Lawyer worked undercover to rescue Filipina sex trafficking victims

Photo by: Jordan Chung












By Ryan Gajudo Macasero

It was a warm August day of 2011 when the phone rang at the Washington D.C. office of the International Justice Mission.

Lawyer Sean Litton, 46, was still at the office reviewing case files.  The call was from the Philippine Embassy.

“They (the embassy) said they wanted to meet with us,” Litton recalled.  “And they wanted to talk about human trafficking, so I said okay.”

He was told that no less than Philippine President Noynoy Aquino wanted to ask him for policy recommendations for fighting human trafficking. He learned Aquino wanted to make it his administration’s top priority.

The embassy official decided to come down to Sean’s office for a more detailed discussion. “We had merienda and spoke in Tagalog,” he said.

Litton is International Justice Mission’s vice president of field operations. He had spent about a decade developing IJM’s program in combating the $33 billion a year illicit industry in the Philippines and in other Southeast Asian countries.  On January 26th, Litton was one of the featured speakers at the 2013 Freedom Summit in Fremont.

IJM is a human rights organization founded by a group of Christian lawyers and focuses on rescuing victims of human trafficking.

Litton recalled how he discovered IJM following a period of reflection and soul searching after harboring feelings of disappointment working in a private law firm.  One day he sat and listened to a lawyer from his church named Gary Haugen who talked about a new NGO he had founded.

Haugen shared with him the story of an Indian girl named Jotee who was lured by four women with the prospect of work.  Jotee, who knew nothing but poverty throughout her young life, went with these women who took her to Mumbai.  She was sold in the red light district, while the brothel keeper kept much (if not all) of her earnings. She was nearly beaten to death for days before she was forced into prostitution. After she was successfully saved from the brothel, Jotee led an operation to save seven more young girls.

Litton was shocked and horrified, but inspired to do his part to help.

“Children kidnapped, sold, put in brothels, exploited out in the open, it is all against the law but no one does anything to help them,” he exclaimed.  “How could this be possible?”

Jotee’s story led him to “actual engagement.”

IJM hired him, but Litton joked that it was only because he was also “the only one who applied.”

Despite his admitted lack of experience abroad Litton found himself leading IJM’s mandate of protecting the poor and vulnerable from trafficking perpetrators in Manila.

“I had never been to Asia,” Litton said.

In Manila he worked on building a team of Filipino lawyers, social workers and investigators, to take on cases involving the rape and the prostitution of children.

He also retold stories about times where he worked as an undercover investigator and posed as a potential customer while coordinating with local authorities on rescue operations.  “There were many girls trafficked from the provinces,” Litton said about domestic trafficking.  “They were lured to work in the city, but forced to work in brothels.”

In 2001 during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Administration, this is what Litton said he saw:  “Traffickers operated with total impunity; there were hardly any prosecutions and no one could remember a conviction (although) there were reliable men and women in the justice system.” Even as the Philippines had been removed from a U.S. State Department watchlist of countries with trafficking in persons problems, last November, a UN envoy told a different story.  The diplomat said Manila had failed to curb the problem.

“The Philippines is a source country of trafficked persons and the problem is not declining,” UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Joy Ngozi Ezeilo told reporters on November 9th, 2012 in Manila.

Ezeilo praised positive steps taken at the national level that will help improve the situation. One of them is the creation of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) and passing other laws penalizing perpetrators of human trafficking.  But she said implementation isn’t equal across the country, and application depends on the political will of the local governments.

The Visayan Forum scandal was another major drawback in the Philippines fight against trafficking when its premier anti-trafficking NGO was accused by the United States of misusing millions of dollars in foreign government aid.

But despite the criticisms, Litton says that the Philippines is headed in the right direction.  “It was worse 10 years ago; it is much better now, but there is still so much to be done,” he told The FilAm.

Improvement takes time and everything won’t be fixed even in the next six months, Litton reiterated.

During his meeting with embassy officials, Litton offered three “structural reform” recommendations: form specialized anti-trafficking units across the country, expedite the trials of trafficking suspects and increase level of investment in the care and restoration of rescue victims.

These reforms were partly based off of a tested experiment called Project Lantern in Cebu City in 2007, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded IJM’s trafficking reform program.  “It was an experiment and it worked,” said Litton.  In the years IJM worked with Cebu’s anti-trafficking program he said “police began to do their jobs, prosecutors began filing cases and judges began to try them and apply the law.  Women began to recover in increased aftercare and reintegrate at a significantly better rate back into society.”

Independent criminologists reported that four years after the project was implemented, the number of girls abused in the project area was reduced by 79 percent, a number that continues to fall.

Over the past year and a half since they made their recommendations, the IJM reports that the Philippines is making “significant steady progress.”

Since IJM became engaged in the Philippines, it has helped facilitate the rescue of more than 1,000 victims; 415 traffickers have been charged and brought to trial. The number of convictions said Litton, stands at 105.

“If we hold perpetrators accountable and apply the rule of law, the end of human trafficking will be seen in our lifetime,” he said.

“Author’s note: Even if we don’t see them, victims of human trafficking are all around us. There are many men, women and children from around the world are living as modern day slaves in the shadows of the suburbs and cities. This is the first installment in a series by The FilAm that we hope will begin to provoke further discussion and shed more light on the issue of human trafficking.”

Ryan Gajudo Macasero graduated from California State University, East Bay in 2010. He is a freelance reporter who contributes to various community and ethnic news sites, including Philippine News, Power ng Pinoy TV and The Patch. He was a 2012 nominee for the Plaridel Awards for Excellence in Filipino American Journalism. Ryan can be reached at


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