The week after police arrested the mayor of Aguirre for the second time in less than a month on charges that he used public cash to make sex videos with underage girls, members of the central Pacific beach community of Quepos and Manuel Antonio gathered to demonstrate against the effects of sexual violence and exploitation.
The Forum Against Violence Aguirre 2012 included a forum cataloguing the long-term effects on victims of violence and abuse and the communities they inhabit. The Rahab Foundation, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking, moderated the forum, which was sponsored by the Association for Prevention, Security and Peace in the Aguirre Canton (COPAZA).
A march followed, and some 300 participants, many dressed in white, filed through the street and stopped by the National Police office.
“The issue now isn’t so much what happens with the mayor,” said Boris Marchegiani, president of the COPAZA board of directors, referring to erstwhile Aguirre Mayor Lutgardo Bolaños, a National Liberation Party (PLN) politician who became mayor in February 2011. “The big problem here is getting together to fight against violence and sexual abuse,” Marchegiani said.
Statistics provided by COPAZA show that three out of 10 children in Aguirre are abused at home. The grim result of that, Marchegiani said, is that 70 percent of those abused kids end up with serious alcohol and drug addiction problems later in life.
The Mayor Police
Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) agents first arrested Bolaños on Dec. 21, when raids of his office and home turned up hundreds of CDs containing pornographic videos depicting sex acts with underage girls, and according to the OIJ reports that outlined the raids, similar videos were discovered on his personal computer. Bolaños’ driver was also arrested that day.
OIJ reports indicated the men were being charged with child pornography and embezzlement after allegedly touring the country in municipal cars and using municipal cash to hire young girls to perform in pornographic films.
The men bonded out of jail the next day, but OIJ agents re-arrested them on Jan. 12 after, according to a second OIJ report, agents talked to three new alleged victims between the ages of 14 and 15. Three other suspects also were arrested at that time, including Jimmy Acuña, a bar owner, Vilma Campos, a woman accused of recruiting girls for the films, and Reymundo Herrera, a municipal employee, according to an OIJ spokeswoman. The OIJ report accompanying those arrests describes the suspects as “a band organized for the goal of human trafficking.”
The next day, the suspects walked out of jail on “preventive measures,” according to court officials in Aguirre and Parrita. Preventive measures mean that members of the alleged human-trafficking gang are free to roam the streets, but may not approach their alleged victims or leave the country, and they must register with the court every two weeks.
The United Nations estimates conservatively that there are about 2.5 million victims of human trafficking across the globe at any given time. In 79 percent of human trafficking cases the motive is sexual exploitation – forced prostitution or rape – with women and girls making up the bulk of victims.
In 2011, the U.S. State Department added Costa Rica to its human trafficking tier-2 watch list. Criteria for being included in the tier-2 watch list is lack of an overall increase in effort on the part of Costa Rican authorities to stop human trafficking. Other countries on the tier-2 watch list include Kosovo, Gabon, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the six other Central American countries.
In Costa Rica’s case, a U.S. Embassy source explained, there has been a failure to condemn or prosecute human traffickers and to maintain specialized services or shelter for trafficking victims, as well as only limited efforts to raise public awareness of the issue.
The Pacific province of Puntarenas – home to Quepos, where Bolaños was mayor, and Costa Rica’s famous Manuel Antonio National Park – is specifically mentioned as a destination for national and international child sex tourism in the State Department’s 2011 report on Costa Rica.
Being on the tier-2 watch list, as opposed to the third tier, indicates that in the eyes of the U.S., a country is at least attempting to conform to the minimum requirements of the U.S. Congress’ Trafficking Victim Protection Act, which requires the U.S. Secretary of State to report to Congress annually on countries’ efforts to stamp out the crime. Countries on the tier-3 watch list are viewed as making little or no efforts to fight trafficking and can face restrictions in the receipt of aid from the United States.
Countries that remain on the tier-2 watch list for two or more consecutive years may be automatically downgraded to the tier-3 list.
In order for Costa Rica to move off the tier-2 list, it must strengthen efforts to investigate, prosecute, convict and punish trafficking offenders, according to the State Department report.
In November 2011, the U.S. government donated $200,000 to the Rahab Foundation to help the victims of human trafficking. Anne S. Andrew, U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, called human trafficking “a grave violation of human rights” when she presented the donation.
A bill that would strengthen prosecutorial ability and bolster punishments in cases of human trafficking was presented to the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly in 2011 and will likely be debated sometime this year.
“Above all, with commercial sexual exploitation, which is a form of sexual abuse because there are economic factors, unfortunately there is a very high level of tolerance from [victims’] families and from society toward abusers, [and] often blame is placed on the victim,” Eugenia Salazar, Costa Rica prosecutor for sex crimes and domestic abuse, told The Tico Times.
Salazar said victims of commercial sexual exploitation seem to fit that category and are often viewed as participating willingly in forced prostitution or other forms of exploitation because society assumes they “like that life or they like the easy way.”
“In terms of sexual tourism by foreigners, there are also domestic tourists who look for minors to abuse in that context, as well as foreigners who come in search of that,” she said.
The OIJ report issued the day of Bolaños’ first arrest on Dec. 21 states that Bolaños “allegedly rented cars for supposed tours where it seems he recruited girls in vulnerable locations like Los Guido, Pavas, La Carpio, Desamparados, Coronado, Pérez Zeledón, Quepos and Golfito,” areas of Costa Rica known to have high rates of poverty.
Salazar touched on a similar theme in her interview with The Tico Times, saying, “The abuser knows where weaknesses are and has mechanisms to get close to victims. How many underage girls prostitute themselves to buy a cellphone or to have brand-name things, [or] to buy a pair of jeans that are the latest fashion?”
Accusations, Resolutions and Lingering Effects
“I stayed 36 years with pain inside me,” said Marchegiani, a hotel manager, sexual abuse survivor and recovering drug and alcohol addict. “When I came into a recovery program, which I’ve been in for 13 years, I found my answer. … Very few of us have been lucky enough to be able to get away from the anger, the fear, the lack of self-esteem and self-worth that abuse causes.”
You don’t have to look far to see the effects of abuse in Aguirre, Marchegiani said.
“The results are very simple,” he said. “When you walk down the street, you see people living on the street and you wonder why they dropped out of society. The effects are very dramatic, people who can’t trust their family or the people around them drop out. That’s where the desire to continue abusing others comes from, to abuse drugs or alcohol, theft, murder; it goes all the way up the scale.”
The mayor’s case will work its way through the Costa Rica courts, but in the meantime Marchegiani said he hopes to form a committee, with support from the U.N. and other foreign and domestic agencies, to try and address issues of abuse and human trafficking and their effects on individuals.
Some business and hotel owners in the Quepos and Manuel Antonio area, which hosts a thriving tourism industry, have called on the PLN for Bolaños’ ouster.
Alvaro Emilio Castro is the president of the PLN’s ethics tribunal. He said that until court proceedings take their course in this case, there’s little the tribunal can do, unless someone presents evidence to the tribunal on which it can make a decision about Bolaños’ ethics.
“There are two situations in which the tribunal can act,” Castro said. “One, if he is accused and the courts arrive at a conviction. The other is for someone, maybe a hotel owner or resident of the area, to present themselves at the tribunal and say ‘I will serve as a witness’ and present us evidence. In that case, we don’t have to wait for a resolution in the courts to start our own proceedings.”
Castro reiterated that no verdict has been rendered in Bolaños’ case.
“We can’t do anything without proof,” he said. “If someone presents us with evidence that this man is a good Liberacionista or a bad Liberacionista, then we can make a decision that corresponds to the evidence.”
If Bolaños is found guilty in a court of law, or if the PLN ethics tribunal rules against him based on evidence presented to them, he could face suspensions of up to eight years from the party or life-long expulsion.
The acting mayor of Aguirre, Isabel León, was scheduled to attend Wednesday night’s community meeting, but did not arrive. At press time her office did not respond to phone calls from The Tico Times for comment.