International activist groups, Mexican prosecutors and a dog trained to sniff out memory devices joined forces this month to catch a suspected pedophile in Mexico City.
First, Free a Girl, a Netherlands-based anti-trafficking group, alerted activists from the American organization Operation Underground Railroad that Jason Maatman, a Dutchman who was an outspoken advocate of having sex with children, had gone to Mexico after fleeing pending legal proceedings in the Netherlands.
Maatman apparently thought that Mexico’s lax law enforcement would allow him to act freely in Mexico City, a metropolis of 21 million people where most crimes go unpunished.
But he wasn’t counting on Hidu, a recent graduate of an academy that teaches dogs to sniff out triphenylphosphine oxide, or TPPO, a chemical coating used on electronic devices like flash drives and memory cards.
“Three weeks ago, we learned that Nelson M. seemed to be active in Mexico, and was a serious danger to children,” said Evelien Hölsken, director of Free a Girl. She noted that the group contacted Operation Underground Railroad “and we asked if they could start an investigation.”
Maatman was reportedly so sure of himself that he openly discussed his online activities. But Mexican prosecutors were willing to collaborate with non-governmental organizations.
Operation Underground Railroad quickly set up a plan to lure Maatman into a trap, using the chat rooms and social media spaces in which he was active.
“We were able to confirm that he was in Mexico and then talk to him in different chat rooms. He told us: ‘I’m in a very dangerous area. I don’t want to give them my address. I don’t want them to come see me, but they can come see me at a gas station,'” said Matt Osborne, director of global operations for the group.
Detectives from the Mexico City prosecutor’s office were waiting when Maatman showed up at a bus station near a gas station on the outskirts of the city’s main park on June 5.
The attorney general of Mexico City, Ernestina Godoy, said that a pistol and several doses of cocaine were found in Maatman’s possession.
Maatman is detained in a prison in the country’s capital accused of human trafficking and possession of drugs and weapons. He does not have a registered attorney and could not be reached for comment.
“We understand that he was getting offers from other people who wanted to go into business with him,” apparently to sell or monetize sexually explicit material featuring young children, Osborne said. “He said he needed money,” she added.
The problem was that he had been stopped at a bus stop, not at his home, and no one knew where he lived. Nobody knew where he could have hidden the child sexual abuse material, which is usually in digital format.
City prosecutors used a network of street surveillance cameras to track Maatman’s movements to a seedy apartment he rented in an area on the city’s east side. Tall and with reddish hair, the Dutchman stood out in that area.
Once the police obtained a search warrant, that’s where Hidu came in; a black Lab who had been trained by Todd Jordan at his Jordan Detection K9 academy in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Triphenylphosphine oxide is a chemical used in small solid-state memory devices to prevent overheating. Its characteristic odor is enough for dogs to locate it.
Jordan began training accelerant detection dogs to look for evidence in potential arson cases where an accelerant may have been used; gasoline, for example.
But the electronics-sniffing dogs he has trained, now numbering 83, are in increasing demand as criminals now use USB sticks to store everything from contacts to cryptocurrency.
“I think electronics detection dogs have overtaken accelerator detection dogs because of the need for them and the way the world is right now,” Jordan said. “Everyone, every internet crime task force could use one of these.”
Hidu was new to the job; he had graduated just two weeks earlier and this was his first case. In fact, it was the first foreign case that any of Jordan’s dogs had ever had.
Operation Underground Railroad traveled with Hidu and his coach to Mexico City, where prosecutors were to search the apartment.
“From what I understand, there was a phone hidden in a laundry basket that smelled really bad; you know, dirty clothes in a corner that nobody went into,” Osborne said. “The dog found that phone.”
Hidu found more child pornography material taped to a wall behind a painting, Osborne said. “The dog sniffed out a couple of hard drives in some places in his apartment that were hard for humans to find, but the dog sniffed them out.”
Prosecutors said the disks and devices contained about 4 terabytes of child sexual abuse material.
Godoy, the prosecutor, credited Operation Underground Railroad and Hidu for their help in the operation.
“The message for those who attack a girl, a boy, an adolescent: In Mexico City there is no room for impunity, those who hurt or attack them will be searched, prosecuted and sentenced,” Godoy asserted.
Despite the arrest, some questions remain unanswered.
″Why was (Maatman) not included in an international search list?”, by the Dutch authorities, questioned Hölsken.