“Nightline” correspondent Alexander Marquardt (left) confronts Arthur Benjamin during the raid of Benjamin’s bar in Subic, Zambales, as seen on ABC’s “Nightline” aired Feb. 25. (Video grab from “Nightline”)
ABC’s ‘Nightline’ exposes lucrative trade
The Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) flew to the Philippines and helped arrest an American child predator and dismantle his large prostitution business in Subic, Zambales, peddling numerous underage girls as young as 14 to mostly foreign customers.
ABC’s “Nightline” joined the operation with both federal agents and local police to investigate and collar Arthur Benjamin, 49, originally of Texas, who owns and operates the Crow Bar in Subic.
The investigative report by correspondent Alexander Marquardt was aired on “Nightline” on Feb. 25.
HSI, which has 74 offices in 48 foreign countries around the world, explains to “Nightline” that under U.S. law, American citizens can be apprehended, extradited and prosecuted for engaging in sexual acts with minors in foreign countries.
HSI is one of the lead federal law enforcement agencies that identifies, investigates and arrests child predators and sexual offenders worldwide — a priority investigative area.
“Americans, with twisted overseas travel plans to engage in child sex tourism, may think they are beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement...they’re not,” said HSI special agent and attache Eric McLoughline.
In addition to arresting U.S. citizens, HSI attachés abroad also provide resources, training and expertise to foreign law enforcement counterparts, assisting them with investigations.
HSI Manila regularly partners with law enforcement agencies in the Philippines.
Each year, it is said that over a million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade.
$35 a girl
Benjamin’s dingy bar, Crow Bar, and other bars in Subic are often packed with older foreign men ogling the young Filipino girls available for the night for a “bar fine” of around 1,500 Filipino pesos, or just over $35.
Many of the bars are owned and operated by Americans, often former military servicemen who either served on the base or whose ships docked here until the base was shuttered under political pressure in 1992.
“In the Philippines, just a small scratch to the surface can reveal a layer of young, underage girls who have mostly come from impoverished rural provinces to sell their bodies to help support their families,” according to “Nightline’s” Marquardt, who went around and interviewed minor-age bar girls using tiny hidden cameras.
The hidden cameras also helped corner Benjamin, who admitted to Marquardt that he was employing some 300 girls, many of them minors, and even bragged that he kept for himself a 16-year-old girlfriend.
“My wife recently found out that I have this place,” he told the “Nightline” team, unaware they are journalists and recording the conversation on cameras disguised as shirt buttons.
Benjamin said that a “disgruntled waitress” had written his California-based wife on Facebook, detailing his activities in Subic Bay.
“She sent her this thing saying that I have underage girls who stayed with me, that I [have sex with them], I own a bar, I’ve got other girls that I’m putting through high school, all this other crap,” he said.
“All of which is true,” he laughed.
“However, I have to deny.”
He sent a text message summoning his current girlfriend, a petite dark-skinned girl called Jade, who he said is just 16.
Benjamin said he bought the bar for her about a year ago and while most still call it Crow Bar, he officially re-named it with her last name.
“She needed a place to stay, I needed a place to do her. I bought a bar for her,” he said, explaining that she lived in a house out back by the beach.
“You’re not going to find anything like this in the States, not as a guy my age,” he said as he looked down at Jade.
“Ain’t going to happen.”
Benjamin was the latest target of Fr. Shay Cullen, a Catholic priest with a thick Irish brogue and fluency in Tagalog.
Through his non-profit center called Preda, he’s been crusading against underage sex trafficking in the Philippines for 40 years.
He managed to collect enough evidence through a former bar girl at Crow’s Bar and with the help of a team of Australian documentary filmmakers that had worked undercover.
Poverty, corruption, machismo blamed
Father Shay, as he’s known to everyone at Preda, blames the rampant underage prostitution on a combination of widespread poverty, lax and corrupt law enforcement and a “machismo kind of culture that says women are objects, girls are the most desirable.”
In his “conversation” with “Nightline,” Benjamin said he managed to hide the underage girls from the authorities through his Mama-san, the term for a Filipina woman found in every bar who recruits and manages the girls.
His Mama-san is called Lucy.
“Lucy is a master at it,” Benjamin said of his Mama-san.
“The girls will get their older sisters’ birth certificates, that’s pretty much how they do it. Sister or cousin.”
Benjamin claimed he pays graft money to four different groups of local authorities to “keep them off our ass.”
“Someone put out that I was a pedophile, that I like younger girls. So Lucy talked to them and now [a top local police official] happens to be a good friend of ours, a good friend of mine,” he laughs.
The raid on Benjamin’s Crow Bar was given the green light by NBI, with ICE team joining.
The Australian film crew working with Father Shay organized a fake bachelor party, designed to guarantee that Benjamin will be there.
“Nightline” was invited to the party to be inside as the raid happened.
During the raid, Benjamin flatly denied ever employing minors, as none of the bar girls admitted they were underage.
They also defended Benjamin as a “good man, a nice man.”
Despite the arrest, Father Shay was not savoring the moment, instead arguing with the agents about where the girls were being taken, concerned they will be mistreated and the case will fall apart if they go to Manila, which he views as deeply corrupt.
Authorities agreed to take the girls to a Department of Social Welfare and Development center in nearby Pampanga.
Three weeks after the raid, Benjamin and Mama Lucy remain in jail in Manila, held as the prosecution debates what to charge them with.
The Filipino authorities are doing “very, very little” to solve the plague of underage prostitution, Father Shay said.
“There are some good, dedicated people. They are struggling. They have no budgets, no money.”
“But we’ll never give up...we have got all these children to save,” he said.
“We will rehabilitate them and give them a new life and a great start in the future.”
Meanwhile, agent McLoughlin estimates that he has been involved in thousands of investigations involving Americans in his three years in the Philippines that involve sexually abusing minors.
“A lot of the Americans want to come here because they perceive it is easier to operate here than in the United States,” he said.
“And we are happy to remind them they are sadly mistaken. We are going to find them and they are going to be held accountable.”