While prostitution is legal for consenting adults in Costa Rica, child prostitution is not. This, however, has not stopped it from happening, and while authorities have stepped up their persecution of sex crimes against minors in recent years, Costa Rica continues to be a country of origin, destination and transit for the global child-sex trade.
Because of this, Paniamor, one of Costa Rica’s leading child-protection organizations, has launched a new campaign aimed at increasing awareness of the issue and encouraging would-be targets, mainly adolescent girls, to resist tempting offers of work or travel that could end in sexual exploitation.
The campaign is part of an ongoing program to strengthen the societal and institutional fight against the trafficking of minors for sexual purposes.
At a press conference Feb. 10, representatives from the Costa Rican government – and a representative from the Italian Embassy, which is helping fund the campaign – joined Paniamor Executive Director Milena Grillo in announcing the campaign.
“What we’re talking about… is all those behaviors that comprise the recruitment of boys, girls and adolescents, and the movement, transportation, sheltering and exploitation of these minors for sexual purposes,” Grillo said.
The campaign, entitled “Behind a Promise… Could be a Destination of Pain,” will hit radio and television airwaves next week, thanks to donated airplay from various stations. The television ad features adolescent girls encouraging other girls to reject offers of money or gifts in exchange for taking trips that could end up involving sexual exploitation.
The radio spot feature the same audio from the TV ad, produced by Esteban Ramírez, well known for his internationally distributed feature film “Caribe.”
In addition to the TV and radio ads, the Paniamor director unveiled three print ads that will be published on billboards, buses and as posters in various places around Costa Rica. One of the designs shows a passport and plane ticket sitting inside a cage. A second features two earrings dangling from a fishhook, and the final poster shows a mousetrap baited with a roll of dollar bills. All carried the slogan of the campaign, in Spanish.
According to María Teresa Guillén, a program coordinator with Paniamor, the buses that will carry the ads have yet to be decided, but will be chosen de pending on their routes so that the ads will have more exposure in areas that are at higher risk for exploitation and trade of minors.
The posters will also be located at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, northwest of San José, and at border crossings with Nicaragua and Panama. The border crossings will also feature the large billboards.
Minors given passports will also be given a bookmark with a short anecdote about “María,” who was promised work in another country, but upon arrival, had her passport and belongings taken from her and was forced into prostitution. The story, Guillén said, was true.
According to Grillo, the Paniamor director, the children and adolescents being trafficked in the child-sex trade are mostly girls, beginning at about age 12, and are exploited by men 30-40 years older than them.
“Like in other violent and sexual crimes, there exists a continuity of violence and the violation of their rights by their families and communities,” Grillo said, adding that most of the victims also come from situations of poverty and social exclusion, and are offered what they think is an opportunity to move up in the world.
Many of the victims, she said, “really are totally hostile to interventions by police or programs like ours because they feel that we are intervening, or interfering, in an opportunity to raise some money and get out of poverty and exclusion.”
Because of Costa Rica’s geographical position as a link between South and North America, and the high volume of tourism it receives, human traffickers see it as an “ideal” location for the trade of persons, including children for the purposes of sexual exploitation, she said.
Grillo criticized what she called the “notorious difference” between the number of people arrested and charged with sex crimes against children, and the number that actually end up being sentenced and put in prison.
To address this, the campaign runs in concert with the creation of a computerized system to track these types of cases starting when they enter the legal system in Costa Rica, to wherever they end.
In addition, the program includes special training for Costa Rica’s Immigration officials and border police, aimed at strengthening the officials’ ability to intervene in cases of child and adolescent sex trafficking.
“According to reports from international organizations, every year between 600,000 and 800,000 people are moved across international borders as victims of the trade of persons. Of those, 80% are women and girls, and 50% are minors,” said the Director of Costa Rica’s Immigration Administration, Johnny Marín. “The General Immigration Administration, today in the presentation of this campaign, renews its commitment as an active agent in the fight against the trade of minors for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, to put an end to this shadow that darkens so many lives.”
Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos, who also attended the launching of the campaign, agreed that Costa Rica is a country of high risk and high traffic of minors for prostitution. He added that, though Costa Rica’s laws regarding child prostitution and the trafficking of minors for sexual exploitation are “strong and adequate,” it is a difficult crime to track and persecute because the people and networks that run it have gone underground as police pressure has risen.
When asked whether the trade is increasing or decreasing in Costa Rica, he said he could not say.
“It is difficult to quantify these things because all of these activities are carried out in a very clandestine atmosphere,” he told The Tico Times. “But the important thing here is that the government, society and foundations are aware and willing to fight this.”
This Paniamor campaign is the most recent in the organization’s ongoing efforts to crack down on the sexual exploitation of minors in Costa Rica. In early 2004, the organization held special trainings for airport taxi drivers to heighten their awareness of child prostitution in the country and recruit them as a first line of defense against the crime, as many taxi drivers work as intermediaries between foreigners and others looking for child prostitutes and the providers of the service (TT, Jan. 30, 2004).
Police stepped up their efforts against the sexual abuse of children in 2005 with the Directorate of Special Investigation (DIE), a special sex crimes unit that has taken on the task of tracking down sex offenders with a renewed vigor unseen in recent history (TT, Dec. 2, 2005).