The Latin American children’s rights advocacygroup Casa Alianza will close its operationsin Costa Rica next week, drawing the curtain onan award-winning legacy of service in defense ofexploited children here.Its U.S.-based parent organization, CovenantHouse, made the announcement this week.Since Casa Alianza opened its doors here a decadeago, it has championed the rights of street children, participatedin criminal investigations of suspectedpedophiles and underage prostitution rings, pressuredgovernment officials into action and doggedly publicizedcountless issues affecting the country’s underage victims.The organization’s regional director, Bruce Harris,was fired in September following accusations he paidfor sex from a 19-year old Honduran man (TT, Sept.24). Though Harris was responsible for opening theCosta Rican office that served as the Casa Alianza headquartersa decade ago, Covenant House’s statementabout the closure made no mention of him.SISTER Tricia Cruise, president of Covenant House, said the funds that were used tomaintain Costa Rican operations will bechanneled into the organization’s otherprojects in Honduras, Guatemala,Nicaragua and Mexico.“This was a difficult decision, giventhe incredibly hard work performed by thestaff members of the Costa Rican office,”Cruise said. “Covenant House is gratefulfor their service and their dedication.’’Covenant House spokesman RichardHirsch said this is not the beginning of theend of Casa Alianza.“There are absolutely no plans to closeany of our four child-care facilities inLatin America,” he said.The agency’s advocacy work for childrenwill continue uninterrupted in thecountries where it has operations, Hirschexplained, especially in Guatemala andHonduras, where it has made its mostnotable efforts. The Costa Rican branchdid not provide shelters for children, butall other Central American and Mexicanfacilities do, a fact that “adds significanceto this work,” Hirsch said.COSTA Rica’s Child Welfare Office(PANI) Minister Rosalía Gil told The TicoTimes that four Casa Alianza officialshave requested permission from her andCovenant House to create an independentfoundation in Costa Rica dedicated toworking with children.The new organization would pick upthe loose ends of the more than 1,271 formallyregistered complaints and accusationsagainst suspected pedophiles, lack ofgovernment action and other issues onwhich Casa Alianza Costa Rica had keptwatch, Gil said.“They don’t want to throw away all thework of Casa Alianza,” Gil said. “We wantto see their proposal.”“It seems important that if there arestill many complaints registered, and thesepeople want to follow through with them,they should be able to do so,” she said.HIRSCH said Covenant House is“supportive of what they want to do, wishesthem well,” and has agreed to supplythem with information they requested.The four, whose names were notreleased, could take on the formidable taskof continuing the organization’shigh-profileinvolvement in bringingjustice topedophiles and pressuringgovernmentofficials to take action.“I think CasaAlianza made anextreme amount ofcontributions to thiscountry, especiallywith the processing offormal complaints andthe follow-up on thosecomplaints in theJudicial Branch. They contributed to makingsure there was no impunity for abusersand exploiters of children,” Gil said.HARRIS and his organization beganmaking headlines in the mid-1990s inCosta Rica with their protests of the H.B.Fuller Corporation, a leading supplier ofglue that street children in Costa Rica andthroughout Central America used to sniffand drug themselves (TT, Feb. 10, 1995).Casa Alianza was the first institution topush for the creation of a Sexual CrimesProsecuting Office, which was establishedin 1998, a Casa Alianza representative toldThe Tico Times. The organization alsodonated computers and video cameras toofficials of the office, and allowed theunderfunded special police unit assignedto root out pimps and pedophiles to use itsfax machine. Harris also taught the officersto find sex tourist hot spots and underageprostitutes using the Internet (TT,March 12, 1999).Casa Alianza made important strides inforcing the issue of child prostitution outof hiding and into publicdiscourse.IN the late 1990s,then-President MiguelÁngel Rodríguez downplayedthe extent of theproblem of underageprostitution and childrenon the streets, andhis administration saidthe number of sexuallyexploited minors wasinsignificant.Meanwhile, thedaily La Nación andother institutions reported that in 100 SanJosé brothels, there were children asyoung as 10.Casa Alianza helped focus the internationalmedia spotlight on the country’sgrowing problem with sex tourism andunderage prostitution. Harris worked withproducers of U.S. TV channel ABC’s program20/20 on a segment that chronicledthe issue in Costa Rica in December 2000.After the broadcast, President Rodríguezwaged a personal war against Harris,calling him an enemy of the state andclaiming there were only 20-30 underagehookers in Costa Rica (TT, Dec.21, 2000).That figure sparked months of debate, criticscalling the numbers much higher, andall the while drawing more public attentionto the problem.HARRIS also filed a criminal lawsuit against PANI in 2002 (then under adifferent director) for dropping the fundmanagement ball and letting theSalvation Army homeless children’sshelter in San José close for lack of funding(TT, March 1, 2002). The closureforced 150 children back onto the streets(TT, Sept. 21, 2001).When President Abel Pacheco tookoffice, he reversed the trends of his predecessorand worked closely with CasaAlianza and revamped PANI (TT, Nov.22, 2002).Together, Casa Alianza and PANIstudied the street children problem andpublished a report stating there were anestimated 1,500 children on the streets ofCosta Rica.Through Casa Alianza’s efforts,Costa Rica became the first LatinAmerican country to prosecute a ring ofpedophiles (TT, Dec. 6, 2002). The selfdubbedAssociation of AnonymousPedophiles of Costa Rica, five CostaRican men, were arrested in a police raidafter a seven-month investigation carriedout by the Casa Alianza and the SecurityMinistry’s special sex crimes unit (TT,July 13, 2001).During their trial, Casa Alianza’schief investigator Rocío Rodríguez gavekey testimony against the ring, whichlead to stiff prison sentences, and shereceived countless death threats by telephonedemanding she stay quiet (TT,Nov. 29, 2002).AFTER the murder of 8-year-oldKattia Vanessa González, Casa Alianzacollected nearly 1.5 million signatures ona petition to the Legislative Assemblycalling for tougher child-protection laws(TT, Aug. 1, 2003). The trial of the manaccused of killing the girl and buryingher under the floorboards of his homebegan this week (see separate story).This year, the organization’s effortshave been instrumental in the captureand extradition to Costa Rica of U.S. citizenArthur Kanev (TT, April 30). Kanevwas sentenced last month to 16 years inprison for providing drugs to minors (TT,Oct. 29)Casa Alianza also instigated themedia outcry against sex tourism and agroup of U.S. sportsfishermen called“the Michigan Boys,” and the rings ofillegally organized prostitutes whoallegedly served them (TT, May, 28).THE organization won the $1 millionConrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in2000, an annual award to an organizationthat makes extraordinary contributionstoward alleviating human suffering (TT,Oct. 20, 2000). Harris used the money toopen a shelter for street kids in Managua,Nicaragua (TT, Nov. 10, 2000).That was just one among many nationaland international awards the organizationwon over the years.Harris, at last report living in Miamiand cooperating with a Honduran investigationinto his encounter with theHonduran man, had served as CasaAlianza’s Latin American director for 15years, during which time he and the organizationare credited with having helpedtens of thousands of children in Mexicoand Central America (TT, Oct. 8).
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