Richard Casper always looked a little out of place among the brothel owners and escort-service managers who run Costa Rica's partly legalized prostitution industry. The slender, long-haired American had the disheveled appearance of an aging gringo hippie when he moved to the capital city of San Jose in the early s, but he soon got into a business that had nothing to do with free love. He opened a cathouse called the BBC and later launched an online escort service called "Costa Rica Nights" that supposedly offered only hookers 18 years of age or older.
But street-legal, adult sex may not have been the only commodity that Casper was purveying over the Internet. At the time of his capture, police also seized more than pornographic photos of underage girls that Casper was allegedly distributing with the help of Italian and Costa Rican business partners. He has denied the charges--but if convicted, Casper will face up to 16 years in prison for aggravated pimping and producing child pornography. The discovery of an international kiddie-porn ring was the first case of its kind in Costa Rica and reinforced its growing reputation as a haven for pedophiles.
Renowned for its democratic traditions, unspoiled beaches and lush nature reserves, Costa Rica has come to rival Thailand and the Philippines as one of the world's leading destinations for sex tourism.
Thousands of American and European men flock there each year to live out their erotic fantasies, lured by salacious Internet Web sites that promise them the carnal adventure of a lifetime. But among these law-abiding johns is an unknown number of foreigners who take advantage of Costa Rica's anything-goes moral climate to seek out child prostitutes--and their ranks sometimes include sex offenders with criminal records in their own countries.
But that message isn't getting through. Stung by negative press reports, the Costa Rican attorney general opened a special prosecutor's office for sex crimes two years ago at the urging of President Miguel Angel Rodriguez, and the government launched a publicity campaign warning citizens and visitors alike of its resolve to crack down on the sexual exploitation of children. That didn't seem to deter Edwin Charles O'Malley, a year-old American who was put on probation for two years by a Florida court in after he was found guilty of lewd and lascivious conduct with a juvenile.
O'Malley was arrested in the Costa Rican town of Atenas last August on charges of having sex with four boys ranging in age from 9 to 12 years old. He has pleaded innocent to charges of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, which collectively carry a maximum year prison sentence. O'Malley is one of at least 14 foreigners who have been arrested for sexual offenses involving children since February but to date only five suspects have been convicted. Costa Rica isn't the only Third World country that is grappling with a plague of sexual predators arriving from distant shores.
Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and, until recently, Cuba have become well-known sex-tourism venues, and child prostitution has soared in Vietnam since Philippine and Thai authorities began a concerted drive to curb its practice. Earlier this year Indian authorities in Mumbai formally accused a Swiss couple in their late 50s of producing child pornography over a year period by luring minors from the city's slums with money and gifts in exchange for performing sexual acts in front of a camera. But Costa Rica's permissive moral climate and alleged foot-dragging by local officials have focused special attention on the Central American country.
The possession of child pornography is still legal in Costa Rica, and until recently a first-time adult offender could avoid trial on statutory-rape charges if he agreed to marry the teenaged victim.
Harris of Casa Alianza accuses Costa Rican officials of trying to downplay the sexual exploitation of children in order to preserve a robust tourism industry that draws upwards of a million foreigners each year. The mood among officials in San Jose has turned angry and defensive of late. Some have attacked the messenger and accused Harris of exaggerating the incidence of child prostitution as a way of generating publicity and fresh funding for Casa Alianza, the Latin American affiliate of the New York-based child-welfare organization Covenant House.
Others have targeted the news media: after a U. Costa Rican officials point to the arrests of more than three dozen suspected sex offenders made by special prosecutor Liliam Gomez and legislative reforms that make it easier to indict adult clients of child prostitutes.
That estimate is hard to believe. A survey of four San Jose neighborhoods by the United Nations' International Labor Organization identified at least under-age prostitutes in , and it isn't hard to spot the child hookers who prowl the seedy sidewalks of downtown San Jose. On a Saturday night last fall, Liliana loitered on a notorious street corner with her friend Stefani on the lookout for "clients" with a taste for teenybopper sex.
Liliana and Stefani are living proof of the challenge facing any effort to completely eradicate child prostitution in the foreseeable future. But we're also very ambitious and we want the money. Weekly magazine, delivered Daily Newsletter Website access.