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RIGHTS-MESOAMERICA: Child Sex Abuse – Everybody Knows, Nobody Says

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Mar 9 2007 (IPS) - “There’s no child sex tourism here,” technical secretary of the Central American Tourism Council Mercedes de Mena stated firmly, saying that no tourism operator offers such a thing – officially at least. However, the problem exists, and is serious in this region and in Mexico.

Casa Alianza, which works with homeless children in several Central American countries, estimates that between 35,000 and 50,000 children are forced into prostitution in the region, and says that one of the driving forces behind the abuses is, in fact, tourism.

As for Mexico, the End Child Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) network said it has become the major sex tourism destination in the Americas. The number of children subjected to this form of exploitation is estimated here at between 16,000 and 20,000.

Mexico and the countries of Central America, which constitute the historical-cultural unit known as Mesoamerica, have passed a battery of laws and agreements to penalise sexual abuse of children.

However, the problem persists, and tourist operators with connections in industrialised countries continue to find clandestine ways of offering their clients package tours which include having sex with minors.

De Mena was uncomfortable when IPS interviewed her about the issue by telephone in Panama City, where she took part last week in a Central American meeting on the prevention and suppression of child sex tourism.

“We condemn the sexual abuse of children. No one here is promoting it. On the contrary, we are emphasising preventive action to ensure it doesn’t happen. Sex tourism does not exist. What we do have is adventure tourism, cultural tourism, beach tourism, and so on,” she said.

Her statement was consistent with the recommendations of a regional action plan against sexual exploitation for 2005-2006, agreed by tourist operators and government representatives.

These sectors met again in Panama to evaluate the results of the action plan, and draw up another for 2007-2008.

The first plan recommended that “the impression should not be given that commercial sexual exploitation of children and teenagers is generalised in the region and that plenty of sexual services are on offer.”

“This kind of message would damage the tourist industry… The message must be dissuasive, because Central America does not wish to become a tourist destination identified with this kind of exploitation,” the document says.

“Certainly the phenomenon (of child sex tourism) exists and is growing throughout the world, and it is a problem in Central America,” Sonia Eljach, adviser on issues of sexual violence to the Latin American and Caribbean office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IPS.

Child sex tourism “greatly damages the image of a country,” she said.

Central American countries and Mexico offer regular training courses for tour operators and police on how to combat sexual exploitation of minors. Publicity campaigns are also carried out to raise social awareness of the issue.

Mexican senator Lázaro Mazón, of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), reported that there are more than 40 web pages on the Internet describing Mexico as the “ideal place” for sex tourism.

According to ECPAT, 20 percent of international travel is for sex purposes, and “three percent of travellers are paedophiles.”

ECPAT estimates that the sex tourism business rakes in five billion dollars a year, and it involves 1.8 million children worldwide.

Neither UNICEF nor the Central American Tourism Council (CCT) would venture to guess how many children in Central America are prey to sex tourism, but UNICEF at least acknowledged that they could be in the thousands.

Eljach said that paedophile tourists, most of whom come from rich countries, choose destinations where vigilance is poor, institutions are weak, and the culture is permissive.

A survey of 8,767 people from Central American countries, sponsored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and carried out in mid-2005, indicated that knowledge of actual places where children were sexually exploited was fairly widespread.

About 30 percent of interviewees from El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua knew of such places. So did about 20 percent of respondents in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala.

It follows that having sex with minors in this region is not a crime that is committed under a cloak of secrecy, nor is it infrequent, says the ILO publication “Social Tolerance Towards Sexual Commerce with Minors in Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic”.

The survey found that between two and seven percent of respondents did not consider it a crime to have sex with minors. In Honduras, six percent admitted that they would choose to avail themselves of sexual services with under-age children if they were given the opportunity.

Between one-third and one-half of the survey population thought that child sexual exploitation originated in the moral values of the family and the victim. This shows the lack of visibility of the responsibility borne by the adult exploiters, and the vulnerability and social exclusion suffered by victims and their families, the ILO remarked.

Most of the interviewees also placed the burden of responsibility for preventing and eradicating exploitation on the weakest individuals, obviating the obligations of state and society to protect minors, and glossing over the human rights violations committed by exploiters, whether they are “clients”, pimps or intermediaries, the ILO document said.

In a 1997 study, UNICEF indicated that some retired persons from the United States and Europe had taken up residence in Central America to make use of child sex services.

UNICEF found out from the children forced into prostitution that 70 percent serviced one or two clients a day.

According to psychologists, sexually exploited children acquire permanent psychological scars that can only heal with professional care, which is not always available in Central American countries and Mexico.

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