-aged girls.

And how he would like to pay for vocational classes for those working in his brothels - and how perhaps this interview can even help to clean up the industry.

The contradictions make sense.

He is 54 now, with eight children, 17 brothels, a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, and a certain status in his "profession". It is hardly surprising that his conscience is nagging him.

We shake hands. His guards tuck their pistols away, and they all drive off to make their nightly rounds collecting protection money from the brothels.

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