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Dominican Republic: Sun, sand & sex

Publish Date: 12 Sep 2004

Source: Winnipeg Sun, Sun Media
By: Jose Rodriguez

Sun, sand & sex

Just metres from the tropical resorts of the Dominican Republic, where unsuspecting tourists frolic in the sun and sand, children are being sold for sex to men from around the world -- including Canada. In a special series, Sun Media writer Jose Rodriguez and photographer Brendon Dlouhy go undercover and investigate the child prostitution problem plaguing the Dominican, the men who use them and the culture that allows its children to be sold to foreigners. By JOSE RODRIGUEZ, Sun Media

PUERTO PLATA, Dominican Republic -- It's being called Canada's Thailand. A pervert's paradise where children as young as 12 are being sold into prostitution -- usually by a family member looking to cash in on the pink-tanned turistas and their appetite for sun, sand and sex.

Many of the children in the sex trade here are used and abused by wealthy locals while a growing number serve as sex slaves for even wealthier foreigners.

They are sex tourists who spend more on a trip to the Caribbean than most Dominicans make in a year.

Among them, Canadians.

The Dominican Republic is a favourite tropical getaway for Canucks. Only Cuba and Mexico see more Canadians.

In 2003, some 319,000 came here for the picturesque beaches, sweltering heat and opulent all-inclusive resorts and left behind an estimated $315 million.

Some came for the girls.

'Bring friends'

"I love Canadians," says Raysa, a 17-year-old prostitute who's been working the beaches and discos in nearby Sosua for the past four years.

"They are very delicate -- and generous.

"If I had one message to send them, I'd tell them to keep visiting us, and to bring their friends," she adds with a child-like chuckle.

In this tropical island nation of 8.5 million, it is estimated more than 25,000 children are being exploited in the sex trade.

Most are between 12 and 17 years old and MAIS, a non-governmental agency working to stop child prostitution in the Dominican, says as many as 15% of them are HIV-positive.

"What we have here is the blatant and inexcusable abuse of children," says Maria Josefina Paulino, a founding member of MAIS.

"Foreigners come here and take advantage of the poverty. I have heard stories of Canadians and in particular one Canadian who lives in Boca Chica (a city on the country's south coast.) He offers the kids games and candy to come visit him at his house.

"It's sickening."

Life on the island centres around a lethal cocktail of crushing poverty, a robust tourism industry and a promiscuous existence.

Add horny old men to the mix and the combination is quickly putting the Dominican Republic high on the list of pedophiles and child rights activists around the globe.

In a country where those making $3 a day qualify as middle-class, a child who can earn $100 or more a night becomes the family cash cow.

The island is so poor, gas stations and strip malls are guarded by private security forces with shotguns for fear of robbery at the hands of the well-armed locals.

Until a recent national election, electricity was only available for about three hours a day because the government couldn't afford the bill.

Poverty permeates every part of Dominican society, so bartering in children, though highly illegal, often takes place with the complicity of authorities.

Buying sex from someone younger than 18 years old is classified as child abuse and contravenes numerous international agreements signed by Dominican legislators.

So the countless websites devoted to sex tourism in the Dominican are careful not to advertise ages.

Once on the island, it's a different story.

"The best thing to do is not to ask their age," jokes Ed Ortung, a 66-year-old retired piano salesman from New York, who once made the mistake of asking. The girl was 15. He had sex with her anyway.

Eddie, as he is known to the local clique of aging North Americans, has lived on the island for the past eight years and readily admits to having slept with hundreds of hookers including underage girls.

Girls 'used up' by age 13

"I'm leaving next month and I'm moving to Thailand," says Eddie, a Korean War vet.

"There's too much disrespect here now and the women are used up by the time they reach 13."

Seated across from Eddie on this sticky-hot tropical afternoon is Russ, the owner of T.J.'s Canadian bar on Puerto Plata's Long Beach, where the pair discuss life, love and libidos.

As the stories unfold of how beautiful and agreeable the island women are to older foreigners, prostitutes -- some underage -- weave between the patio tables at T.J.'s looking to strike up conversation and hopefully drum up business.

Russ, who asked that his last name not be used, has a massage table at the back of his bar where working girls can service their clients.

Like all other Canadians we encountered during the course of this story, the Kelowna native says he prefers girls over 18, but he has slept with at least one who was 16.

"Her father approved," says Russ, 53, who characterized the affair as a relationship in exchange for gifts and money as opposed to prostitution.

"I don't care what you think, what people in Canada think if I slept with a 16-year-old. Things are different here and the girls are more mature sexually at a younger age."

Legally, Russ may have run afoul of Canada's so-called sex tourism law, which targets Canadians who sexually abuse minors in foreign countries. But so far there have only been a handful of charges under the seven-year-old legislation and not a single case has passed the test of trial.

Besides, Russ really has no interest in returning home.

"I may get older, but my girlfriends never will," he jokes.

He says Canadian ex-pats in Puerto Plata are a boon to the locals.

"Those of us who live here, do a lot of good," he says.

Russ points to how he's become a foster parent of sorts for an eight-year-old local and helps out with her school fees.

He says many other Canadians do the same.

But he concedes if it wasn't for the beautiful, young and available 'chicas', Russ wouldn't be here.

Neither would many Germans, Italians, Dutch and Americans who now call the Dominican home.

Men old enough to be collecting pensions accompanied by girls too young to have finished high school are a common sight on the beaches and in the bars.

Although straight sex-for-money exchanges do happen here, much of the prostitution we encountered centres around longer-term relationships like Russ's.

Shacking up

As an example, an older tourist will shack up with a young girl for a week or two and she will be his girlfriend for the time he is in the country. She will expect her John to either pay for sex or buy her clothes and jewelry for the pleasure of her company.

Once he leaves, she will move on to the next tourist.

For many, foreigners are seen as a ticket off the island and a new life in a prosperous country. That seldom happens.

Coupled with the child prostitution problem, the Dominican Republic is also the world's fourth-largest exporter of adult women for the overseas sex trade.

Dominican women can be found working in brothels and underground sex houses all over Europe and Latin America.

It is estimated 50,000 have been illegally taken from the country to work in the sex trade. Many have children who remain at home to be raised by grandparents and some will inevitably fall into the same trap as their mothers.

Some see the day Christopher Columbus set foot on this island more than 500 years ago as a mixed blessing.

He brought old-world civility but some argue he also raped and pillaged this island's people.

Today, new explorers exploit the picturesque birthplace of the new world.

They bring prosperity and they prey on the people -- especially the young.  

© 2004 Sun Media