Sex Tourism Plagues Central America
by Paul Jeffrey
Before leaving their rooms at the Parthenon Beach Hotel in the northern Honduran city of La Ceiba, two men reread information they had downloaded from the Internet before leaving home in Illinois. Then they walked two blocks east to a club featuring young nude dancers.
"We're informed consumers," one of them jokingly quipped.
Prepared by the Internet to know which girls at the club would provide the best sex and at what prices, the two are part of a new generation of technology-equipped sex tourists who travel South to exploit young women pushed by chronic poverty into prostitution.
Elsewhere in the world -- in countries from Thailand to Cuba -- sex tourism is experiencing difficulties as international pressure, including lobbying from church groups, has convinced governments to crack down on child abuse, particularly the near enslavement of young women in the sex industry.
In Central America, post-war political stability has brought a rush of outsiders seeking rain forests, pristine beaches and Mayan ruins, yet poverty and weak judicial systems have also created an environment where foreign men can easily and inexpensively fulfill their fantasies. An entire subculture consisting of North Americans buying and selling children for sex has developed.
Much of the growth of child prostitution in Central America has occurred in the last three years. A recent study of 300 street children by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Family showed that more than 80 percent had begun to work as prostitutes in the past year.
Activists in Guatemala say child prostitution has risen dramatically, spurred on by a shift in patterns of drug abuse.
Street children who used to sniff relatively inexpensive glue are now turning to crack, readily available in the region as Central American military officials, no longer living high on the hog from U.S. military assistance, turn to drug trafficking to make money. Since crack is more costly than glue, street kids are more likely to sell their bodies to finance their habit.
In Costa Rica, where tourism is the largest source of foreign currency, the director of the government's Judicial Investigation Unit estimated in 1998 that at least 5,000 of 1 million foreign visitors were "sex tourists."
"Sexual tourists look for two things: impunity and anonymity," said Erika Linares, a lawyer with the Latin American Institute for Health Prevention, a group that works with prostitutes. "Costa Rica offers both."
Prostitution is not against Costa Rican law provided the sex worker is at least 18 years old. Activities like child abuse and trafficking in women do cross legal boundaries.
Activists are pushing governments to take action against abuse, but it's an uphill battle.
"The authorities generally seem more concerned about the image of their country and for tourism than publicly accepting that their countries are being targeted by pedophiles," said Bruce Harris, Central-American director for Casa Alianza, a child-advocacy program sponsored by Covenant House in New York City. Yet Harris reports the environment is changing, and citizens are pressuring governments to take action.
"We're pleased that now more people are reporting what has always been an open secret," he said.
In the last two years, governments in the region have begun to crack down. Daniel Rounds, a teacher from Pennsylvania, is serving a 10-year jail sentence in Honduras after being found guilty of sexually abusing two 12 year-old boys in a room at the Parthenon Beach Hotel. Mr. Rounds picked up the boys on the street, where tens of thousands of Central-American children live today, pushed out of their homes by poverty and abuse.
Honduras wasn't Mr. Rounds' only hunting grounds. His diary, discovered by investigators among his possessions, detailed his sexual activities with children as young as seven in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Brazil and Costa Rica.
In January 1999, Boston physician Arthur Kanev and Oklahoma City dog trainer Joe Baker were arrested in Costa Rica after several underage girls testified they were lured off the streets by offers of $40 to join parties with foreign men at Mr. Kanev's beach house outside Quepos. The girls were drugged, raped and photographed. More than 300 nude photographs of girls, ages 11 to 16, were found on the premises.
In April of last year, police in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, raided "Tony Montana's," a nightclub offering sex with girls. Four U.S. men were arrested in the raid. As of November, two of them remained in a Honduran prison: Anthony Bucellato, 47, a man convicted of sexual abuse of a girl near Portland, Ore., was the nightclub manager; Charles Kasper, 62, owner of a Tampa, Fla., swimming-pool company, was the club's principal investor.
Both Mr. Bucellato and Mr. Kasper refused requests for interviews, but according to former business associates of the two, Mr. Kasper had retired to Honduras, where he thought he could do things not allowed in the United States. That meant sitting on the porch of his oceanfront house and firing automatic weapons into the night air. It also meant purchasing sex with young girls for a fraction the price he would have had to pay in the North.
Mr. Kasper and Mr. Bucellato met when Mr. Bucellato opened a nightclub on the Honduran island of Roatan. Featuring strippers and young prostitutes, the club was the kind of place Mr. Kasper liked to hang out. Islanders, including several Methodists, protested the club's operations and it was closed after just a few weeks.
With Mr. Kasper fronting the money, Mr. Bucellato moved the operation to San Pedro Sula. The club became a favorite hangout for U.S. businessmen visiting that city, where dozens of U.S. companies have investments in bananas, pineapples and maquilas - factories that hire workers for low wages and long hours.
An undercover video done inside the club by journalists from KOMO-TV in Seattle, Wash., showed Mr. Bucellato offering girls as young as 14 in exchange for $120.
As of this writing, the two men remain in a maximum-security prison near Tegucigalpa, Honduras. An alleged plot to escape was foiled in September when I received information that Mr. Kasper had paid almost $1 million in bribes to several Honduran officials, including a justice of the Honduran Supreme Court. Working with a Honduran journalist from the daily El Heraldo in Tegucigalpa, we published details of the alleged plot the day before the escape was to take place. The plan was called off, and the legal process against the two men continued.
Kingpins in the region's sex-tourism industry are not just going to jail in Central America. Marvin Hersh, a university math professor from Florida, is in prison in the United States because of his illegal activities in Central America.
In March 1999, Mr. Hersh became the first person to be found guilty under a 1996 U.S. law that makes it a federal crime to travel outside the United States for the purpose of engaging in sex with a minor. The 10 charges on which Mr. Hersh was convicted relate to his sexual exploitation of Honduran boys, including taking a 15-year-old to the United States and pretending the boy was his son.
The growth of sex tourism in recent years helped convince Costa Rica's parliament in June 1999 to pass a law against sexual exploitation of minors.
"With this law, we say to foreigners who want to come here to abuse our children that they'll find a jail cell waiting for them," said President Miguel Angel Rodriguez upon signing the law.
Yet passing a law won't be enough, because those who profit from sex tourism include a network of people from taxi drivers to hotel clerks to police officers who get their share of sex-tourist spending. Poor families are tempted to have their daughters sign on as tourist guides for foreigners because of the promise of easy profits.
Tourist guide was the term used by Ervin Castillo, a Costa Rican man arrested in 1997 for pimping 14 year-old Costa Rican girls to foreigners. Castillo was arrested and charged along with his wife, Sharon Ann Heinzke, a U.S. citizen.
Ms. Heinzke, who also uses the name Sherrie Dressell, failed to show for a court appearance and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Officials believe she left the country and is living in Wisconsin. Her husband was convicted and sent to jail for eight years.
The two had operated their child-prostitution ring since 1994 out of the San Josť neighborhood of Los Angeles, reportedly earning more than $12,500 per month from mostly foreign clients, many of whom arranged for sexual services before they arrived in the country.
Sex marketers like Mr. Castillo, who had two web pages advertising sex tourism, enjoy a technological advantage over law enforcement. Costa Rica's Special Prosecutor for Sexual Crimes, whose staff recently expanded from two to eight, didn't even have a computer with Internet access when it began battling pedophiles.
"Central America is being invaded by smart child sex abusers who know more about the Internet and how to use it to achieve their sordid goals than do the official investigative police bodies of these countries," Mr. Harris said.
Sex tourists do not have to slink around dark foreign streets looking for prostitutes or struggle with foreign languages to ask taxi drivers where to find sex. In the comfort of their Northern American homes, they can go to websites offering detailed instructions on where to find sex partners abroad, as well as where to stay and what they can expect to pay.
Nightclubs, massage parlors and escort services have their own websites. Several Internet bulletin boards provide opportunities for returned travelers to report on their sex adventures, alerting colleagues to new turf to be explored, along with warnings of crackdowns, such as that which occurred in 1999 in Cuba. Informed consumers can steer clear of trouble spots.
Activists are turning the weapon around, however. Child activists are mounting websites with information about abuse and helping law-enforcement agencies network across borders to identify and capture abusers.
"The Internet is a marvelous tool of information and has to be reclaimed by those of us who are fighting to protect the lives and rights of children," said Ana Salvado, an activist with Casa Alianza.
The victims of sex tourism are children, their dreams still intact.
Juanita Meneses, 16, works at a bar not far from the Parthenon Beach Hotel in La Ceiba. Fleeing poverty and an inhospitable home life, she left her home near San Pedro Sula last year and joined two other young women to travel north to the United States. The three only made it to southern Mexico, where they were robbed and deported to Guatemala. Without other alternatives, they worked as prostitutes along the Guatemalan-Mexican border until they were caught and deported to Honduras.
Ms. Meneses didn't want to return home. Instead, she came to La Ceiba and works from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily, dancing nude and getting drunk men to buy her drinks, for which she receives a small cut. Ms. Meneses makes more if she accepts a man's invitation to return to his hotel room. She said foreigners pay much better than local men.
"I always dreamed I'd grow up to be a mother, maybe learn a lot and get a job as a teacher," Mr. Meneses said. "Maybe I still will. For now, I can't think of any alternatives. I've got to stay here for now."
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America. He lives outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras.