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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - The two little girls, arms folded across their chests to ward off the unseasonable chill of the night, eyed the pair of tall gringo men speculatively, then offered tentative smiles. You look like you might want to buy something. Meet Stephanie, 12, and Ivette, 13, two members of a fast-growing Costa Rican work force: child prostitutes. The country that prides itself as Latin America's most stable democracy and the inventor of ecotourism is becoming the hemisphere's best-known playground for pedophiles.
Every night, as many as 2, underage prostitutes walk the streets of San Jose or cater to more affluent clients behind the walls of stately homes converted into brothels in the city's best neighborhoods. Other children take off their clothes to pose for lewd pictures that will be passed around the Internet - which, until last year, wasn't even a crime in Costa Rica. The problem has been developing for years. In , the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm, Sweden, issued a report noting that Costa Rica was becoming an important center for child prostitution, but the government's failure to act has generated increased international scrutiny.
Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report saying it was "deeply concerned at the high incidence of commercial sexual exploitation of children in Costa Rica. The boom in child sex is being fed from outside, by tough new laws in the United States that target pedophiles; a crackdown in Asia, the traditional child-sex capital of the world; and the Internet, which has made it easier for pedophiles to swap information.
It is the ugliest corner of a much larger sex-tourism industry that, authorities acknowledge, is bolstered not only by bit players such as taxi drivers and travel agencies, but also by pillars of the Costa Rican economy, such as large hotels owned by U. And it has exposed what some social workers say is an embarrassing secret: that children have long been sexual playthings here, and not just for foreigners.
Eighteenth-century documents show that complaints of sexual abuse of children reached the Spanish Inquisition. And a U. For much too long, social workers say, this society has looked the other way as children are victimized by the adults who are supposed to protect them. Maybe it was true 10 years ago, but it's not now. Costa Rica is finding it hard to support the welfare state it built when foreign aid rolled in as regularly as the tide. The result is increasing poverty more than 27 percent of the population and disintegrating families - 41 percent of all children are born to single mothers.