Costa Rica unveiled a new campaign to fight against sex tourism this week, a website titled "Unforgettable Costa Rica" which promises a truly unforgettable experience for anyone seeking to have sex with minors while in Costa Rica.
The website, a collaboration between the Costa Rican Tourism Ministry and the PANIAMOR Foundation, has been seeded throughout the internet in the past few months. Undercover officials with both organizations have promoted the website on various dating websites and forums, using fake accounts to entice would-be pedophiles into visiting the web page with promises of "the youngest girls."
PANIAMOR, a children's rights and advocacy group, stated that this activity was performed on a site-by-site basis, with posts and messages inviting individuals who expressed interest in sex tourism to come to Costa Rica.
"The goal is to inform as many people as possible that engaging in sexual relations with people under 18 is a crime in Costa Rica," PANIAMOR's Executive Director, Milena Grillo, told The Tico Times.
The page itself seems legitimate at first, with a bright pink splash screen and gold lettering promising an "Unforgettable" experience in a Costa Rican resort.
"If you're looking for young girls in Costa Rica," the site reads, "This is the place, and you can stay for free. Have a peek."
The bottom right even has an availability checker, where you can submit your check-in and check-out dates.
The navigation bar includes what you'd expect; accommodations, dining & nightlife, spa & wellness, reviews, even a page titled "meet the girls." As soon as you navigate away from the main page however, the site logs your IP address and issues a "greeting" based on your location.
"Hi there in United States, greetings from Costa Rica," the warning reads, it goes on to detail which laws one would violate in both Costa Rica and the United States for participating in sex tourism.
This feature, site administrators say, is one of the most troubling and informative. The site has received hits from over 100 different countries, data which PANIAMOR intends to use to profile sexual predators in its other online ventures.
"This is actually a very troubling statistic, as it shows that interest in sex with underage people spreads worldwide," said Costa Rica's Vice President Ana Helena Chacon.
Child prostitution has been a huge problem for Costa Rica, one that has proven difficult to uproot, but this and other initiatives have made some progress in recent years."It's a multigenerational problem. Mom and grandma may have been prostituted and so they don't see anything wrong with selling their daughters," says Dana Nuesca, executive director of a program called Seeds of Hope, which operates after-school clubhouses in some of Costa Rica's poorest neighborhoods.
"It's a very poor country and women don't have a lot of value in the culture, except for sex, so it's not seen as a horrible thing," she told the San Diego Tribune.
Costa Rica is one of many hotbeds for sex tourism, but Nuesca's program has seen some progress by taking a different approach than most NGOs. First, they tried to open a shelter for underage prostitutes, but it was too expensive to maintain, and didn't address the problem's root cause: attitudes toward child prostitution in poor neighborhoods, where it's seen as just a fact of life.
"We realized these girls wanted to be home with their moms no matter how dysfunctional the relationship might be, so we closed the shelter and opened the first clubhouse instead," Nuesca said.
The group doesn't take child sex workers away from their homes, or pressure government agencies to put the kids in foster care, rather they've set up clubhouses and shelters for children in very poor neighborhoods. The children aren't asked if they've been exploited, but if they want to talk about their experiences and seek help through the organization, they're encouraged to do so.
[Images via PANIAMOR]