Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 21:26:09 -0500 (CDT)
/** reg.honduras: 109.0 **/
Underage teens are abused in Honduran honky-tonks
By David Adams, St. Petersburg Times, 6 July 1999
Heavily armed police burst into Tony Montana's, a glitzy strip joint in this bustling city in northern Honduras, late one night in April.
Armed with rifles, and wearing ski masks and bulletproof vests, they weren't taking any chances. Undercover agents had been monitoring the clubfor a couple of weeks. They expected to find guns and drugs on the premises.
But that wasn't all they were after. This was no ordinary bust. They were looking for underage girls working as prostitutes. Arrested that night were four Americans, including Anthony Bucellato, the club's owner, and his business partner, Charles Kasper, a Tampa Bay businessman.
The arrests highlight what child advocates say is a growing problem in the dirt-poor countries of Central America. Although abuse of minors is common in the Third World, Americans are increasingly becoming involved in child prostitution rackets.
"We are getting more reports of cases of sexual abuse of local children by foreigners than ever before," says Bruce Harris, director of Casa Alianza, a children's charity linked to New York-based Covenant House.
In fact, Central America is fast emerging as a new child-sex hot spot. Previously, American travelers seeking sex with minors were forced to look far afield: Southeast Asia mainly. However, a crackdown in places such as Thailand and the Philippines has brought the market closer to home.
Web sites provide lurid information to traveling pedophiles, who exchange their sex tales with "colleagues."
According to the International Labor Organization, "Commercial sexual exploitation of children has in recent years become an issue of global concern, and the indicators are that it is on the rise." The organization adds that this form of exploitation "is one of the most brutal forms of violence against children."
"Child victims suffer extreme physical, psychological and emotional abuse, which have lifelong and life-threatening consequences." Experts say it's hard to estimate the scale of the problem. Mostly, crimes go undetected. But child advocates say a recent series of alarming incidents is serving as a wake-up call to governments in the region.
Even before the raid on Tony Montana's, the child sex issue had made headlines in Honduras.
Last year, the FBI arrested a 58-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., man, Marvin Hersh, after allegations of abuse surfaced in Honduras. He was charged under a 1996 U.S. statute outlawing foreign travel for the purpose of engaging in sex with a minor. In March, the Florida Atlantic University professor was found guilty. He is due to be sentenced next month.
The charges against Hersh involved sexual exploitation of Honduran boys, dating back a decade. His list of crimes included taking a 15-year-old boy to the United States, pretending the boy was his son, in order to continue having sexual relations with him.
Another American, Pennsylvania special needs teacher Daniel Gary Rounds, was arrested recently in Honduras for similar offenses. He is serving a 10-year jail sentence in the northern port town of La Ceiba, after being found guilty of sexually abusing two 12-year-old street boys.
Rounds kept a highly detailed diary, which led to his conviction. In the diary, he details his sexual activities with children as young as 7 in Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Brazil.
In Honduras, as elsewhere in Central America, it is no secret that teens from poor families often turn to prostitution to make a living. San Pedro Sula, a suffocatingly hot tropical city of 650,000, is dotted with strip clubs, known as casas de tolerancia -- literally "houses of tolerance."
According to municipal records, the city has a dozen legally registered clubs. But officials said dozens more fail to register or pay taxes. Many are called casa citas, or "date houses," private houses where girls sign on as prostitutes but do not entertain on the premises. Instead, visitors select their "date" from photos. The girls are only a telephone call away and arrive in taxis to pick up their clients.
Local authorities try to keep track of the clubs but are understaffed and overwhelmed. Raids are periodically carried out, mostly after complaints by neighbors.
"Last year we did several operations," said Alexa Cubero, an overworked juvenile judge. One of Honduras' youngest judges, Cubero, 25, is already an experienced battler of child sex in her city. "One night we picked up 30 minors. I don't think we have raided a place where we didn't find minors working."
Clubs can be fined for employing underage girls. Three strikes and a judge can close the club. But investigations are made more difficult because the girls are often equipped with false birth certificates. Medical examinations must be carried out to legally prove their age.
Often when clubs close, they quickly reopen elsewhere under different names, or continue operating clandestinely. "Despite the fact that the sanctions are serious and the risks are great, there is a market for 14-year-olds," Cubero said.
"It's the clandestine places that worry us the most," she said. "There's a lot of places that we don't know about, and they are the ones that deal almost exclusively with minors." Nothing very clandestine
There was nothing very clandestine about Tony Montana's. Located in the heart of the Zona Viva, the "Live Zone" or red-light district, it was one of a number of clubs on John Paul II Avenue. When it opened in January, it set a new standard in "tolerance."
It was a major step up from the seedy and amateurish joints nearby, where nervous girls strip awkwardly on uneven wooden table tops. Peeling paint hangs from the bar walls.
Unlike other clubs, Tony Montana's charged a $5 entrance fee, enough to deter the riffraff. Expensive tiles and mirrors covered the walls, the sound system was new, and the music loud. Above all, the girls were pretty, and young - very young.
The club's clientele included a number of foreigners, mostly Americans. Its owner, Bucellato, modeled himself on Al Pacino's character in the movie Scarface, a ruthless Cuban-American drug dealer called Tony Montana.
The Internet was its undoing. The police raid came after Casa Alianza, the children's charity, received an e-mail tip that many of the club's "exotic dancers" were 14- and 15-year-olds.
Casa Alianza's local legal aid office confirmed the tip and contacted the police. Agents from the local Criminal Investigative Unit posed as clients to gain information. The club's activities also were documented on hidden cameras by a Seattle TV station investigating Bucellato, who is from the Northwest.
One dancer admits on camera to being 16 years old. She says there are many more like her. She offers to take a reporter to a special VIP room, where the youngest girls perform.
The police raided the club a couple of weeks later. It was a busy Saturday night, about 11:15. Patrons were told to lie face down on the floor as the girls were rounded up. Of the 23 working that night, at least eight were discovered to be underage.
Bucellato and Kasper are imprisoned in Honduras, accused of pimping child prostitutes, as well as possessing illegal weapons. Two other Americans were freed on bail.
In court documents Bucellato and Kasper say they had no idea the girls were underage. But police who worked undercover at the club before the raid say Bucellato openly boasted that he could offer child sex.
The hidden camera caught him explaining how he built the club to cater to American tourists. "Some of them are very young. This one's 15. She's big," Bucellato said. "My young girls, 14 and 15 aren't here tonight."
In a statement to prosecutors, Kasper said he invested $50,000 in the club, but had no part in its day-to-day running. However, police allege both men have a history of involvement with prostitution, as well as associating with known criminals. Bucellato, 47, was convicted in 1989 of first-degree sexual abuse for molesting a 12-year-old relative.
Kasper, 62, boasted about taking Viagra and was frequently seen in the company of prostitutes, say Honduran acquaintances.
Bucellato previously ran another controversial night club, also called Tony Montana's, on the small island of Roatan, off the north coast of Honduras. The club was closed last year after residents complained it was being used for prostitution.
Kasper, who has a house on Roatan, was a partner in the club with Bucellato and Arnold Morris, another wealthy U.S. expatriate. Kasper and Morris owned pool businesses in the Tampa Bay area. Morris is wanted by police in Tampa on charges of bankruptcy fraud. He avoided trial by fleeing the United States and has since renounced his U.S. citizenship. Fending for themselves
Police believe Bucellato and Kasper were drawn to Honduras by its anything-goes reputation for easy sex. Teeming with impoverished children, Latin America provides plenty of opportunities for the sexual predator.
More than 40 percent of Honduras' 5.7-million people are estimated to be children. Thousands are homeless and make their life on the streets. In the wake of Mitch, last year's devastating hurricane, thousands of jobs have been lost and more children left to fend for themselves.
The exploitation of children is aided by weak laws, and an underfunded police force. Although pimping is illegal in Honduras, prostitution is not, making it hard for police to mount successful investigations. Central America also has no laws regarding the transmission of digital pornographic images through the Internet.
Low wages make prostitution especially attractive. On a good night, strippers in San Pedro Sula can make up to $100, especially if they are lucky enough to pick up a foreigner with a wallet full of dollars.
"They are all poor girls," said Pastor Ortiz, senior detective with the San Pedro Sula police. "The problem is that they are not forced into it. They prefer to prostitute themselves rather than going to work at a maquilla," he said, referring to the clothing assembly factories that are the city's biggest industry but pay low salaries.
Politicians have typically turned a blind eye to what goes on. They are swamped with other poverty issues, but often corruption plays a part. "Our organization has tried to light a fire under the authorities of the affected countries," said Harris, director at Casa Alianza. "But the authorities generally seem more concerned for the image of their country and for tourism rather than publicly accepting that their countries are being targeted by pedophiles."
That may be changing. Honduran police were recently placed under civilian control after decades of being run by a notoriously corrupt military. Professional police training and new resources have begun to have results.
In the half-built offices of the San Pedro Sula police investigations unit, a bulletin from the Ministry of Tourism congratulates the efforts of officers in closing Tony Montana's.
"We categorically reject the presence of tourists who practice the crime of sexual abuse of minors," it reads.
The days of tolerance may be coming to an end.
(St. Petersburg Times staff writers Larry Dougherty and Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
Casa Alianza/Covenant House Latin America
PO Box 025216, Miami FL 33102-5216 USA
Tel. in Costa Rica: +506-253-5439 or 253-6338
Fax in Costa Rica: +506-224-5689
Home page address: http://www.casa-alianza.org