Greetings from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
By any measure, Cambodia has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Since its full independence in 1953, this nation of now 14 million has endured two distinct and lengthy conflicts, and dictatorial regime that – between 1976 and 1979 – annihilated at least 1.5 million Cambodians through execution, forced servitude, and malnourishment. Cambodia is a democracy today, but serious problems remain.
Child sex tourism in Cambodia is a persistent, pervasive practice that threatens the most vulnerable in this developing country. In recent years, the Cambodian National Police, international partners, and a number of non-governmental organizations have worked to crack down on pedophiles from around the world, arresting and prosecuting these criminals while working to rescue and rehabilitate the abused.
I am proud to say that the agency I lead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is at the forefront of this emerging issue, and aggressively pursues Americans who travel overseas to abuse children. Millions of children fall prey each year to sexual predators, and these young victims are left with permanent psychological, physical, and emotional scars. Many American criminals clearly believe they can evade detection and prosecution by committing child sex crimes overseas. They are wrong.
My visit to Cambodia seeks to strengthen our ongoing cooperation with the Cambodian National Police. Earlier this week, we signed a Letter of Intent to solidify the working relationship between our two law enforcement agencies to combat child sex tourism. This agreement seeks to develop a bi-national, coordinated, and intelligence-driven investigative response to the sexual exploitation of children by U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.
There is no more poignant reminder of the critical nature of these investigations than a neighborhood outside Phnom Penh, known simply by its distance from the center of town – “Kilo 11.” There, predators from around the world prey on young boys and girls amidst the shocking poverty of a Cambodian slum. Accompanied by our Cambodian Police partners, we walked down narrow streets and dark alleys where we saw firsthand the extreme circumstances that lead some families to sell their children to these criminals – many of them from Western nations. Not long ago, ICE agents assisted in arresting an American man for abusing a six-year-old child in a ramshackle blue hut, set deep in this labyrinthine neighborhood. This individual was eventually returned to the United States and is currently standing trial for charges stemming from his arrest in Cambodia.
These types of cases are extremely challenging to investigate and prosecute, but we owe it to these young victims to take action. Tragically, many of these children will bear the emotional and physical scars of this trauma for the rest of their lives.
The United States would not be able to successfully prosecute these cases without the assistance of our international partners.
John Morton is the Assistant Secretary U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)