Purita swears she doesn’t work for “a glorified escort service.”
“This is not that acceptable yet,” she said of her profession. She works at Spanish Eyes, an “introduction agency” based in Escazú, west of San José.
When the 59-year-old grandmother answers the phone, her voice is sexual, erotic. Banking off the globalization of love, international matchmaking and marriage services such as Spanish Eyes have been working throughout the developing world for years, posting on the Internet photos of exotic women from which men around the world can take their pick.
“We change peoples’ lives. The girls improve their circumstances. Men are mostly looking for a woman, or want to start a family,” said Spanish Eyes owner and manager Tom Sweeney. The U.S. businessman said most of his company’s male clients are older, divorced men from the United States and Europe who generally have established careers, grown children, and are looking for “the youth and vitality that comes with a younger woman.”He said most of the women are low-income single mothers in their 20s who want a better life for them and their children.
Unlike domestic dating businesses, which offer services to both sexes, foreign marriage brokers do not typically target U.S. women seeking a spouse abroad.
The foreign marriage broker market is now budding in Costa Rica with a handful of agencies advertising their services. The industry has already boomed in places like Russia, Colombia and Thailand, and some 500 matchmaking agencies operate worldwide to bring North American men and foreign women together, according to the U.S. State Department. An estimated 6,000 unions a year result from these connections, and according to the State Department, last longer than the average U.S. marriage.
According to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, more than 30,000 women have entered the United States through international marriage brokers since 1999.
Despite the industry’s success worldwide, businesses like Sweeney’s struggle with the general assumption that international matchmaking agencies aren’t much different than international escort services. Internet scams are rife, and because some applicants are seeking something beyond a date, agencies that target U.S. clients are obligated by the U.S. government to keep an eye out for clients who might be bad apples.
In Costa Rica, the land of value-added tourism, foreign men contact matchmaking agencies to arrange a vacation in Costa Rica that includes dates with potential partners and organized singles parties.
Spanish Eyes, for instance, charges $895 for a week-long introductory tour to Costa Rica. After that, membership starts at $695 per year, and includes free translation services, the privilege of attending monthly singles parties and the chance to meet potential spouses one on one.
Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides acknowledged that matchmaking agencies bring foreigners to Costa Rica, and this puts money into the economy, but he is nevertheless reluctant to endorse the sprouting industry.
“It’s not tourism… It’s not the type of business that the government is going to promote,” he told The Tico Times.
Benavides said he has nothing against marriage agencies, and said the companies’ clients have “valid motivations” if they are seeking out “transparent” relationships “based on values.”
However, he personally wouldn’t seek out a “serious relationship” via the Internet or advertisements, he added.
And the fact of the matter is, not everyone who contacts Spanish Eyes is looking for a “serious relationship.”
“It’s obvious from some e-mails that they’re looking for a glorified escort service,” said Purita, who insists she uses only her first name.
Sweeney said 50 new subscribers a week get his company’s newsletter, and hundreds of e-mail inquiries flood in each day.
“Some of them are sick people,” he said. “Some think that because they paid to be a member, they deserve sex on the first date.”
His business, like others, struggles with the reputation it gets in part because of the very key to its success: the Internet. A Google search of the company brings up its Web site as well as a slew of other sites for “erotic vacations” and sex tourism – another booming industry in Costa Rica in which men from the United States and Europe come here on vacation and seek out prostitutes.
Purita said the company used to advertise in The Tico Times, but received so many calls from men and women looking for escort services that they pulled the ad. Some are not surprised.
“It would be difficult to think it’s not prostitution,” said National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) executive director Alberto López, of marriage agencies operating here.
Despite the reputation and unsolicited calls, “Costa Rica is a lot more than just sex tourism,” Purita says, adding she protects her clients like a mother would a son or daughter.
“I tell (men) you will respect my girls. They are not ladies of accompaniment, they are not free-for-alls, they are not prostitutes,” she said.
Purita, a bilingual Texas native who translates between clients as a sort of crosscultural, Irish-style matchmaker, lives and works with Sweeney, a former Burger King marketer from Michigan.
Before meeting Sweeney, Purita had been working at what she called a “scammer investment and dating service.” (Scams are another pitfall of the business. On the Internet, there are entire Web pages warning men of the perils of wedding agency scams.
One site dedicated to Russian scams has an extensive “blacklist” of agencies and women who are alleged scammers).
Sweeney and Purita are their own bosses and the only employees of Spanish Eyes. Despite the fact they go by the motto “small is better,” they’re now constantly flooded with applications, and they’ve married some 50 couples, many of whose portraits hang on the wall of their Escazú office.
In the United States, the first federal law to regulate foreign dating services involving U.S. citizens was passed last year requiring international matchmaking agency clients to submit any criminal history they have before getting in touch with a potential foreign mate, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services.
The law was proposed in the wake of two high-profile murder cases in which U.S. residents were charged with violently murdering their Eastern European mail-order wives, and after a slew of domestic violence cases involving couples who met through international marriage brokers.
Though Costa Rica has no specific laws regulating marriage agencies, the U.S. law applies to international matchmaking agencies, and Sweeney says he checks the criminal backgrounds of all his male clients.
Like Spanish Eyes, A Foreign Affair, an Arizona-based marriage agency operating in Costa Rica, provides legal services to help clients process fiancée visa applications.
As many as 30 women apply to A Foreign Affair every week, according to the company’s Costa Rica Manager Gustavo González, who works out of the San José office. The company charges male clients $1,300 for a week-long “Romance tour” to Costa Rica, in which men are given the chance to meet as many as 2,000 women in a single week. The company, which claims to be the world’s largest introduction service, also has offices throughout the developing world in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Because of the large supply of female applicants, the company can be choosy.
Company screeners reject most of the women who apply, mostly based on looks, González told The Tico Times while flipping through a two-inch stack of applications.
The files had beauty photos clipped to the front with information about the women, including their weight, measurements and number of children.
Though the potential to grow is there, Sweeney said he is trying to keep Spanish Eyes small, because that’s how he and Purita like it.
Sweeney came to Costa Rica fleeing one culture for what he perceived to be the advantage of another.
“It’s difficult to start a family with a younger girl in the United States,” said Sweeney, 67, who now dates 24-year-old Alba, a single mother.
The divorced businessman from Florida said many of his male clients are U.S. citizens or foreigners who have become disillusioned with the single male scene at places such as the Hotel Del Rey, a hotel-casino in downtown San José known as a place to meet prostitutes.
So he puts them in touch with Purita, who isn’t just a liaison between two sexes, but between two cultures.
“The women are looking for someone a little more open, not as machista, someone more faithful, more respectful, more active, that actively pursue their marriages.
Whether or not it’s true, this is the reputation that North Americans have,” she said.
On a recent afternoon, Purita sat talking on the phone in Sweeney’s living room with five empty tables that fill up once a month at the company’s parties in which the man-to woman ratio is as much as one-to-five.
Her curly gray locks dangled over the cordless phone as she spoke.
“Nelly is absolutely adorable. She’s a sleeper.
She’s only been on the site a week,” she said, trying to provoke one of her male customer’s interest in one of her female clients.
“Helping someone find the right person really is a wonderful thing – touching someone’s life at a personal level,” she said.