20/20: Americans Enable Child Prostitution Abroad

Late on a Monday night, driving the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica, 15-year-old Juliana agreed to talk on camera about her life as a teenage prostitute — and about the Americans who pay her about $20 for sex in cars and hotels.

Some nights she can make $100, a small fortune to a runaway.

Juliana fled an abusive home when she was only 12. When 20/20 met her in the spring of 2000, Juliana was eight months pregnant and working as a prostitute. The baby's father is a police officer married to another woman.

Juliana's story captures the moral and economic scope of the problem of child sexual abuse and prostitution in Costa Rica. Poverty and domestic violence drive children into the streets to sell their bodies; American tourist dollars give them economic incentive to stay there.

Costa Rica's street scene for child prostitution is part of its highly organized sex industry. Prostitution over the age of 18 is legal, and downtown San Jose bustles with scores of sex bars, strip clubs and escort services.

Carnal tour guides, who are mostly American, meet clients at the airport and show them the ropes. There is even a barber shop where you can get a haircut and then have sex with your stylist.

Small wonder then that teenagers and children have found a niche in this sex market.

Operation Caters to Americans

In recent years, the Costa Rican government has been pressed to crack down on the institutions that peddle sex with minors. A notorious pimp, Tony "Max" Castillo, who ran a lucrative brothel with teenage girls for 18 years, was convicted and jailed. But that did not shut down his business.

Castillo and his American wife, Sharon, built the thriving business in one of their San Jose homes. An American flag served as a sign post for clients. Three years ago, child welfare advocate Bruce Harris filmed inside the Castillo brothel with a hidden camera. That tape helped to convict Tony Castillo, who is now in prison. Though Sharon was also charged, she fled Costa Rica for the United States.

The Costa Rican government's highly publicized conviction proved to be a largely superficial solution to the problem of teenage prostitution. Acting on a tip that the operation was still active, 20/20 reporters posed as American businessmen and called a cell phone number Tony Castillo had used for clients. After a lengthy interrogation, a woman named Maritza agreed to a meeting.

"We have to be extra careful because the ABC show 'Tonight/Tonight' is investigating us," Maritza said in Spanish at a San Jose restaurant.

Maritza was referring to 20/20 because she had been warned by Sharon Castillo who had been confronted by an ABCNEWS reporter in Arizona.

Over beer and ceviche, Maritza told 20/20 about the Castillo operation and her own role.

She said she was recruited by Sharon Castillo to work in the brothel when she was a teenager, lured by the promise of good money and protection. The girls lived in the house, where the tyrannical Tony would lord over them, inspect their bodies and "train" them to pleasure customers.

During the meeting with 20/20, Maritza received a telephone call from Tony Castillo from La Reforma prison. Tony gave her permission to proceed in arranging service for her businesman clients.

Maritza explained that Tony paid off prison officials so he could continue to run the business using his mobile phone. "If you have enough money in Costa Rica, you can do anything," she said.

Ultimately, Maritza agreed to deliver two minors for sex. The price would be $300 each, higher than usual, she said, due to the increased risks associated with the police crackdown on underage prostitution. The girls, she said, would be 15 years old and very pretty, and the money would have to be paid directly to Maritza without ever telling the girls the price.

Maritza, who worked as a prostitute for the Castillos for 10 years, became their principal agent when Tony was incarcerated and Sharon fled the country. Now, she was the one doing the recruiting, finding young girls to bring into the life. "The Castillos," she said, "had been very good to her."

Glimmer of Hope

Shelters for recovering underage prostitutes are full of girls like the ones who worked for Maritza and the Castillos. The combination of vulnerable children fending for themselves in Costa Rica, and thousands of American men with lots of dollars and little sympathy to spend pierces this country's image of prosperity.

On 20/20's last day in Costa Rica, our team decided to take up a small collection for one of the children's shelters in San Jose. A dozen giggling girls, with bright hopeful faces, gathered around us to say thanks and goodbye. Some held dolls in their hands. One carried an 8 1/2-month-old fetus in her womb. It was Juliana who had found her way to help.