What do you think of when you think of Costa Rica? For most people, visions of volcanoes, zip lining, exotic animals and rain forests are the first things that come to mind. But there is another reason to travel to Costa Rica that a certain segment of visitors don't disclose. Sex tourism is a large attraction for some people traveling to Costa Rica; prostitution is legal and individuals travel there to buy sex on a regular basis. Sex tours fueled by tourist dollars are becoming more popular and children are available for varying prices.
It came to my attention that the first safe house for trafficked children is being opened in Costa Rica by Maria Fejervary, founder of the nonprofit Salvando Corazones. Fejervary went on a family vacation to Costa Rica seven years ago and a disturbing sign greeted her at the airport. It read: "Dear Tourist, In Costa Rica sex with children under 18 is a serious crime. Should you engage in it, we will drive you to jail." She and her children found this not only odd but upsetting.
Beyond all of the beauty that her family saw as they vacationed, they also witnessed symptoms of a child trafficking epidemic that left them shaken:
I lived in Redwood city, my job for 28 years was running my own daycare business. I have always been a single mom my whole life. I have four children, two of which were adopted from Russia. I love kids. I knew I needed to go down there and find a way to help. I wanted to open a safe house, but how do you do that?
She then sold her house, shipped her things to Costa Rica and boarded a plane to find out.
More and more children are being bought in the sex trade in Costa Rica and the age range is truly frightening.
I met a 14-year-old boy on my second trip. He was filthy and in this drug-infested area. This boy was out on the road and we picked him up in a taxi. Once he got in, he looked at me and said, 'Well, where's the man?' I said there was no man and he said, 'I don't have sex with women, only men.'
Fejervary took him to a nearby hotel where she left him alone to shower and bought him some new clothes. This boy was clearly confused as to what her intentions were, since sex with him wasn't going to happen. Fejervary wanted to know his story and the story of others.
This child was kicked out by his family at age 11, because it cost too much for his family to feed him. The boy learned quickly that he could prostitute himself in order to eat and endless men were ready and willing to pay him to do that. He lived on the side of the road in between large plants: "He parted some plants and there were blankets on the ground. That is where his home is and he told me, "This is where I am, when I'm not in a hotel room with a man" says Fejervary. She continues:
Kids are forced out and sold by their parents or mistreated at home and run away. One in three kids are sexually abused and when they approached PANI (Child Protective Services) they were unable to help because there were no facilities in which to place them.
It's not just Costa Rican children that are trafficked within Costa Rica. Children from Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, Asia, Russia and even North America are being trafficked in Costa Rica.
Fejervary gave an example of an American child survivor:
We just had a girl trafficked from the United States at 14. Her abuse started at 5 years old by her father. He then brought her to Costa Rica and shared her with brothers, uncles and other family members. When she was around 16, she decided to get paid for it, since her family was constantly raping her. It's nothing she would normally choose to do, but it's all she has known since she was 5 years old.
As Fejervary explains, most child prostitutes succumb to prostitution by the age of 12 and incest is one of the main reasons for this occurrence.
Fejervary also believes this wouldn't be as lucrative of a business if it wasn't for the American tourists visiting Costa Rica specifically there to have sex with children:
Americans and Costa Ricans found a way to organize and incorporate this as a tourist activity for gringos, offering them sex tours when they come down. If the Americans weren't there, the problem wouldn't be as bad as it is right now.
In listening to her speak, it is clear that there is a sick supply and demand, fueled predominately by American dollars.
Now, Fejervary understands the problem is more complex than that:
Not all tourists come here with the intention of having sex with children. There is drinking, gambling and all the drugs you want in Costa Rica. It's like the Disneyland of everything, so imagine that you're totally wasted, having fun and you're flirting with all these 18 to 22-year-olds. A guy approaches and says, 'Yeah, they're hot, but I can get you something hotter and younger.' They get caught up in, 'Well, if Im doing it with an 18-year-old, what's wrong with a 16-year-old?' and they get younger and younger.
Local and federal law enforcement does not help. There is so much corruption in Costa Rica, it is hard to implement laws. The PANI fired quite a few employees for having child pornography on their computers. They've also fired people for having sex with the children in their care. Last year, the mayor of Capos was arrested twice and released twice for having videos of child pornography and having sex with kids. The corruption is everywhere.
Fejervary went from going to Costa Rica knowing no one, to having the first facility that's licensed, by all government agencies. She continues:
They licensed the home that we have for 18 beds. We developed a full program of home schooling and integration process. They get schooling, housing and a lot of love and support. They get counseling everyday, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, psychotherapy and yoga. There is a daily schedule set out for them, mandatory computer skills, english skills, hygiene, sex education, how do you take care of your body, what your rights are with your body... We also want to integrate a parenting class, because this country does not have courses on basic parenting skills. So many children in this country are parents themselves. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to see a 14 or 15-year-old pregnant or with a child.
Salvando Corazones is looking for a second house and more exposure to the issue:
We want more safe houses for the children when they seek help, due to being trafficked or sexually abused. If people continue to think that prostitution is something that children choose, that's not empowerment and that's certainly not a choice. We need to change how the country views prostitution and change the laws of it, so attitudes change and the exploitation of children happens less and less. Poverty creates this problem. When parents have to sell their kids because they can't feed them, we have a problem.