Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Fighters, a series of reports from a full-length film that premieres on CNN International TV on May 17 and 18 at 1900 HKT; 2200 CET; 2200 ET. The documentary is a result of two years of undercover work and filming in the Philippines.
In Manila's unofficial red light district, scantily-clad young girls are everywhere
CNN undercover reporters asked to choose from a line up of girls
Police and anti-traffickers say sex industry is major destination for trafficked girls
Some estimates say up to 100,000 children are trafficked into the Philippines' sex trade
Bolly is working the streets, watching clubbers spill from one bar to the next when he spots his next mark – two westerners in one of Manila’s most notorious areas.
It’s a little after 10pm when Bolly sees me and my cameraman – though he doesn’t have a camera visible with us on this night – rolling out of a sports bar known for its bounty of women offering ‘companionship’ in Edsa, Manila’s unofficial red light district. He strides over quickly, waving a little white flier in our faces.
The street is teeming with people after an evening rain. Pedestrians dodge neon-bathed puddles while darting behind and between passing cars.
On the sidewalk, several homeless families have bedded down on cardboard for the night. On the block ahead, we see teams of girls in tight-fitting cocktail dresses and school girl uniforms standing in front of karaoke bars, calling out to western businessmen to come inside and join them for a little fun.
“Hello friends. Where are you going?” Bolly says. “I know where there lots of girls. Cheap drinks. This way,” he says, thrusting the pamphlet into our hands. Bolly is a recruiter for a number of nightclubs in the area.
“We are looking for young, pretty girls” my cameraman asks, playing the part. “Where can we find them?”
Bolly grins broadly. “OK. I take you.”
We make small talk as Bolly happily walks us the several blocks to the first bar.
My photographer and I don’t tell our new friend that we’re actually working at the moment; on the lookout for evidence of forced prostitution or children being sold for sex. It’s part of the two year-long investigation CNN embarked on as part of its Freedom Project, an initiative to help the battle against modern-day slavery.
It’s estimated 800,000 people are involved in prostitution in the Philippines. The government and NGO estimates on the number of women trafficked range from 300,000 to 400,000 and the number of children trafficked range from 60,000 to 100,000.
We follow Bolly down the street, until we come upon a little door guarded by a large bouncer. He opens the door and our eyes struggle to accept the flood of pink fluorescent light bathing the room. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” blares from unseen speakers.
Along the wall a dozen girls seated in a row stare at the newcomers. A few wave hello, most look bored. They’re not drinking. Not really even talking. Just sitting and waiting to be selected.
A few red plastic tables are scattered around the room, each decorated by a single man sitting and drinking.
One man has a girl he’s chosen sitting beside him. She’s kissing the lobe of his ear. There are no empty tables left, so the manager puts us on the side of the L-side couch, opposite the girls. It feels a little like it’s an adolescent school dance, with everyone waiting for someone else to make the first move.
I struggle for a place to look away from the gaze of the girls and cast my eyes to the ground. A cockroach skitters around the legs of the tables and chairs and patrons’ feet. The manager is behind the bar, getting us beers. She sees me looking at the cockroach and laughs from across the room. “Our pet,” she says.
The girls giggle, somewhat embarrassed. I force a smile, but another patron, who hadn’t heard the qu