The Miami Herald
November 22, 1999

 Crack blamed for rise in Central American child prostitution

 GUATEMALA CITY -- (AP) -- To support her crack habit, 15-year-old Leslie
 Sandoval does what she can. ``Sometimes I beg. Sometimes I rob,'' she says.
 ``Or I get into cars with men.''

 The number of Guatemalan street children working as prostitutes is rising and the
 booming use of crack cocaine is largely to blame, government and aid groups

 ``It didn't used to be so hard for girls on the street to get drugs such as glue,''
 says Arturo Echeverria, director of the child advocacy group Casa Alianza. ``But
 the higher price of crack has induced more children into prostitution.''

 The pattern is being repeated across Central America, where younger and
 younger girls are becoming prostitutes as drug use rises.

 In a recent study of 300 street children by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Family, just
 over 80 percent said they had begun to work as prostitutes in the past year. Most
 said they did so to get drugs, with nearly 30 percent saying they needed the
 money to buy crack.

 Casa Alianza, an advocacy group for street children, says many suffer from
 venereal diseases, a sign that prostitution may be common.

 In response to growing complaints about sex tourism, Costa Rica recently
 strengthened its family and child code to allow prosecutions of adult sex clients
 for child abuse even when they pay children for the services.

 Nowhere has child prostitution taken off like in Guatemala.

 A big factor is the increased availability of cocaine. U.S. Embassy officials say
 drug gangs now use cocaine instead of money to pay people who help smuggle
 drugs from South America to the United States, adding to the local supply.

 Also, a slight reduction in cocaine use in the United States has prompted
 traffickers to try to expand their Central American markets. And the general rise
 in crime since the 1996 peace accords ended Guatemala's 36-year civil war has
 aggravated the problem.

 More children are ending up on the streets because the economy has not kept
 pace with population growth and migration to the capital, says Cesar Estrada,
 director of Casa Alianza's home for teen-age mothers in Guatemala.

 In a nation of 11 million people, 3,500 children live on the streets, according to
 government figures. Child advocacy groups put the figure closer to 6,000. No one
 has statistics on how many are working as prostitutes, though there is general
 agreement the number is increasing.

 Leslie says she left home two years ago to escape family problems.

 ``My stepfather left my baby sister outside, and she got sick and died. I was so
 sad because I loved her so much,'' she says. ``He was beating my mother, and I
 was going to kill my stepfather if I didn't leave. My sister took me to the streets
 and I got to know people here.''

 She now lives with friends in a cardboard-and-wooden shack behind an outdoor
 vegetable market.

 Her clients, generally older Guatemalan businessmen, pay her 20 quetzales, the
 equivalent of $2.60. She needs two clients to earn enough to buy two crack rocks
 the size of marbles -- enough to provide a half-hour high.

 She says some of her friends also work as prostitutes to buy crack. Few admit it.

 One friend, Roxana Adolf, says only that she's been tempted. Roxana is 16 and
 has a tattoo on her back reading: ``Mother, forgive me for the wild life I lead.''

 She said her boyfriend would kill her if she prostituted herself.

 ``Yesterday a man came up and asked me. I was going to take the money and
 run, but he said we had to go to the hotel first, so I said no,'' Roxana says. ``He
 was so fat and ugly.''

 Neither the government nor private agencies have much hope of slowing the rise in
 child prostitution.

 Guatemala's police are overwhelmed by other crime and have made fighting
 prostitution a low priority.

 Deborah Cobar, director of the Attorney General's Office on Child Welfare, says
 the state doesn't have the money to provide the counseling that could help
 children get off the streets.

 A few private institutions, such as Casa Alianza, offer help, but they are finding it
 increasingly difficult to raise money.

 ``It's out of fashion,'' Cobar says.

 Organizations are under pressure to show their work is having an effect, and
 rehabilitating prostitutes is a long-term project. ``It's difficult to show results over a
 short period of time,'' she says.

 Sometimes, it takes a pregnancy to jolt a teen-ager into quitting drugs, Echeverria
 says. But then the need to earn money to support the child drives young women
 with little education right back into prostitution.

 Those helping prostitutes sometimes have to resign themselves to accomplishing
 only modest goals. A social worker is helping Leslie and her friends write rules to
 govern life in their shack.

 One rule reads: ``I will not steal anywhere on this block.''