Executive Branch Prioritizes Child Porn Law

February 23, 2007

A new United Nations report criticizes Costa Rica’s “insufficient institutions,” lack of funds, resources, social will, laws and enforcement to tackle the growing problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children here.

After the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child handed over a draft of the austere report to the Child Welfare Office (PANI) earlier this month, the Arias administration jumped to revive legislation proposed years ago that would punish those in possession of child pornography.

This week, President Oscar Arias teamed up with visiting pop star Ricky Martin to announce a new ad campaign against human trafficking and exploitation (see separate article).

“Jail is the only place for those seeking to exploit society’s most defenseless,” Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother, said in a statement last week announcing the bill’s inclusion in the Executive Branch’s agenda sent to the Legislative Assembly.

PANI president Mario Víquez held a press conference after receiving the unedited report to note its “positive observations.”

The U.N. committee commended Costa Rica for having created a special sex crimes unit and for passing laws to combat sex crimes and trafficking.

The U.N. report came the same week Austrian authorities dismantled an international child pornography ring that spanned more than 77 countries, including Costa Rica, and involved more than 2,000 suspects.

Interpol agents are investigating the case in coordination with Austrian authorities, though no one has been arrested in the case in Costa Rica, according to Interpol official Mercedes Quesada.

Víquez celebrated the fact that since the law to crack down on producers of child pornography was passed, cases have been opened against more than 20 suspects.Asked how many of these cases have led to conviction, however, he had no answer.

“PANI has presented criminal complaints, but we don’t know the results,” he told The Tico Times.

Statistics from the Judicial Branch show only one man has been convicted under the 8-year-old law – a problem the U.N. committee points out in the report. The Tico Times obtained a copy of the unedited report from PANI’s press office.

“The committee is concerned about the growing availability of child pornography on the Internet and other evolving technologies and that a certain degree of impunity continues to exist for crimes … committed through the Internet,” the report reads.

The report chided Costa Rica for a lack of information, “insufficient institutions,” and too little resources to crack down on sex crimes here. It accuses Costa Rican society of having a “wide tolerance” for sex crimes, and says “the practice of purchasing sexual services from children is still socially acceptable, especially among men.”

The report also criticizes Costa Rican adoption policies for playing into the hands of sex offenders. International adoptions of Costa Rican children based on direct consent among the parties can by-pass the Child Welfare Office. Víquez said PANI recommends a reform to close loopholes in the law and give child welfare officials authority over all adoptions.

“The answer isn’t only penalizing (offenders); that’s just part of it,” said former legislator Gloria Valerín, who drafted the proposal the Arias administration sent to the assembly last week. She explained that the proposal would punish those in possession of child pornography with jail sentences ranging from six months to two years.

Minister Arias said members of six of the eight political parties in the assembly back the initiative, and he expects it to move quickly through the assembly.

Fighting Sex Crimes

Child pornography is the latest battlefront in a nearly decade-long offensive against the growing problem of sex crimes in Costa Rica.

The country’s sex crimes unit expanded from a seven-man police team in 1999 to 120 officers in the Directorate of Special Investigations (DIE), created in January 2005 (TT, Dec. 2, 2005). Sex crime cases have since doubled to nearly 6,000 cases per year, according to Judicial Branch statistics. In 2005, just over 10% of those ended in convictions.

In 2003, under the administration of ex-President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), officer Paul Chávez was appointed to head the DIE.

The move appeared to represent a shift in Costa Rica’s official policy on sex crimes, previously characterized by ex-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez’s infamous denial that problems with the sexual exploitation of children exist in Costa Rica.

The Rodríguez administration (1998-2002) also focused on attacking Bruce Harris, former head of the now-defunct Costa Rican chapter of Casa Alianza, a Central American children’s rights defense group associated with the U.S. nonprofit child welfare advocacy group Covenant House (TT, Dec. 22, 2000). Harris stepped down from his post after admitting he paid for sexual favors from a 19-year-old male Honduran prostitute and former Casa Alianza client (TT, Sept. 24, 2004).

Last year, the Public Education Ministry drew heat for having unsuspectingly hired several convicted child molesters (TT,March 3, 2006). Also, a recent U.S. state department report chided Costa Rica for a lack of information and laws to prevent sex trafficking (TT, Aug. 18, 2006).

Complicating matters, last year Chávez was transferred from the DIE as the unit was restructured by new Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal so as to not overlap with duties of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) (TT, July 28, 2006).

Forging Ahead

Víquez’s expansive office in San José’s Barrio Luján is framed by the giant painting hanging on the wall behind his desk of a child worker in tattered clothes, newspaper under his arm, head slumped.

PANI, one of two institutions sanctioned by the Constitution along with the Social Security System (Caja), receives 16,000 emergency calls and attends more than 300 victims of sexual commercial exploitation a year, according to Víquez, who was PANI director in 1996.

Víquez mentions yet more proposed laws that don’t seem to be moving fast enough: PANI is helping develop legislation to require Internet providers to block child pornography, and there’s a proposal in the assembly to punish Ticos who engage in sex tourism outside of Costa Rica.

He says he’s not sure if there will be enough support in the assembly to crack down on child pornography users, because in the ethical debate over child pornography, some think users – unlike producers, for example – aren’t directly victimizing anyone.

“We believe there is a victim. The victim is the image of minors,” he said.

 

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