The Miami Herald
May 14, 2001

Deaths force Costa Rica to fight child-sex trade

Ivette Badilla

Mutilated bodies spark 'Ripper' fears


 SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Ivette Badilla became something of a spokeswoman for Costa Rican child prostitutes last year, regularly explaining to foreign reporters what she and other teens would do for $15.

 Her jet black hair unwashed and face devoid of makeup, the 14-year-old looked boyish in the baggy jogging suit she wore on the street.

 ``I do it because I want to,'' she told one news crew. ``Of course it bothers my mother. Sometimes she comes looking for me.''

 But according to federal investigators, Ivette's mother never once reported her missing, even when she started running away at age 8. As a result, friends
 and family didn't realize Ivette had vanished until her torso was discovered along the bank of the Agres River last February.

 Then her right arm washed up in a stream, and a month later the left one turned up in another river. Each discovery prompted a fresh round of headlines and deeper
 embarrassment for a government that routinely denied that Costa Rica had a child prostitution problem.

 But finally, because hers was the second set of teen-prostitute body parts to appear along San Jose's river banks, the government had to admit not only that Costa Rica might be teeming with teenage prostitutes, but also that someone might be stalking the girls.

 Pieces of Jackeline Rodríguez Ríos, 17, surfaced in the same December week that the country's president denied that Costa Rica was a haven for the teen sex trade. The gruesome murders underlined a long simmering issue in Costa Rica and forced government leaders to act, much to the relief of those trying to help the exploited girls.

 ``There have been three stages to this problem,'' said child welfare advocate Bruce Harris. ``Total denial, attack the messenger, and now -- nothing left to do but resolve the issue.''

 Investigators now believe an unknown killer dubbed ``The Ripper'' is stalking the girls. In a country better known for eco-tourism and a tradition of democracy, the
 government has been forced to step up police patrols and launch an education campaign against the problem of child sexual exploitation.

 Experts disagree on how many teenage prostitutes work the streets and brothels of Costa Rica. The estimates have ranged from a couple of thousands to a couple of dozen. Regardless, the appearance of a possible serial killer, and newfound interest by police, has ushered girls off the streets and their pimps into jail.


 The government has even started an effort -- underfunded, advocates say -- that tries to include both preventive and punitive measures. Police have begun widespread training to educate officers about child sexual exploitation. A U.S. delegation that included personnel from the FBI, Customs Service and Department of Labor recently visited Costa Rica to help.

 The FBI works with investigators here to track Internet sites that promote Costa Rica as a sex tourism haven.

 Now, on the street corners where last year little girls were offering up their bodies for money, police officers are on patrol. In the last few days, a 21-year-old woman was arrested in a sting operation when she provided an undercover officer with a 14-year-old girl in exchange for $100.

 But authorities acknowledge they have yet to begin arresting any clients who hire the girls, which activists say is a huge gap in police strategy.

 ``We continue to try to rescue these girls,'' said Luis Polinaris, vice minister of Justice. ``This isn't a government problem; this is a society problem. It hurts Costa Rica's image, society and family. It's everyone's responsibility to stop it.''


 The government has long been at odds with Harris, executive director of Casa Alianza, the Latin America branch of Covenant House, New York's home for runaway teens. It was largely because of efforts by Harris, who helped publicize the issue in the American press, that the government had to deal with the issue to begin with.

 One government official went as far as to blame Harris for the murders, saying perverts were lured here by news accounts he prompted. ``I became an enemy of the
 government,'' Harris said.

 But he argues that the government has yet to commit the funding needed to eradicate child sexual exploitation. A national commission created last year has just two
 employees -- a director and a secretary.

 Another federally funded social service agency said the government has never collected or distributed a new tourist tax designed to pay for services aimed at getting girls off the street.

 Casa Alianza successfully sued the Costa Rican government this year for not providing constitutionally mandated funding for the children's services bureau. When the
 federal investigative agency began undercover operations, it was the British Embassy that paid for binoculars and other tools.

 ``It shows what level they are at,'' Harris said. ``They had to go scrounging around for $7,000 for basic equipment for what we're told is a major priority of this police department.''

 Jorge Rodríguez, a former congressman who runs a shelter for former teen prostitutes, says the government has failed to provide more money. Sixty girls are on a waiting list for rooms at his shelter, Casa Hogar.

 ``All four million people in Costa Rica are concerned about this problem,'' he said. ``How many are doing something about it? Maybe three.''

 Government officials say they are working on the issue.

 ``We'll be meeting this week on exactly that,'' said Lineth Saborío, director of the Judicial Investigative Organization, Costa Rica's equivalent of the FBI.

 Neither she nor the vice minister of justice could say what happened to the pledged tourist tax.


 Rogelio Ramírez, who heads the team of detectives that probes teenage prostitution rings, said the agency has 50 active investigations and has helped the homicide
 squad come up with several suspects.

 ``We'll double and triple our forces,'' Ramírez said. ``It's hard to penetrate these networks that run by word of mouth. These murders have created a lot of tension on the street. The girls have moved inside and the clients are not driving up by car anymore.''

 Former child prostitutes interviewed by The Herald agreed, and said girls are still lured by the easy money needed to finance drug addictions.

 ``It's not the same street as before. You used to be able to do whatever you wanted,'' said one 13-year-old who recently quit to enroll in first grade. ``Before, it was easy. Now it's all police.''

 Another former prostitute said police and social workers can do little until the girls decide to change their lives. ``You stop when you want to stop,'' said an 18-year-old girl, who added that she began prostituting herself at the suggestion of her mother. ``You are afraid out there, but hunger is stronger than fear.''

                                    © 2001