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USA: Child sex tourism crackdown

Publish Date: 22 Feb 2004

Tourists seeking sex with kids overseas targeted

Donna Leinwand
USA Today
Feb. 22, 2004

U.S. travelers who book trips to countries that are hot spots for child prostitution this month will begin to see ads, brochures and billboards warning that sexual adventures abroad could land them in prison in the United States.

The warnings, written and distributed by religious organizations, child-welfare groups and the federal government, are a sign of a new assault by the Bush administration on the international child sex trade. They also reflect a new law intended to catch U.S. residents who engage in or promote sex with children overseas.

'Sending a message'

"People assume they can go out of the country and get away with exploiting children in this horrific way," said Mike Garcia, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We're sending a message. We have the power to (arrest them), and we have the will."

In the past six months, U.S. authorities have arrested two men from Washington state who are accused of having sex in Cambodia with underage boys, and an 85-year-old Los Angeles man is accused of trying to fly to the Philippines for sex with two preteen girls.

Another man, Richard Schmidt, 61, of Baltimore, faces charges that he traveled to Cambodia and the Philippines for sex with children. An indictment unsealed Wednesday charges him with molesting eight boys. Schmidt, a former teacher, has been convicted three times of molesting children in the United States. He was released from prison in July 2000. Schmidt fled to the Philippines in June 2002 after Maryland authorities issued an arrest warrant for parole violations, U.S. Department of Justice officials said Wednesday.

Investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement have more than 20 other cases under way, including 11 American men who were arrested by Mexican authorities and are awaiting extradition.

The arrests were made under a child-protection law President Bush signed April 30. It includes a provision that U.S. law enforcement officials say gives them a new tool to prosecute hard-core pedophiles and "sex tourists" who want to engage in sex with children.

Although it had been illegal since 1986 to go abroad with the intent to have sex with someone younger than 18, prosecutors say the crime was difficult to prove in court. To get a conviction under the new law, prosecutors do not have to prove that U.S. residents left the country specifically to have illegal sex, only that they had illegal sex or tried to do so.

Sentences are doubled

The law doubles the penalties to a mandatory 30 years in prison for each offense. Authorities can use it to arrest owners of travel Web sites and travel agencies that promote sex tours or arrange for clients to have sex with children.

The law was a result of pressure on Bush and Congress from conservative religious groups to be more aggressive in fighting the sexual exploitation of children worldwide.

The administration has joined with religious groups to promote the crackdown. And it is getting help from groups with missions in countries where the sex trade is rampant.

Child-advocacy groups estimate that 2 million children worldwide are working in the sex trade. The Internet is rife with tour companies that pitch travel for legal prostitution and make veiled references to sex with children. There are chat rooms in which participants discuss the best locations to find the prettiest girls, cleanest rooms and cheapest prices. And the Web allows people to make arrangements to travel to countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Philippines, where child sex is plentiful and law enforcement has been lax.

One destination is Svay Pak, a small town about seven miles outside of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. There, about 30 ramshackle brothels line the streets.

Joe Mettimano, director of the child sex tourism prevention project for World Vision, an international Christian relief organization, visited Svay Pak last year.

"I got five feet down the dirt road and I was approached by a young boy asking if I want young girls. He said, 'I can get you 9, 10 years old,' " Mettimano says. For an hour, he observed men going in and out of the brothels. "You hear very distinct Australian, American and European accents."

World Vision is one of several organizations working with the U.S. government to devise pop-up ads on travel Web sites, posters and pamphlets in airports, and billboards in destination countries that warn of the new penalties. World Vision has received a $500,000 State Department grant for its part of the project.

'Sex tourists' targeted

Because hard-core pedophiles may not be deterred by the ads, they serve more as a warning to "sex tourists." These are the "businessmen and holiday travelers who see the sex trade happening all around them and decide to experiment," Mettimano said.

"Some of these men actually believe that when they go abroad it is acceptable and that they are helping poor people support their families," said Carol Smolenski, executive director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes USA.

"If you are really concerned about them, then just give them money and don't ask for sex."

Travelers who fail to heed the warnings could get nabbed overseas in a joint enforcement effort involving missionaries, social workers, local police and the federal government. Employees and members of charity and religious groups overseas watch for Americans who engage in sex with children. They will turn over names, photos and other evidence to local police, who can arrest offenders and turn them over for prosecution in the United States.