The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2000; Page A17

Child Sex Trade Rises In Central America

Prostitution Is 'Dark Side of Tourism'

                  By Serge F. Kovaleski
                  Washington Post Foreign Service

                  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 trade,
                  children's advocates say, is that traditional destinations for such
                  activity--chiefly Thailand and the Philippines--have blunted the sex tourism
                  business over the last two years by enacting public awareness campaigns
                  and stricter laws and enforcement measures.

                  Prostitution among the children who live and work on the streets of Latin
                  America--their number has been estimated at up to 40 million--has long
                  been a consequence of the region's poverty. But as such countries as
                  Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua step up efforts to
                  promote their beaches, volcanoes and natural beauty as tourist
                  destinations, they attract greater numbers of men from North America,
                  Europe and other Latin American countries looking for sex with 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 California bartender 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 have sex with a girl who had no previous
                  sexual experience.

                  David, a stocky, unkempt man who insisted that only his first name 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 for use of the girl, which David said he eagerly paid.

                  Costa Rican law allows only 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 he spoke, adult prostitutes mingled with
                  foreigners in the hotel lobby as younger ones strolled the streets outside.

                  Costa Rica, which in 1999 drew more than 1 million foreign visitors for the
                  first time, is Central America's leading tourist destination. It is also believed
                  to have the region's most pronounced child-prostitution problem.

                  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 scope of sexual exploitation
                  of children in Central America, anecdotal evidence, independent surveys
                  and a string of recent arrests of Americans--as well as of 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 the mistaken impression that older prostitutes are more likely
                  than younger ones to have AIDS or carry the HIV virus, 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, which 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 prostitutes in Central America are
                  street children, many of whom, studies show, had fled sexual abuse at
                  home. In Honduras, the number of homeless minors has grown sharply in
                  the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch last year.

                  Drug abuse, too, has become a prevalent factor in the growth of the
                  child-sex trade. In a recent study of 300 street children in Nicaragua by the
                  government's Family Ministry, more than 80 percent said they had started
                  working 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 prostitute about nine months ago, was offering sex
                  for $15. "A few tricks and I can buy some [crack] up the street," she said.

                  "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

                  Maria said she became a prostitute 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."