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Child Sex Trade Rises in Central America

By Serge F. Kovaleski, The Washington Post, 2 January 2000

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica—The sexual exploitation of girls and boys, largely by American men, has reached alarming proportions in Central America, according to children's rights advocates who say the region is now a priority in their struggle against child prostitution and pornography.

A major reason for growth in the Central American child sex business, child rights advocates say, is that traditional destinations such as Thailand and the Philippines have cut into the sex tourism trade over the last two years by enacting public awareness campaigns, stricter laws and enforcement measures.

Prostitution among the children who live and work on the streets of Latin America, whose number as been estimated as high as 40 million, has long been a consequence of the region's poverty. But as countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua increase promotion of their beaches, volcanoes and natural beauty as tourist destinations, they are attracting greater numbers of men from North America, Europe and other Latin American countries who are interested in buying sex from children.

"What we are seeing is the dark side of tourism," said Heimo Laakkonen, the head of UNICEF in Costa Rica. Laakkonen said that while sexual exploitation of minors is not a new problem in the region, "with the increase in tourism, the problem has gotten worse."

Sitting at the bar in the dingy Del Ray Hotel here one recent evening, a 33-year-old Californian named David said he was on his second trip to Costa Rica in as many years. He spoke brazenly about how he had scanned several Web pages advertising youthful-looking female prostitutes in Costa Rica in his efforts to purchase sex with a girl who had no previous sexual experience.

David, who insisted only his first named be used, boasted of how he had arranged for one of the many taxi drivers connected with the sex trade to bring a 13-year-old girl from her parents' home in a poor San Jose neighborhood to his hotel. The girl's mother and father asked for $400, which David said he eagerly paid.

Costa Rican law only allows women 18 and older to work as prostitutes. Stiffer penalties enacted recently threaten prison terms of up to 10 years for anyone convicted of buying sex from a minor. The prospect did not seem to alarm David.

"I am living out a fantasy. . . . And nobody looks like they have a real problem with it," he said. As the stocky, unkempt bartender spoke, adult prostitutes mingled with foreigners in the hotel lobby as younger sex workers strolled the streets outside.

Costa Rica, the region's leader in tourism and the country in Central America where child prostitution is believed to be most pronounced, has drawn more than 1 million foreign visitors this year for the first time.

Children's rights activists have accused governments in Central America, where about 54 percent of the population is below the age of 18, of being slow to confront the region's burgeoning child prostitution and pornography industry.

"It involves a certain level of political maturity on the part of governments to acknowledge the severity of the problem, as opposed to the ostrich syndrome of keeping your head stuck in the sand," said Bruce Harris, regional director of Covenant House (Casa Alianza) Latin America, an organization that helps street children.

Although there are no statistics to quantify the sexual exploitation of children in Central America, anecdotal evidence, surveys and a string of recent arrests of Americans, as well as other foreigners and locals, support the contention that the problem is growing.

The increased demand for child prostitutes in this region and others stems partly from fears of contracting AIDS from older prostitutes and the mistaken impression that young people are less likely to be infected, experts say.

Carlos Roverssi, the former executive president of Costa Rica's National Child Trust, the government's child welfare agency, acknowledged last year there had been "an accelerated increase in child prostitution" in the country that he blamed largely on the unofficial promotion of sex tourism in Costa Rica over the Internet.

In Nicaragua, a recent UNICEF report said, there has been significant growth in the prostitution of children between the ages of 12 and 16 in towns where taxi drivers were reported to serve as middlemen.

Several months ago, agents of the international police organization Interpol operating out of El Salvador discovered a prostitution network that was trafficking young girls from several countries in Central America to work in bars along the border of El Salvador and Guatemala. Interpol also said that it had rescued about 20 Salvadoran girls from such prostitution rings during the past three years.

While some minors are pushed into prostitution by families that are unable to support themselves, most underage sex workers in Central America are street children, many of whom, studies show, had fleed sexual abuse at home. In Honduras, the number of homeless minors has grown sharply in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch last year.

Drug abuse has become a prevalent factor as well. In a recent study of 300 street children in Nicaragua by the government's Family Ministry , more than 80 percent said they had started to work as prostitutes over the last year, with most saying they did so to buy drugs. About a third said they needed the money to buy crack.

Standing on a corner near the Del Rey Hotel in San Jose, Juana Rojas, 14, who said she became a sex worker about nine months ago, was offering to have sex for $15. "A few tricks and I can buy some [crack] rocks up the street," she said.

She added, "I started going with men when I got hooked on crack a while ago, and since then I must have been with more than a hundred" foreigners.

Some child prostitutes offered other explanations. "I can live well, buy nice clothes and go out dancing on the nights I do not work," said Maria, 15, who shares a house here with a 14-year-old prostitute and works for a woman who sends them clients. They are paid between $50 and $200 a night.

Maria said she became a sex worker two years ago after her father committed suicide and her relationship with her mother unraveled. "Much of the time I am sad," she said. "It is hard on my self-esteem when you hear people refer to prostitutes as filthy little whores."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company