ANGELES CITY, Philippines — The girls onstage were numbered, not named.
Silently, they shuffled in a circle around the mirrored platform in a basement dance bar; arms folded around bare stomachs, eyes fixed on the scuffed metal floor.
At the back of the stage, a 14-year-old in black heels hunched her shoulders and tried to shrink into the shadows. It has been more than a year since she was trafficked into the dimly lit nightclub about 50 miles north of Manila.
She is among hundreds of girls supplied each year in Angeles City to meet the demands of foreign men paying for sex — many of whom are American.
A bell sounded and a tourist entered the bar. Under the gaze of her manager, the girl stepped forward and forced a smile. Her knees shook in the spotlight.
The Philippine city of Angeles — home to a former U.S. military base — has long been a hub for “sex tourism”: illegal prostitution between foreign men and Filipina girls often still in their teens and trafficked into the industry, or young women pushed into the sex trade by family pressure and economic desperation.
The Philippines sex industry and potential for continued exploitation, however, remains indirectly aided by legislative loopholes and apparent indifference from authorities, according to activists.
Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines and commercial sex with a child under the age of 18 is rape. But bar managers can circumnavigate laws. Girls and women are presented as “entertainers” rather than sex workers, and payments for sex are packaged as “fines” paid to the bars by a patron on behalf of a woman leaving her shift early.
Meanwhile, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has devoted few resources to battling the Philippines’ illicit sex industry even as it wages brutal crackdowns on the drug trade.
Duterte, in fact, has appeared to invite foreign men to the country with the suggestion that young women are waiting.
Local leaders are left to mostly handle the repercussions alone.
“I will not give up on this,” said Angeles’ newly elected mayor, Carmelo “Pogi” Lazatin Jr., in July, adding that ending all forms of prostitution in the city was top-priority. “But it will take time. There is a lot of resistance.”
As the sex industry has become more lucrative, corrupt officials have taken steps to give it a veneer of lawfulness, activists say.
More than 9,000 bar girls are registered as “entertainers,” but the government mandates they take sexually transmitted disease tests on a weekly basis — a move criticized by activists as a marketing trick to present the city’s sex industry as clean and tourist-friendly.
Meanwhile, bar owners often pretend to obey minimum-age requirements of 18.
Unregistered, freelance sex workers and trafficking victims abound. The youngest girl interviewed by The Fuller Project was 10 years old.
Next year, a new airport terminal on the outskirts of Angeles is set to triple the number of visitors to the region and bring a possible expansion of sex trafficking and abuses, human rights advocates warn.
“If tourism doubles, then the vulnerability of children doubles, too,” said Dolores Alforte, Philippines executive director for the international nonprofit End Child Prostitution And Trafficking, known as ECPAT.
In July 2018, the then-mayor of Angeles, Edgardo Pamintuan, and Angeles-based nonprofit founder Robert Wagner met with John McGregor, then the human rights officer of the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
They proposed a six-point plan for American assistance in holding U.S. citizens accountable for possible crimes related to exploiting Filipina women and girls, including the placement of closed-circuit TV cameras outside the bars and a kiosk where sex workers and trafficking victims could report abuse and ask for help.
Neither Pamintuan nor Wagner have seen any action taken since.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila declined to make a public comment. But past statements by U.S. officials have emphasized a strong partnership with Philippine law enforcement on human trafficking and related issues.
In June, the State Departement’s Trafficking in Persons Report listed the Philippines among the top-tier countries with laws in place to battle human trafficking.
“Although the [Philippine] government meets the minimum standards, it did not vigorously investigate and prosecute officials allegedly involved in trafficking crimes,” the report added.
Back in the darkened bar, an American man beckoned the 14-year-old down from the stage. She told him that her name was Rose and that she had just turned 18: two lies, taken from the fake papers used to secure her job in the bar. A manager informed the tourist that it will cost 2,000 Philippine pesos, or $38, to take Rose back to his hotel for a “short time.” Two crumpled blue notes are passed between palms.
“They remind me of my grandpa,” Rose said later.
The Washington Post does not identify minors in sex cases or victims of sex crimes.
Of the 30 girls in the bar that evening, Rose thought she was the youngest, but she wasn’t sure.
More than 150 women and girls interviewed by The Fuller Project in Angeles City said they wanted to leave prostitution but didn’t know how.
Those younger than 18 were scared that “rescue” would involve leaving their friends or families. Many were afraid that under current anti-prostitution laws, reporting foreign predators to the local police could land the girls in jail.
“It’s just normal,” said Angel, 14, who said she was trafficked into the city’s sex industry when she was 12 years old by an American man. She now works “freelance” with a group of nine friends. All are underage, she said.
“It happens to all of us,” she added.
Under the 2003 PROTECT Act, U.S. citizens suspected of committing child sexual exploitation abroad can be charged in the United States, regardless of where their offense takes place.
But despite a team of U.S. law enforcement agents in Manila specifically tasked with investigating Americans who sexually abuse children across the Philippines, there have been few convictions.
“We’ve identified American citizens going to places like the Philippines with the purpose of having sex with kids who are poor,” said Stacie Harris, an associate deputy attorney general and national coordinator for Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking at the Justice Department.
But the PROTECT Act has no reach over U.S. citizens seeking out adult sex workers while abroad.
“You have a U.S. tourist who goes over and picks up someone on a street corner,” said Harris, “and we have no jurisdiction over that.”
This article was reported by The Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom investigating issues that most impact women.