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GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 13 2006 (IPS) - Sexual exploitation of minors is not classified as a crime in Guatemala, where activists say child sex tourism is on the rise, and the toughest penalty for “corruption of minors” and “aggravated procuring” is a 400 dollar fine.
“I had problems at home, and a girlfriend took me to work with her in a bar.” That is how Alba, at the age of 14, began to be sexually exploited in a brothel on the outskirts of the Guatemalan capital. Her mother was demanding that she bring money home, and she saw it as a way to earn an income.
For Alba’s family, which is poor, the 160 dollars a month that she brought home was an important source of income.
Alba was the only underage girl in the bar where she worked, which attracted a relatively upscale clientele. She was also the most popular, to the point that she was the target of envy on the part of her fellow sex workers.
But hers is not an isolated case. Although no precise figures are available, in 2002 it was estimated that 2,000 minors were sexually exploited in Guatemala City alone, according to a report by Casa Alianza (the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organisation) and ECPAT (an international NGO working to end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children).
Of those 2,000 minors, 1,200 were from El Salvador, 500 from Honduras and 300 from Guatemala itself. María Eugenia Villarreal, ECPAT director for Latin America, says Central America is a hub for trafficking in minors, child pornography and sex tourism.
Villarreal told IPS that “the problem continues to grow.” She put the number of victims as high as 15,000 nationwide, the majority of them girls between the ages of 15 and 17, who are mainly exploited in brothels in the capital and in border and port areas.
The Guatemalan Congress is studying a draft law that would classify sexual exploitation as a crime, which would be punishable by six to 12-year prison sentences. Guatemala is the only country in Central America that has not yet updated its laws in this area, and according to experts, the political parties are in no hurry to do so.
“I do not see any hope that Guatemala’s penal code will be reformed in the short term, because that would touch the interests of people with political and economic clout,” said Héctor Dionisio, coordinator of Casa Alianza’s legal programme in Guatemala.
Doria Giusti, a United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) representative in Guatemala, told IPS that “children are not given high priority in Congress, and the sexual exploitation of minors is a taboo issue. Besides, most of the lawmakers are men, so a sexist viewpoint prevails.”
Today, the Guatemalan penal code recognises crimes like “corruption of minors” and “aggravated procuring” (in cases involving minors or family members), but the maximum punishment is a 400 dollar fine. Furthermore, the pimps or procurers tend to force the minors themselves to pay the fine, under the argument that they were responsible for drawing the penalty in the first place.
And although prison sentences range from one to six years for those who smuggle people into the country to put them to work as prostitutes, hardly anyone ever goes to jail, because if the sentence is under five years, it can be commuted.
The girls are recruited by intermediaries, sometimes their own family members, or by traffickers with links to organised crime rings, who deceive the girls offering them well-paid jobs in restaurants, for example.
In Tecún Umán, on the Mexican border in the western province of San Marcos, brothels take advantage of young women trying to save up money to travel as undocumented migrants to the United States, or who have been cheated and abandoned without documents by their “coyotes” (who smuggle people into the U.S.).
Once they fall into prostitution, the girls are trapped by the “debts” they owe their exploiters, who provide them with clothing, makeup, housing and meals, and introduce them to drugs and alcohol, leading many to become addicts.
Alba, however, was able to escape from that world when the brothel where she worked was reported to the authorities and raided, and because of her determination to find a decent job. She was taken in by Casa Alianza, where she stayed for a month and a half, before returning to her home and getting work as a domestic.
Three years after she escaped from sexual exploitation, she says she feels good about herself and that “it’s wrong for men to try to find minors” for sex.
But reinsertion into society is often a much more complicated matter. Leonel Dubón, programmes director in Casa Alianza Guatemala, said the victims usually need to stay in the organisation’s shelter for eight months.
“When they arrive, they are emotionally devastated, with a feeling of emptiness, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and with difficulties in expressing and receiving affection,” he said.
In the last three years, Casa Alianza has provided assistance to more than 300 girls, around 40 percent of whom also suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.
The girls who fall victim to sexual exploitation tend to come from poverty-stricken homes, and have often suffered domestic abuse.
Although according to official statistics, the poverty rate in Guatemala is 56 percent, unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 80 percent.
Experts say there is no “typical client” of sexually exploited minors. They are men of any age, from any socioeconomic level.
Guatemalan society appears to have become indifferent to the phenomenon. Giusti said the exploitation of minors was “an open secret,” and that there is “tolerance, and fear of reporting the situation.” Another hurdle is the widespread view that an adolescent girl is basically a woman.
“We’re talking about a power relationship based on ‘machismo’, which stigmatises the victim more than the victimiser,” said Villarreal.
The exploitation of minors, added Dionisio, “is not seen as something that is wrong, and men even think that if the girls are there, it is because they like it.”
Casa Alianza points out that exploitation is a serious problem of sexual and economic domination, which does not end when a girl turns 18, and which involves transnational criminal networks.
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