Sex tourists under fire in Tijuana

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

UNION-TRIBUNE

January 2, 2006

TIJUANA – A nonprofit group based in the United States is sponsoring a
campaign of advertisements and billboards across Tijuana that targets
foreign visitors looking for sex with children.

Messages, written in big letters in English and smaller ones in Spanish,
are direct: “Exploit a child sexually in this country and you will go to
jail in yours.” A man behind bars appears in a photo.

Another ad, bearing the sad face of a child with dark hair and eyes,
reads: “I am not a tourist attraction and it’s against the law to turn me
into one.”

In all, eight billboards and 80 smaller ads have gone up in areas heavily
traveled by tourists, such as near the San Ysidro and the Otay Mesa
border crossings, Avenida RevoluciÓn and the Zona Norte. They also are in
Rosarito.

“We know that the majority of the abusers come from abroad,” said Miriam
HernÁndez, coordinator of the campaign, which was organized by World
Vision International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to improve the
quality of life of children.

Advertisement “The foreigners, most of whom come from the United States,
go to other countries to commit these crimes because they believe that
once they leave Mexico, nothing will happen to them. We are telling them
that’s not going to be the case anymore.”

The campaign, which began in late November and will last a year, has the
support of the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana, the Tijuana City
Council and the Human Rights Commission of Baja California.

Marisa Ugarte is director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a
nonprofit that works with law enforcement agencies on both sides of the
border to help exploited children and women. She said that under laws
approved in the United States last year, Americans suspected of
committing sexual crimes against a child in countries such as Mexico can
face prosecution back home.

Michael Scollan, assistant agent for regional security at the U.S.
Consulate in Tijuana, said that complaints from Mexican authorities to
the consulate will be forwarded to U.S. law enforcement agencies for
investigation. A suspect could be charged in the United States or
extradited and charged in Mexico, he said.

He said several cases of pedophiles and “sexual tourists” are under
investigation, but declined to give details.

There are no statistics on the number of minors engaged in prostitution
in Tijuana, but Victor Clark Alfaro, a human rights activist in the
region, estimates that 8,000 children live in Tijuana’s streets.

“This makes Tijuana a fertile ground for child molesters and pedophiles,”
he said. “Children face challenges because they are more vulnerable and
cannot defend themselves.”

MarÍa Elvira Amaya de Hank, the wife of Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon and
president of the government’s family protection agency, which also in
participating in the billboard campaign, said that children who engage in
prostitution range in age “from 6 to 17 years. Eighty percent are males
and the rest are females.”

“Most are from Tijuana, the children of migrant parents who abandoned
them when they crossed to the United States,” she said. “The majority are
the children of single mothers.” All are from families with problems, she
said.

It is common that in exchange for a plate of food or a toy, a child will
sell his body, campaign coordinator HernÁndez said.

The Center for the Social Protection of Children is a temporary shelter
for children who live on the streets and those who have engaged in
prostitution.

Government officials say most of the homeless children have not finished
elementary school and suffer from malnutrition, skin infections,
gastrointestinal problems and sexually transmitted diseases.

This year, six children were found to be infected with HIV.

The homeless children roam the streets in areas with the most economic,
commercial and tourist activity.

HernÁndez said Tijuana has a toll-free phone number, 075, that people can
use to report adults who are sexually exploiting children.

“For this type of campaign to work, we must all participate,” she said.

© Copyright 2005 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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