COSTA Rica is gathering its forces against the sexual exploitation of children and attacking the problem on three fronts: in the tourism industry, in the courts and on the streets with special police units.
The Public Security Ministry is training police in methods to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of minors and plans to upgrade its sex-exploitation police unit to a full-fledged agency by the end of the year.
Child advocacy group Paniamor is working with the court system to unify computerized information systems and create a national registry of victims and perpetrators.
Employees of hotels, car rental agencies and taxi drivers have received training to recognize and report those who ask the wrong kinds of questions or appear to be involved with child prostitution.
“We want to say to those people who pay $50 or $100 for sex with children and adolescents that while our children have value, they do not have a price,” said Milena Grillo, executive director of Paniamor, a private organization that since 1989 has worked with the community, businesses and government to prevent violence against children.
ON Wednesday, 520 police officers graduated from an intense workshop focused on preventing commercial sexual exploitation of minors, the Security Ministry announced.
The workshop was part of a joint effort between the ministry and the non-governmental organization Defense of Boys, Girls and Adolescents.
“The fact that police are trained in these themes is of great importance, as it educates the officer in the adequate form of intervention in cases of sexual violence. We are now talking about police that are more sensitive and professional to act on these types of problems,” said Vice-Minister of Public Security, Ana Helena Chacón.
Thirty of the officers were of the rank Comisionado, the second-highest rank in Costa Rica’s police system. They will be sent to the provinces of San José, Heredia, Cartago and part of the Caribbean province of Limón, to act as regional chiefs.
The vice-minister said she hopes future workshops will be held for police in Limón, as well as Golfito, in the Southern Zone, and Quepos, on the central Pacific coast.
PANIAMOR and the president of the Costa Rican Association of Auto Renters (ACAR) and director of Elegante Payless Car Rental, Gonzalo Vargas, signed a code of conduct earlier this month.
The signing ceremony was the culmination of three months of work training 50 Elegante Payless employees.
Elegante and three other car renters in the association, which includes 15 rental companies, have committed to helping stop child prostitution in Costa Rica.
The others will come along “one by one,” Vargas said.
“ELEGANTE invites every one of the tourism businesses in our country to join this important effort – without fear, without limits,” he said.
“As businesses and as people, this is one of the most important decisions that we have made in the last several years,” he added.
Headed by Paniamor and funded in large part by Fundecooperación, a Dutch- Costa Rican development program, the ambitious project aims to bind 130 tourism businesses around the country into a united front against child sexual abuse.
It began in August 2003, and hopes to train at least 3,000 people by the project’s end-date, February 2005, according to Paniamor representative Maria Guillén.
So far, she said, 12 businesses are involved and 450 of their personnel have been trained.
The 250 cab drivers of Taxis Unidos, the only cab company licensed to operate at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport near San José, signed the conduct code in late January (TT, Jan. 30).
EVERY business involved should display the project’s logo, in English or in Spanish, on all their promotional materials.
Damaris Arrieta, with Fundecooperación’s Sustainable Tourism Program, said preserving “cultural resources,” including children, is as vital as preserving natural resources when it comes to the tourism industry.
“This is a very accelerated way of combating this problem – converting people into agents of combat by training them,” she said.
The majority of child sex offenders are Costa Rican, not foreign, Grillo said.
“However, foreigners invest a large amount of money in the exploitation of children.”
THE flow of people into the country seeking illicit sex with minors (adult prostitution is legal in Costa Rica) is motivated by the idea that they can do so with impunity because of a lack of Costa Rican law enforcement, she said.
However, “that is not true. It is more difficult here than in other Central American countries. The people who come here looking for (illegal) sex are mistaken,” Grillo said.
PAUL Chaves directs the sexual exploitation police unit in San José. Since 1999, it has operated with 10 officers, all based in the city.
By year’s end, he said, the unit should become a full agency with 60 to 70 officers operating nationwide specifically to combat sex abuse.
With $250,000 in U.S. government financial assistance and pending government approval, Chaves will begin recruiting, training, and outfitting the officers as the director of that agency.
The money is half of $500,000 donated by the United States last year to combat child sex exploitation in Costa Rica (TT, Feb. 28, 2003).
The other half, designated for prevention, will go to Costa Rica’s Child Welfare Office.
GRILLO said Paniamor also has been working with the Judicial Branch on a project to create a new information network for prosecutors around the country.
She said Paniamor will submit its plan to the Judicial Branch in May.
As of January, each province outside of San José created a new prosecutor’s office dedicated solely to sex crimes and family violence.
The proposed system, once approved, would permit shared information about cases and court rulings between prosecutor’s offices as well as Interpol and national police forces, Grillo said.
The system would register the victims, alleged or convicted sex offenders, and list the places where each crime took place in order to map places of higher risk.