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The child sex trade:
Costa Rica's stealthy lure
The closure of the Casa Alianza regional office in San Jose, Costa Rica in 2004 created not only an organizational vacuum, it left in its wake a void that would for some time set back the cause of children's rights in this small paradisiacal nation.
Fortunately, from the ashes was born a new organization staffed by dedicated and tireless volunteers who now face the daunting task of documenting, exposing and combating a new scourge: the recurrent disappearance of minors, most of whom are being trafficked through the murky pipelines of child prostitution and pornography.
"For poor or homeless children, all paths lead to the sex trade," says Rocío Rodriguez García, director of Alianza Port Tus Derechos. "But we don't call it prostitution. Poverty readily exposes minors to abuse and exploitation. In the streets, the first rule of survival is to reject one's humanity. It's not a choice. It's a precondition for some, a trap for others. There's no glamour in such lifestyle, only fear and humiliation. All too often there is involuntary servitude, as a sex object, accompanied by violence and, sometimes, even death."
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.
Flagged by Interpol, Costa Rica is fast rising as the hemispheric capital of sex tourism. According to Rodriguez, more than 3,000 girls and young women work in San Jose's 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 more than 6,000 tourists a year. Most children who succumb to prostitution do so before they turn 12.
Alianza Por Tus Derechos has since filed about 400 criminal complaints with the office of the special prosecutor. Owing the apathy and ineptitude of the judicial system, which is being blamed for hindering efforts to put an end to the sex trade, most of the cases have yet to be prosecuted. Under-funded and struggling, the new organization, like its predecessor, is also facing the ire of the prostitution cartels --- and that of their clients. Alianza Por Tus Derechos was recently the victim of electronic terrorism when its widely circulated website was compromised and temporarily disabled by a torrent of spam and viruses.
"It looks like our efforts to spare children from the horrors of prostution and pornography are paying off. We've touched some sentive nerves out there and threatened this dastardly commerce," says Rodriguez."
But her enthusiam is tempered by reality. The political, economic and social dynamics that affect the general well-being of Costa Ricans, she concedes, also impede her efforts.
"Ratification of the Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005 has placed the participating nations' foreign trade policies on a tightrope, compromising their stability and triggering serious social confrontations.
"Real income has been decreasing steadily. Minimum wages have not risen significantly in 20 years. Reduction in social investments has been especially hard on the impoverished and an ever-shrinking middle class. Nearly 40,000 families have joined the ranks of the poor, which now number one million. The intensity of poverty and the percentage of people vulnerable to poverty have also increased."
According to Rodriguez, indigence, the absence of recreational options and consumer patterns that promote the idea that everything can be bought with money contribute to the sexual explitation of minors.
"The Internet and word of mouth continue to reinforce Costa Rica's reputation as a leading sex tourism destination."
Despite her efforts, Rodriguez and her team, who are struggling to keep child prostitution and pornography under international scrutiny, face intractable problems at home. Chronic underfunding is one. She also blames the lack of a "concrete, articulate and effective national policy," and a sluggish response by government institutions paralyzed by incompetence, indifferrence and bureaucratic gridlock.
On Rodriguez's wish list: financial aid from government and the public, the establishment of community networks, a spirit of compassion and an ethos of altruism toward society's most vulnerable minority.
Rodriguez pauses then adds, "I suppose all this translates into a more dynamic espousal of social equality."
She is not alone in believing that democracy has taken a beating in Costa Rica in recent years.
W. E. Gutman is a vetern journalist on assignment in Central America since 1991. He lives in southern California.
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