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In the clubs of the Filipino sex trade, a former RUC officer is back in business ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Kathy Marks in Angeles, Phillipines
The Independent
Sunday, Jun 27, 2004

28 June 2004 - Fields Avenue in Angeles, a seedy city north of Manila, is raucous and bustling. Music blasts out of the nightclubs that line the narrow strip, and Western men stroll along, a Filipina girl hanging off each arm. Inside the clubs, girls in bikinis and high-heeled boots gyrate on a raised stage above the bar, watched intently by men drinking San Miguel beer.

This is the centre of the Philippines sex industry, and Richard Agnew, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer, is at its heart. Mr Agnew runs a string of bars and clubs in Fields Avenue that cater to Western sex tourists seeking under-age girls. He was arrested last year and deported, but is back in the Philippines, operating the same businesses with apparent impunity.

On a recent Saturday night, several of the bored-looking dancers in Nero's Forum nightclub looked no older than 12 or 13. It was a similar story at the Blue Nile Executive Club next door, where men scanned the dance floor before paying a "bar fine" - a fee for taking the girl of their choice away for sex.

Mr Agnew, 44, was nowhere to be seen, and staff at the Tropicana Hotel, which he owns, said he was in Thailand. Reliable sources say, however, that he is in Angeles, keeping a low profile after returning to the Philippines soon after being deported in October last year.

"Richard owns all the clubs around here," said the friendly floor manager at Nero's Forum.

Mr Agnew's business partner, Steve Baker, from Cambridge, was equally forthcoming. "Richard and I run all these clubs with an Irish guy," he said.

Those statements might surprise local police, who arrested Mr Agnew last August after raiding one club, the Blue Nile, and discovering six girls aged between 11 and 13. The former police sergeant swore that he did not own the clubs and was merely a consultant on renovation and decor. He was imprisoned, but a few weeks later police dropped the charges for lack of evidence. His name did not appear on the clubs' official documents.

In another interview before he was deported, Mr Agnew said he did not own the clubs, but had been negotiating to buy them at the time of the raid.

The minutes of an interview with Bureau of Immigration prosecutors paint a different picture, however. The document, signed by Mr Agnew, records that he admitted to owning a 30 per cent share in five nightclubs in Angeles.

Mr Agnew said he earned at least 100,000 pesos (£980) a month from the businesses. He said he always insisted on seeing the birth certificates of people working for him.

A police video of the raid, which followed a complaint that he was employing young girls, suggests he had an arrangement with local police. "I was promised there would be no more harassment," he protested repeatedly as he was led away.

After the charges were dropped, Mr Agnew was pursued by the Bureau of Immigration. He agreed to voluntary deportation as an undesirable alien, and went to Bangkok. However, he persuaded authorities to allow him to return to sort out his affairs. He came back last Christmas on a 21-day single-entry visa and is still in the country, six months later.

Mr Agnew, who was born in Larne, Northern Ireland, moved to the Philippines 11 years ago, leaving behind a trail of angry investors in a time-share company that he set up after leaving the RUC. Some lost thousands of pounds after investing in apartments in Portugal that did not exist.

Angeles was the natural destination for a man seeking to profit from the Western sex tourists who flock to the Philippines. The city grew up around the huge US Clark Air Base and, although the base closed in 1992, prostitution is still the only industry in town.

The servicemen have been replaced by middle-aged tourists from Britain, Australia, Germany, the US and Japan. Many want young girls, as young as possible, preferably virgins - "cherry girls", as they are known in Angeles, where raping of these children is jocularly described as "cherry-popping".

In Nero's Forum, Mr Baker said the clubs employed girls "from teenagers through to 25/26 - that's the retirement age". He said: "Most of them just turn up and ask for a job. If they look good, we take them. They used to dance naked, but the council cracked down. Now they have to be covered up. But trade is still good."

Mr Baker, a portly middle-aged man, extolled the virtues of Filipina women. "Back in England, these girls would never look at me twice," he said. "At the moment, I've got an 18-year-old, a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old. All at the same time."

A customer, Brian, from Birmingham, who visits Angeles three times a year, said he had lost count of his tally of "cherry girls". "I used to love cherry-popping, but it's getting too much for me now," he said.

He confided to a fellow drinker: "If you ever want Viagra, just speak to Steve [Baker]."

Although they have been alerted to Mr Agnew's return to Angeles, local police have declined to take action, saying they still have no evidence that he owns the clubs - 17 in total, according to one estimate.

Others are less indulgent. Father Shay Cullen, an Irish priest who has been fighting child prostitution in the Philippines for two decades, said: "He [Mr Agnew] is into clubs and bars, and minors are found inside, so let a court of law decide."

At the Preda Foundation, the refuge that Father Shay runs near Angeles, Mr Agnew is a familiar face to one girl, Roxanne. Shown a photograph, she said: "That's Big Daddy," the term for a sex-club owner. She added: "We always had to smile nicely when he was around." Roxanne was 13 when she was rescued from the Cambodia Club, one of Mr Agnew's establishments.

Ecpat, a global network that campaigns against child prostitution, estimates that 300,000 sex tourists from Japan alone visit the Philippines every year. Many others are British. Last week a retired University of Middlesex mathematics lecturer, Barry Edwards, was arrested after police allegedly found him in a hotel room in Angeles with a 14-year-old girl. Dozens of videos allegedly showing him having sex with a number of young girls were discovered in his room.

The industry has been fuelled by the internet. One child sex tourism site is headed by a picture of a naked girl on a bed who looks about nine. It has a large collection of photographs, and promises visitors to the site: "You can actually fuck any one of these young girls. All you have to do is make the trip."

There are 100,000 child prostitutes in the Philippines, according to the UN children's agency, Unicef. In Angeles, they can be hired for 1,000 pesos (£10) a night. The girls receive half that sum.

The Philippines has stiff child protection laws, but they are only patchily enforced. Police and prosecutors are bought off, and the girls frequently lie about their age and hold false papers.

At the Preda Foundation another girl, Mary-Ann, described how she became a prostitute at the age of 13 to provide for her younger brother. "At first the work was difficult because you're just wearing a bikini and I felt so ashamed," she said. "The papasan [boss] got angry because I wasn't dancing."

At Preda, she is learning skills that equip her for a proper job. "I want to be a singer one day," she said wistfully.

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