Aug. 17, 2006 -- The arrest of 41-year-old John Karr on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child sexual assault in the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey has shined a harsh spotlight on the country where he apparently resided -- Thailand, which has long seen as a destination country for pedophile sex tourists.
Karr was already being held in Bangkok on unrelated sex charges. He apparently disappeared from the United States in 2001, after he was released from jail, where he'd been held on child pornography charges.
Thailand has a reputation for engaging in one of the largest child sex trade operations in Southeast Asia. UNICEF estimates the number of Thai children involved in prostitution to be between 60,000 and 200,000, though the organization says the exact number is difficult to track.
The U.S Department of Justice said the growing popularity of the very profitable child sex tourism trade contributes to the problem. A Thai organization called FACE, the coalition to Fight Against Child Exploitation, claimed that 5,000 foreigners come to Thailand each year to have sex with children.
The organization described the average sex tourist as a middle-aged white male from either Europe or North America who often goes online to find the "best deals." One particular Web site promised "nights of sex with two young Thai girls for the price of a tank of gas."
Sowmia Nair, a Department of Justice agent, said the Thai government often "turns a blind eye" to child sex tourism because of the country's economic reliance on the tourist trade in general. He also said police officers are often corrupt.
"Police have been known to guard brothels and even procure children for prostitution," Nair said. "Some police directly exploit the children themselves."
A report from the International Bureau for Children's Rights said the majority of child prostitutes come from poor families in northern Thailand, referred to as the "hill tribes." With limited economic opportunities and bleak financial circumstances, these families, out of desperation, give their children to "recruiters," who promise them jobs in the city and then force the children into prostitution. Sometimes families themselves even prostitute their children or sell them into the sex trade for a minuscule sum of money.
The children live in appalling conditions, according to the report, and in constant fear of beatings by both clients and pimps. The report said that prostitutes as young as 10 years old can service up to 30 clients a week. They often suffer from numerous sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
The Europeans and Americans who go to Southeast Asia as "sex tourists" often rationalize having sex with children with the idea that "they are helping the children financially better themselves and their families," Nair said. "Paying a child for his or her services allows a tourist to avoid guilt by convincing himself he is helping the child and the child's family to escape economic hardship."
The Department of Justice Web site lists an excerpt from an interview with an anonymous, retired U.S. schoolteacher who wrote on a child sex tourism Web site, "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."
Other tourists try to justify their behavior by believing children in foreign countries are less "sexually inhibited." Nair said tourists convince themselves "those countries don't have the same social taboos against having sex with children."
Both the the Justice Department and UNICEF said many countries in Southeast Asia have passed laws criminalizing the sexual exploitation of children. And they point to the recent high profile case of aging British rocker Gary Glitter, who in June was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to three years in prison. He was found guilty of committing obscene acts with girls ages 10 and 11 at his rented seaside villa in southern Vietnam.
"This case sends a strong message to child sex offenders around the world that society will not tolerate any form of sexual violence and exploitation of children," said Carmen Madrinan, the executive director of the Bangkok-based child protection group ECPAT International.
About 20 Americans accused of illicit sexual conduct with children in foreign places have been prosecuted under the 2003 U.S. Child Protection Act, which helps law enforcement track sexual predators across international borders.
But UNICEF said that's a small number, and until more foreign pedophiles see that there are consequences for their action, they will continue to flock to Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia to have sex with children in relative anonymity and protection from the law.