Sex Tourism Threatens Central America’s Youth*
Child Prostitution: A Growing Scourge
By W. E. Gutman
Article 34 of the 1989 Convention on Children’s Rights urges governments to devote their resources to preventing the sexual exploitation of minors through prostitution or other sexual practices, and put an end to the use of children in pornographic spectacles and materials. Article 35 requires signatories to stop the kidnapping, sale or commerce of children for any purpose and in any form. Ratifying nations are further encouraged to adapt their legal norms to the principles of the Convention which guarantee the rights of children to life, healthy development, education and protection from abuse. So much for international accords.
When Nicaraguan police warily opened a stray piece of luggage at Managua Airport, fear turned to indignation. What they found were photos of children and adults engaged in explicit sexual acts. A Nicaraguan woman was arrested when she returned to claim her bag. Shot in Nicaragua, developed and copied in Miami, the photos were destined for a select clientele of pedophiles throughout Central America.
Interpol has linked the spread of child pornography with the rise in child prostitution in the isthmus. Acting on a tip from Casa Alianza, the child advocacy organization that operates in Central America, Interpol agents and Honduran police patrolling the border with Nicaragua freed several underage girls who had been secreted in the cabs of large trucks. Police later raided a “party” where four Honduran girls –- the youngest 13, the oldest 15 -– were being sexually exploited. Videos shot with minicams were confiscated. Nearby, in El Triunfo, three juveniles were taken in protective custody. Two women suspected of pimping the girls were arrested — then released.
In Tegucigalpa, 30 young girls were plucked from various legitimate businesses, among them a pool hall, a tavern and a snack bar, all of which operated back-room brothels. The sexual abuse of children by adults is a global problem and a growing horde of “sex tourists” travel from country to country in pursuit of easy prey. While southeast Asia remains the hub of world sex tourism, Central America, racked by poverty and stunted by diminishing opportunities, is rapidly gaining in popularity.
Data about child prostitution in Belize is sketchy but sex tourism is being blamed for a sharp increase in HIV/AIDS cases among minors and adults. Ambiguous statutes, slipshod investigations and short prison terms are turning Belize, which balks at signing the U.N. Protocol against the trafficking of children, into a burgeoning haven for pornography and child prostitution.
Flagged by Interpol as a prime destination and transit center for the importation of young girls from as far as Africa, China, eastern Europe and the Middle East, Costa Rica is fast rising as the hemispheric capital of sex tourism. Costa Rica, where possession of child pornography for personal use is not considered a crime, is also credited with having the region’s largest child prostitution problem. According to Casa Alianza, more than 3,000 girls and young women work in San José’s 300 brothels. Commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Costa Rica is said to draw as many as 5,000 tourists a year. Most children who succumb to prostitution do so before they turn 12.
Casa Alianza has filed over 400 criminal complaints with the office of the special prosecutor. Owing to the apathy and inefficiency of the judicial system, which is being blamed for hindering efforts to put an end to child prostitution, most of these cases have not been prosecuted.
Tiny and densely populated El Salvador is a country of origin and destination for the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Sex tourism is becoming ever more lucrative. Interpol has discovered a network that shuttles children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and forces them into prostitution in bars along the El-Salvador-Guatemala border. Agents have rescued at least 50 girls in the past two years. Police recently raided the house of a former congressman and found a large stash of child pornography. The man, a candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court, was arrested. He was later released on a “technicality.”
Known as the Land of Eternal Spring, Guatemala is a country of destination for children trafficked for sexual exploitation. This has not prevented scores of Guatemalan minors from being sold to Europe and the US. At least 5,000 minors live in the streets and many have turned to prostitution to survive. Attributed in part to Guatemala’s dismal economy, this phenomenon is also blamed on an alarming rise in the use of crack cocaine among homeless youth, a practice that further prejudices them in the eyes of trigger-happy police. Guatemalan brothels have been identified as a supply source of infants destined, through illegal schemes, for adoption into the US.
Notorious for its sex industry and exploitation of street children, Honduras has not ratified Article 182 of the ILO Convention, which aims at eliminating the worst forms of child labor. Promised jobs and scholarships, Honduran girls, some as young as 13, are routinely being trafficked by crime syndicates and sold to brothels in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. As many as 200 Honduran minors have been smuggled overland to Canada by a professional drug ring and forced to work as indentured couriers. Most of the street girls rescued by Casa Alianza are victims of prostitution. All who engaged in “survival sex” in exchange for basic necessities, were first sexually abused at home. Most were diagnosed with at least one sexually transmitted disease.
Honduran laws often tolerate sex abuse. “If the victim is older than 12,” said a judge on condition of anonymity, “if he or she refuses to file a complaint and if the parents clearly profit from their child’s commerce, we tend to look the other way. ‘Private crimes’ are very rarely, if ever, prosecuted.”
Based on warrants issued by Casa Alianza, Interpol has effected a number of rare if spectacular arrests. Several pedophiles, all foreigners, some with dozens of outstanding charges of child pornography and molestation, were imprisoned. All face extradition and prosecution in their countries of origin.
According to former Casa Alianza-Mexico director, Manuel Capellin — now director of Casa Alianza-Honduras — “the weakness of legal controls and chronic poverty have turned Mexico into a ‘paradise’ of prostitution and child pornography. More than 16,000 children are sexually exploited through networks involving foreigners and military, police, government and business officials. In Juarez alone, nearly 1,000 children are being sexually exploited, and in Guadalajara, officials report 750 cases of child prostitution.”
The US-Mexican border is one of the main centers for child sex tourism. Thousands of Americans cross into Mexico daily looking for cheap sex with underage prostitutes. Mexican authorities, who admit that about 18,000 minors were used to produce child pornography, have taken little if any action.
More than 2,000 girls and young women have been sold to Japanese brothels. Traffickers belong to criminal syndicates operating along the US border and associated with Japanese “yakuza” gangs. Organized Mexican cartels smuggle girls as young as 14 into the US. The Cadena network has smuggled many young Mexican girls to south Florida. Despite the arrest of a number of key players by US authorities, the head of the Cadena hydra remains at large. US investigators have also apprehended several employees of the California-based Chamblee Employment Agency for trafficking laborers into the US, some of whom were forced into prostitution and debt-bondage.
While little information is available on the trafficking of children in Nicaragua, sex tourism is a growing and lucrative enterprise for criminal networks operating in Central America’s largest and poorest nation. According to Casa Alianza, between 1,200 and 1,500 girls and young women work the brothels of Managua. Almost half are under the age of 18. Every night, hundreds of teenage girls line the Masaya Highway commercial corridor on the capital’s south side. A study of 300 street children by the Nicaragua Ministry of Family reveals that more than 80 percent admitted to engaging in prostitution to support their drug habits.
Little is known about the sexual exploitation of minors in Panama. Massage parlors are said to be employing underage girls, mostly from Colombia and the Dominican Republic. According to Interpol, 10 percent of the 300 illegal migrants intercepted recently in Panama were minors.
Honduras Security Minister Oscar Álvarez, who oversees his country’s law enforcement apparatus, acknowledges that child prostitution is out of control. He attributes his agency’s mediocre successes to “acute” understaffing.
“We are stretched to the limit. Our entire crime fighting effort –- from the theft of chickens to murder — is in the hands of 300 investigators and 8,500 police officers. We just can’t be everywhere at the same time.”
Congresswoman Rosa Adelinda Pavón has a more holistic view of the problem. She blames “poverty, foreshortened opportunities, growing national discontent and a culture of indifference” for Honduras moral decay. “We are all contaminated -– lawmakers, the judiciary, law enforcement, religious institutions, the media. We enact laws that are unenforceable. We punish but do not rehabilitate. We preach and threaten and castigate but we fail to motivate, educate and inspire.”
“We still have a long way to go,” says Manuel Capellin. “It is time for Congress to enact laws that shield children from exploitation. Studies by Casa Alianza show that most children who are being sold for sex, were sexually abused in their own homes at a very young age. We must work on prevention and bring about a more secure legal climate that champions children’s rights.”
The next day, shortly before dawn, 15 minors were rescued in a raid on Tegucigalpa bars, discotheques and nightclubs doubling as houses of prostitution. Fines were levied but no one was arrested.
The more things change… (12/30/10) (photo courtesy Internet)
(Note: W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist. From 1994 to 2006 he covered politics, the military and human rights in Central America. He was a frequent contributor to Honduras This Week. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of Honduras Weekly)