IT’S MID-AFTERNOON on a Saturday and the streets of Phnom Penh resemble a failed experiment in automotive anarchy as we rumble through another unmarked intersection amid clouds of dust and a cacophony of horns and screeching brakes.

Our driver remains impassive as he manoeuvres us between a giant pothole and a beaten-up hatchback that has inex­pli­cably stopped in the middle of the road, taking a left onto a quieter street lined with modest bars and restaurants.

“A people trafficker who brings in Vietnamese girls is often at that café over there,” says Tim Huon, investigation manager at anti-paedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), as we slow to a crawl opposite a small eatery that is almost indistinguishable from the many others on the street. “We know what he’s doing but we don’t have enough evidence,” says Huon with a shrug.

Although the café looks empty, we linger for a moment before rejoining the barely organised chaos that is the Cambodian capital’s traffic. We have only a few hours and there are many other locations Huon wants to show me. Road signs might be in short supply here but sexual exploitation hot spots are not.

The Asian men who buy sex with Cambodian virgins

Huon has been working at APLE for more than a decade, and his job is to investigate suspected child sex offenders with the aim of gathering enough evidence to make the police take action. He often accompanies the police on “raid and rescue” missions, he says, and has been present at a number of high-profile arrests, including that of former British government adviser Michael Leach, in 2010.

As we drive, Huon shows me a ring binder that contains notes and images relating to the nvestigations he is work­ing on. The first case is that of a British teacher in his early 30s who is suspected of grooming girls as young as five at a school. The pages are filled with smiling portraits of the angelic-looking schoolgirls the man is believed to be targeting, as well as images taken with a secret camera showing the suspect holding a girl aged five or six in a swim­ming pool in ways that appear inappropriate. The evidence acquired thus far, Huon says, is not sufficient to convince the police to act, while the school in question has been equally resistant. Indeed, APLE says when it raised its concerns with the principal, he used his government connections to try to force the investigators to back off.

Though far from explicit, the images are nauseating, as is the thickness of the dossier. Huon turns to his notes on a middle-aged American who, he says, has been support­ing a local family for several years while abusing their four girls, who are between the ages of six and 14. In exchange for having the family’s rent, bills and food paid for, the mother and grandmother turn a blind eye to the abuse. This kind of family complicity is, says Huon, all too common in modern Cambodia.

APLE WAS FOUNDED IN Phnom Penh in 2003 by Frenchman Thierry Darnaudet to help tackle the growing problem of foreign sex offenders targeting children within Cambodia. In a country still trying to put the Khmer Rouge and the genocide committed between 1975 and 1979 behind it, extreme poverty, institutionalised corruption and a police force that was ill-equipped to bring offenders to jus­tice made Cambodia a magnet for sex tourists, particularly paedo­philes, creating a pressing need for charities to step in.

The country already had its fair share of child-welfare charities – including the still-active Friends-International and the Cambodian Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights – but APLE was conceived to provide something different. As well as offering social, medical and psycho­logical support to victims, APLE sought to play an active role in apprehending offenders by conducting its own investigations and gathering enough evidence to compel the police to act. It also provides legal support to victims throughout trials and lobbies for tougher sentences for those convicted.

Don and Bridget Brewster of Agape International Missions on combating Cambodia's child sex traffickers

Engaged in what is essentially police work without the accompanying powers, APLE had to innovate from day one, employing a team of trained investigators to identify, track and compile evidence on travelling sex offenders. Their methods include covert surveillance, persuading tuk tuk drivers, bar staff and street kids to tip them off to suspicious behaviour or requests, and even befriending suspects to gather information. It’s an unorthodox approach but one that has brought results.

According to the charity’s own figures, between 2003 and 2016, APLE’s work has resulted in the conviction of 263 sex offenders and the rescue of 793 victims.

“Law enforcement in Cambodia needed assistance from organisations such as APLE in terms of expertise and experience,” says Seila Samleang, the charity’s executive director. “There was a shortfall in terms of [police] resources [when APLE launched in 2003] and this is still the case. There was also the new phenomenon of child sexual abuse by travelling sex offenders, which was a big challenge for Cambodian police.”

Although the majority of child-abuse offences in the country are committed by Cambodians – a study published in May this year by international child-protection network ECPAT found that about 75 per cent are attributable to locals – APLE’s main focus is on foreigners. While pre­meditated, these crimes are often opportunist in nature, with offenders preying on vulnerable children – of which there is a depressingly large number in Cambodia.

The children most at risk are those living on the streets and in orphanages, as well as the ubiquitous kids selling flowers, cigarettes and chewing gum from table to table in tourist areas in the evenings, says Khemreth Vann, ChildSafe communities coordinator and a child protection officer at Phnom Penh-based Friends-International, which refers cases to APLE.

“They are doing a very good job on suspect investigation with their skills, where police are unable to do it until they get the referral report from APLE,” says Khemreth Vann, who credits the charity with being particularly effective in tackling street-based sexual abuse. “Most cases are success­fully prosecuted based on evidence collected by APLE and passed to the authorities.”

However, even when sufficient evidence is gathered, the wheels of justice can move at a trundling pace in Cambodia. Whether due to lack of resources, ineptitude or corruption, the police are often slow to react to APLE’s recommenda­tions. Huon, for example, mentions a high-ranking army officer who has been under APLE surveillance for some time but whom the police have been reluctant to investi­gate. Seila Samleang, meanwhile, complains that the police are often reluctant to investigate suspects identified by APLE without overwhelming proof.

“It is often very complicated, the investigation is lengthy and we need substantial resources to conduct an investi­gation in many cases. So the police not wanting to act is one of the big challenges. Also, when we end up in the Cambodian court, information from APLE is not always admissible, so it has to go through the police, who will need to do their own investigation to collect their own evidence.”

How the crimes of British paedophile Richard Huckle exposed Malaysia’s dangerous silence around abuse – and shocked authorities into action

Making APLE’s task even harder is the fact that its success has contributed to a change in offender behaviour.

“Travelling sex offenders are now going more under­ground and getting more organised,” Seila Samleang says. “They are not so exposed in public places like they used to be, so the investigation tends to spend more resources.”

Western paedophiles may get the headlines but this new breed of organised offender includes many Asians, says Seila Samleang.

“The Chinese, in particular, tend to go into brothel-based child sexual exploitation, making deals with traf­fickers or something like that, so it’s really hidden and hard for even the police to detect.”

Another problem, says Khemreth Vann, can be found in the very places the vulnerable may imagine they are safe: orphanages and child-welfare charity operations.

“[Potential offenders] can go down the orphanage/volunteer channel as they can have the chance to get direct contact with children,” he says.

APLE has assisted in the arrest of more than 20 offend­ers linked to child-focused organisations, and 17 of the 71 residential child-care institutions investigated by APLE between 2012 and 2015 were subsequently shut down on evidence of sexual abuse.

APLE itself has been tainted; this year, its first director, Hang Vibol, who left the charity in 2004, was convicted of abusing six children, between 2009 and 2014, at an orphan­age he was running in Phnom Penh. Hang Vibol, who was jailed for three years, had claimed he was innocent and was set up by Darnaudet, against whom the former had filed an abuse complaint (later dismissed by authorities) in 2013.

Although the Hang Vibol case was damaging to the charity’s reputation, Seila Samleang points out that “APLE responds to any abuser and holds them responsible for what they do, regardless of what relationships or stature in society they have: government official, police official, doctor, NGO director ... whoever abuses a child will have to [face] justice.”

Cambodian court sentences 77-year-old Briton for child sex abuse

APLE CURRENTLY EMPLOYS 44 people in Cambodia, and its running costs exceed US$500,000 per year. Given the nature of its work, however, finding donors can be challenging. Child sexual abuse is just too upsetting and unpalatable for many would-be donors.

“Reading a report on the number of children who have graduated from primary school is much easier to digest than reading about how many children have been sexually abused and the number of paedophiles who’ve been investigated,” says Sarah Cottee, former Children at Risk programme manager at ADM Capital Foundation, which provided funding to APLE between 2011 and this year. “Unfortunately, some donors will therefore dis­miss organisa­tions like APLE before understanding the impor­tant work they’re doing and impact they’re having, solely based on the subject matter they’re tackling.”

Huon would prefer to focus on his organisation’s achievements. He recalls how, up until 2005, the poverty-stricken area of Svay Pak was filled with underage brothels that barely bothered to hide their business. These dingy shacks would be fitted with tiny doors through which children could be made to run should the police come. Offenders would befriend their prey in broad daylight, then walk off with them hand in hand. Today, flagrant activity is significantly less prevalent.

Part of this success can be attributed not only to APLE’s investigation team, but also its education programme, through which communities are taught how to spot offend­ers and raise the alarm. Lack of education, a distrust of the police and even cultural factors mean that suspicions and abuse go unreported, and a big part of APLE’s work involves giving ordinary people the knowledge, confidence and means to speak out.

“People have better information and knowledge and better skills to protect themselves from being abused,” says Seila Samleang. “And, generally, the local communities are now aware of the potential abuse through grooming activities and they have chosen to report.”

Using tip-offs and stealth Cambodia’s ‘paedophile hunters’ play crucial role in catching foreign criminals

He points to another positive development: the in­creased involvement of foreign law-enforcement agencies in tracking convicted and suspected offenders who travel to Cambodia, and their greater cooperation with local police. APLE now regularly works with national agencies and the likes of Interpol.

“I am very happy to inform you that the cooperation we received from APLE (in cooperation with the Cambodian National Police) was absolutely excellent,” wrote a Belgian police liaison officer, in a 2013 letter of thanks for help given in a case involving a Belgian national. “Ninety-nine per cent of all requested investigative actions have been carried out, far more than what was hoped for or expected in view of the complexity of the case.”

In May 2011, a representative of the Los Angeles Office of the FBI wrote to express appreciation for APLE’s work in helping bring American offenders to justice, saying: “In case after case, members of APLE have demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond the norm in order to keep children safe and to prosecute those that would otherwise harm them.”

Furthermore, says Khemreth Vann, things are starting to change at the governmental level. “The situation will improve, as there is a real recognition of the issues by the government and a will to work in partnership with others to do something, and create those protective environments in which children can safely thrive.”

Invaluable though APLE’s work has been, the orga­ni­sa­tion was never intended to be a permanent solution to Cambodia’s child-protection problems, but rather a bridge between the needs of victims and the capabilities of the police. To that end, the charity intends to divest a large proportion of its operations and shift its emphasis to legal support and community outreach.

“In our five-year strategy plan, beginning from this year, we have taken a back seat from being a frontline organisa­tion in the fight against child abuse ... to work­­ing more closely with law enforcement, training them, building up their capacity and also providing support and develop­ing a joint task force where APLE can support case opera­tions and raid and rescue,” says Seila Samleang. “APLE will stay back and get the police to do the things that APLE has been doing for the past 13 years, such as going out and conduct­ing surveillance, doing child interviews.”

This is a logical step but one that is not without compli­ca­tions. Police corruption and a lack of resources remain issues, while some observers have expressed concern that the scaling back is happening too quickly and gaps are being left.

“These are transitional challenges that we have to face,” admits Seila Samleang. “But, of course, we will still do what we can – and whatever changes are made we will make sure that no child is put at risk.”

Rallying cry: Cambodia's all-female rock band of ex-garment workers

BACK IN THE CAR, Huon is telling me more about the family being supported by the American suspect. The eldest of the girls has left home and become estranged from the family, and Huon is hopeful she’ll now be more willing to make a statement that could lead to the man’s arrest.

“Let’s see if we can find him,” he says.

The car pulls up on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, a long and dusty thoroughfare close to the riverfront area. Across the street is a row of small businesses of the kind that are ubiquitous in this part of Phnom Penh: gift shops selling incense, handicrafts and other tourist-friendly trink­ets, cheap and cheerful budget guest houses and laid-­back cafés serving up eclectic fare to hungry foreigners. I get out of the car and follow Huon into a warren of back alleys. The investigator has a relaxed gait as we wander from lane to lane, but his eyes are as keen as a hawk’s. My heart pounding, I eye every door and every shadowy passageway with suspicion and expectation.

As we head towards a dead end, Huon stops at a door­way on the right. Two Cambodian women – one middle-aged, the other heavily wrinkled, with two gold teeth peeking out between weathered lips – stop their conver­sation as he addresses them in Khmer, asking for directions he doesn’t need. As Huon talks, I look down and see a skinny girl of five or six in a dirty pink dress peeking out from behind a woman I presume is her grand­mother. Grabbing on to the old lady’s leg, she eyes me with a combination of curiosity and caution. I try to smile reassuringly until Huon finishes his short conversation with the women and we walk off.

“That’s the family I was telling you about,” says Huon, as we reach the end of the alley. I look back and catch a final glimpse of the little girl staring in our direction before we turn the corner, back towards the street, where gap-year backpackers in loud T-shirts and baggy trousers are caught in the glare of the afternoon sun.