TEGUCIGALPA -- When Nicaraguan police gingerly opened a stray piece of luggage at Managua Airport last month, 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 and developed in multiple copies 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. In December 2003, acting on a tip from Casa Alianza, INTERPOL agents and Honduran police patrolling the border with Nicaragua rescued 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.
Last month, in Tegucigalpa, 30 young girls were plucked from various legitimate businesses, among them a pool hall, a tavern and a snack bar that operated back-room brothels.
A REGION OUT OF CONTROL
The sexual abuse of children by adults to satisfy their own perversions 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.
Belize. Although comprehensive data regarding child prostitution in Belize are not available, sex tourism is being blamed on an 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 UN Protocol against the trafficking of children, into a burgeoning haven for pornography and child prostitution.
Costa Rica. Flagged by INTERPOL, Costa Rica is fast rising as the hemispheric capital of sex tourism. According to Casa Alianza, more than 3,000 girls and young women work in San Joses 300 brothels.
Rivaling Thailand and the Philippines as the world's leading sex tourism destination, 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. 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.
Headquartered in Costa Rica, Casa Alianza has filed about 400 criminal complaints with the office of the special prosecutor. Owing 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.
El Salvador. 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 and is awaiting trial.
Guatemala. 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 prejudice them in the eyes of trigger-happy police who often rape, torture and murder them. Guatemalan brothels have been identified as a supply source of infants destined, through illegal schemes, for adoption into the US.
Honduras. 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 had contracted at least one sexually transmitted disease.
Honduran courts often tolerate sex abuse. "If the victim is older than 12," says 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, some with dozens of outstanding charges of child pornography and molestation, remain imprisoned in Honduras. All face extradition and prosecution in their countries of origin.
Mexico. According to Bruce Harris, "the weakness of legal controls and intractable 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 Agency for trafficking laborers into the US, some of whom were forced into prostitution and debt-bondage.
Nicaragua. Little information is available on the trafficking of children in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, 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.
Panama. 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.
HUGE PROBLEM, SCARCE ASSETS
Honduras Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who oversees his country's law enforcement apparatus, acknowledges that child prostitution is out of control. He attributes his agency's unexceptional 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 cannot 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."
Shortly after my interview with Deputy Pavón, Congress voted unanimously to raise prison sentences for sexual crimes against children.
"We are heartened by this positive development," says Bruce Harris. "But we still have a long way to go. 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.
W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist on regular assignment in Central America since 1991. He lives in southern California.
Also in this section:
Part 2, The ugliest part of tourism: Child Prostitution
Relax over the holidays at the Executive Hotel