Stolen Innocence: Inside the Shady World of Child Sex Tourism

The tales of child victims of the sex tourism overseas are heartbreaking and disturbing, and as the international industry booms its legal effects are being felt right here in the United States.

In fact, North America accounts for a quarter of all child sex tourism around the globe, according to humanitarian experts.

This week a New Jersey millionaire goes on trial for allegedly recruiting destitute boys for sex meetings abroad, and a New York sex tour operator will be sentenced Wednesday to up to seven years in prison for promoting prostitution.

The multimillion dollar child sex tourism industry is supported by foreigners who travel to developing countries where widespread poverty and corrupt law enforcement foster an illicit environment in which they can have sex with children as young as 5 for as little as $5, often with little recourse, said Geoffrey Keele, a child protection spokesperson at UNICEF, the world's largest child care organization.

According to Department of Justice figures, child prostitutes serve between two and 30 clients per week, totaling 100 to 1,500 sex clients per child, per year.

But some sex tourists claim that far from abusing the children, they are helping to support them.

ABC News took a look into the shadowy world of desire and exploitation that authorities say victimizes about 2 million children every year.

The Secret Digital World of Child Sex Tourism

Tapping into child sex tourism is about as easy as going online, booking a flight and taking a taxi, said child protection experts.

Before even setting foot on foreign soil, "tourists" can surf the Web for everything they need to know about having sex with a child abroad.

Pedophiles, which make up a large group of the sex tourists that exploit children, mainly under 12, keep track of news articles that mention the locations of kids and schools in particularly poor areas. They then share their stories and plan sex tours, said Carol Smolenski, the executive director at ECPAT-USA, the U.S. branch of an international network that combats child sex tourism.

"This is about the purchase of child's body as a commodity, and the Internet just makes the sale even easier," she said.

Web sites provide pornographic accounts written by experienced child sex tourists and tour operators, including specific information about how to access a child prostitute and how much to spend.

One sex tour Web site advertised nights of sex "with two young Thai girls for the price of a tank of gas," said the Department of Justice.

Finding information on sex tours can be as easy as perusing the Web for a used couch or an apartment. Users of the online classifieds sites like Craigslist can log on and find listings for young prostitutes alongside numerous other items for sale, according to Ken Franzblau, the anti-trafficking campaign coordinator for Equality Now, an international human rights organization that works to promote and protect rights of women.

"Craigslist is becoming America's biggest pimp," Franzblau said. "Their users have posted listings of prostitutes for sale which can be found with a simple search."

Craigslist did not immediately respond with a comment.

A Deadly Destination

Even without prior research or help from an online sex tour company, the eager traveler can easily gather information about child prostitutes once arriving at a destination, experts said.

From the taxi driver who provides brochures and escorts the offender to a participating hotel, to the pimps and poor children lurking at the neighborhood bar, accessibility to child prostitutes is all too simple.

"Many child sex tourists actually think the sex is legal in the foreign country or seem to morally justify it. They don't even try to hide it," said Smolenski of ECPAC-USA.

The initial contact is sometimes made on the street, where a kid or agent will go up to "Western" guy and actually offer to sell sex with the child, she said.

Often, a middleman "recruiter" lures children into the sex industry by promising them jobs in a city and then forcing them into prostitution, wrote a Department of Justice spokesperson.

In impoverished areas, the uneducated children, mostly females, often must hustle money for their family or are kicked out into the streets. These children are sometimes prostituted out by their own families who are desperate for money, the Justice Department said.

A child sex tourist can also reel in wandering poor kids with "luxury goods" like video games and sneakers that poor children tend to view as status items, said Franzblau of Equality Now.

Profiling the Predator

The majority of child sex tourists are typically male professionals or mentally ill pedophiles from Western European nations, the United States and Canada, said Driss Temsamani, founder of SOS Morocco, a Morocco-based humanitarian agency. The offenders come from all different income brackets and career paths, he said.

Since the passage of the Protect Act, a 2003 law that criminalizes different types of child exploitation like child porn and sexual assault, even when committed in foreign countries, the tourist who travels with the intent to have sex with a minor and the one who decides to do it after he arrives both violate federal law.

Meanwhile, many sex tourists have claimed they are not abusing these children, many of whom contract HIV and suffer from severe psychological problems later in life, but actually are helping them by giving them money, said humanitarian experts.

According to the Department of Justice Web site, one retired U.S. school teacher said about his child sex tour, "I've had sex with a 14-year-old girl in Mexico and a 15-year-old in Colombia. I'm helping them financially. If they don't have sex with me, they may not have enough food. If someone has a problem with me doing this, let UNICEF feed them."

Child advocates are not convinced, saying this line of thought is merely justification.

"If they have the disposable income to buy sex, they have the disposable income to donate to a shelter or school to help keep kids away from prostitution," said Smolenski of ECPAT-USA.

Many children that fail to earn enough money are punished severely, often through beatings and starvation. Venereal diseases run rampant, and drug use and suicide are common for victims of child sexual exploitation, said the Department of Justice.

Global Efforts to Combat the Cycle

New Jersey millionaire Anthony Bianchi began his trial in Philadelphia federal court Monday for allegedly violating the Protect Act by sexually assaulting nearly a dozen minors on foreign soil. Bianchi has pleaded not guilty, and faces up to 180 years imprisonment for his multiple counts.

Eight teenage boys have been flown in from Trebujeni, Moldova, and will likely face cross examination from defense attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented such notable clients as Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson.

Geragos said that Bianchi simply befriended the boys. He argued that his client is the victim of blackmail and extortion by villagers, and that his translator and alleged pimp confessed only after Moldovan police had tortured him, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"While he was there, Mr. Bianchi was a benefactor for a large number of people in the village, young and old, male and female," Geragos said in a filing quoted in the Inquirer. "He provided money for food, medical care and transportation to much of the village."

Geragos unsuccessfully tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that while the U.S. government had paid to bring the Moldovan boys to Philadelphia, Bianchi had been unable to compel or pay for defense witnesses to attend the trial, according to the Inquirer.

Distance Makes Prosecutions Difficult

Smolenski of ECPAT agreed that defending and prosecuting clients in cases like Bianchi's is complicated and expensive because lawyers often have to collect evidence in another country and fly foreign witnesses into the United States.

Another problem is that many of the tour operators and middlemen don't know or ask the ages of their prostitutes, which even the children themselves don't always know, said Franzblau.

Despite these difficulties, there have been 55 child sex tourism cases and 36 convictions brought under the Protect Act, according to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' 2006 trafficking report. 

Private industry and Internet service providers are working with law enforcement to shut down pedophile ring chat rooms, while financial groups and coalitions are monitoring to make sure credit cards aren't being used to pay for child pornography, said Amy O'Neill Richard of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the Department of State.

According to the U.S. government, 32 countries have laws that allow them to join the global movement to prosecute their citizens who engage in child sex tourism abroad.

NGOs have been encouraging travel agencies like hotels, airlines and tour operators to sign a "code of conduct" to commit to training staff and advertising the illegality of sex tourism, said Richard. Since 2004, more than 600 companies around the world have joined the efforts.

Temsamani of SOS Morocco also said he's been planning a 2008 benefit concert for the African country to boost the economy with "healthy" dollars.

Advocates encourage good Samaritans to report U.S. citizen suspects abroad to the nearest U.S. Embassy and Consulate. The State Department said that if you are at home and overhear or see suspicious online behavior, call 1-866-DHS2ICE, a reporting tip hotline.

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