Tijuana child sex reported to UN

8000 street children vulnerable

— A shocking report from the United Nations claims Tijuana is the child-abuse capital of Mexico. And San Diego is part part of the problem.

The report, delivered last week in Geneva to the 54th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, says Tijuana's commercial sexual exploitation of children is worse than that of Mexico City and that key border officials seem to be ignoring the problem.

Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, a position the U.N. Human Rights Commission created in 1990, was appointed to look into the commercial sexual exploitation of children worldwide. She visited Mexico last November, including stops at Mexico City, Jalapa, Cancún, Ciudad Juárez, and Tijuana.

Her report makes it clear Tijuana has the most "widespread" and officially ignored child-abuse problem in the country.

There are "approximately 8000 street children" in Tijuana, Calcetas-Santos says in her 43-page report. "The Special Rapporteur...had the opportunity to personally observe the widespread and very visible presence of children in prostitution in the streets of Tijuana. [I] was particularly concerned that Tijuana, with a population of only 2 million, has a city center with as many minors engaged in selling sexual services as those in Mexico City, which...has a population of 20 million."

Calcetas-Santos reserved the strongest criticism in her report for Tijuana customs authorities. Her conversation with a customs representative, she said, left her "seriously disturbed."

"The [representative] displayed a complete lack of sensitivity to the problems and potential dangers related to commercial sexual exploitation of children across the United States-Mexican border. Despite confirmed reports that the largest ever child pornography ring, which had been operated by an American citizen out of Acapulco in 1995, had been uncovered by a successful customs control operation by Tijuana authorities, the customs representative claimed not to be aware of the possible existence of any activities involving commercial sexual exploitation of children through customs at Tijuana."

Calcetas-Santos believes the situation in Tijuana is "far more serious and threatening to children" than that in Ciudad Juárez, another border town she studied. "Commercial sexual exploitation of children in Tijuana not only is very visible but exists on a much larger scale in proportion to the population. Drug addiction appears to be one of the main causes for children getting ensnared in the sex trade. The proliferation and availability of drugs in the city poses serious problems, not only for adults but also for children."

Part of Tijuana's problem is its freebooting reputation. "As distinguished from Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana's main attractions, according to the Ministry of Tourism, are cheap drinks and food, the availability of alcohol and sex, which attracts a certain profile of tourists. Most visitors come from across the border, often only for the day or the evening, to spend all the money they have and to have as much fun as possible during their short visit.... Solo travelers, as well as single-sex groups, prevail as the largest group of visitors. In addition to a continuous influx of tourism, Tijuana also has a large migratory population from within the country, as well as deported migrants from the United States of America.... It is therefore not surprising that Tijuana faces a serious challenge in the widespread existence of commercial exploitation of children."

Calcetas-Santos says not all children cross the border under duress. But the risks facing them once they reach here are fearsome. "Migrant minors who cross the borders between Mexico and the U.S.A., looking for adventure or for work, are particularly at risk of being sexually exploited: they are from 7 to 17 years, with the majority being between 12 to 14 years old; most children cross the borders illegally, sometimes simply by running very fast past the border guards and mostly voluntarily.... The Special Rapporteur was also informed that street children, both boys and girls, have been observed to wait at the roadsides on border crossings, on the Mexican side, offering sexual services and drugs to anyone interested."

While she was in Tijuana, Calcetas-Santos says she received reports of street children or children of migrant families being abducted by strangers for the purposes of smuggling them across the border for child prostitution.

Calcetas-Santos talks with respect of the Beta police, Mexico's specialized security patrol for the protection of migrants. Prior to their formation in 1990, she says, "migrants had been subject to countless abuse and [cases of] exploitation, including physical and sexual abuse, rape, torture, beatings and bribery by polleros (illegal crossing guides), no-man's-land criminal gangs, and by border authorities themselves.

"[Beta] uncovered an organized-crime ring based in a hotel in Tijuana which has been involved in trafficking children illegally across the border to San Diego with the help of a pollera. The Special Rapporteur also heard allegations that polleros have been known to operate brothels in Tijuana where they lure street children and migrant minors who have no one to turn to into providing sexual services."

Some kids may travel north of their own accord "to see Disneyland," but Calcetas-Santos says much illicit child migration is organized by adults. "In addition to children in prostitution in Balboa Park in San Diego, consular authorities [at Mexico's San Diego consulate] were aware of child prostitution rings stretching from the border to Sacramento and Fresno," she says in her report.

Calcetas-Santos, a Filipino lawyer, says her investigations revealed that methods of child recruitment did not vary much from one Mexican state to another. "With the exception of street children, the presence of loosely organized networks and 'standard' recruitment methods of children are disconcerting. They are systematically lured from rural areas and from their home environment under false pretenses to cities where they are left to the mercy of middlemen. The Special Rapporteur is also concerned about reports relating to the participation of law-enforcement authorities assisting in the creation of a climate of impunity encouraging the more organized networks to operate."

Calcetas-Santos says efforts to save the children in Tijuana are brave but mostly inadequate. She says Tijuana social services started a program for street kids only two months before her visit. "[They] seemed already to have established successful links with a number of non-governmental organizations working with street children." Yet, she says, one of the most effective private programs, MECED (Menores En Circunstancias Especialmente Dificiles, Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances) "is not as strongly supported, both politically and financially, by the municipal [social services for children] as it should be."

Officials in denial are the big problem. "Serious attention has to be given to sensitization of the law-enforcement authorities. The alleged involvement of some law enforcers in abuses against children...deserves urgent measures. The Special Rapporteur was concerned when she was informed that the preventive police in Tijuana does not consider child prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children to be an issue in Tijuana. [She] was [also] disappointed with the defensive and closed attitude by most of the tourism, immigration, and customs officials, who appear to be still in the stage of denial of the existence of the problem."

"I see no reason to single out one particular agency," says Gilberto Luna, the consul in charge of protection of Mexican citizens at the San Diego consulate. "I'm not sure whether the Mexican authorities consider this an issue or not. Training should be ongoing for all agencies involved. Here, we deal with migrant children. As for child exploitation, abuse, sexual exploitation, we don't deal with that very frequently here. Not on this side."

Luna is at the center of a group involving the consulate, Tijuana and San Diego County social services and private children's organizations, and representatives from the Mexican immigration office to help repatriate children to Mexico.

And, Luna says, we need to remember that Tijuana is a special case. "Tijuana is a place where the immigration phenomenon is at its height, and we have so many migrants coming and going from all over the country. So there may be some problems in Tijuana that are more [acute] than in any other place in Mexico."

So what is San Diego doing to help? Calcetas-Santos says a little, but not enough. "Following the discovery, in 1992, of a child prostitution ring involving 100 Mexican children [operating in Balboa Park] in San Diego, a coalition was created in 1993 bringing together all public agencies, including law enforcement officials, working with children on the Mexican and United States sides, to strategize with regard to combating the problem. Unfortunately, due to financial difficulties, the coalition has not been very active. The effectiveness of the coalition was hindered by a disagreement over the core objective: law enforcement officials wanted to eradicate the problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children by driving away the children, whilst other actors wanted to ensure that children victims were brought into rehabilitation."

That analysis is pretty accurate, according to Caterina Tabacco Sanguinetti, one of the San Diego social workers Calcetas-Santos interviewed last November. "Maybe there are some personalities that may have had differences," says Tabacco, who is also liaison officer for the Border Project for Minors with the Consulate. "You have people who are liberal, then you have [law enforcement] people who have different views."

But Tabacco, whose job is to find, help, and return Mexican runaways to their families in Mexico, says that the organization fell apart mainly because its reason for being started, the Balboa Park prostitution ring, was successfully smashed.

"Now we have a mini-version of this coalition," she says. "But not with law enforcement or a district attorney here in San Diego. We have a monthly meeting [with Luna's group at the consulate]. There is no financial backing."

She says the border situation is better now than the bad old days of 1992, but by no means fixed. She is aware of prostitution rings bringing children from Mexico through San Diego to Hollywood, San Francisco, and even Canada.

Officer John Graham of the San Diego Police Department remembers it a little differently. "I don't recall any conflict [between police and social workers] when I was attending the meetings," says Graham, who was Community Relations Officer in Balboa Park at the time of the 1992 child-prostitution crisis. "[After initial difficulties placing the kids] the Mexican government stepped in and said, 'When you run across a "transborder," contact us and we'll handle it.' It worked okay."

One of Calcetas-Santos's most moving moments, she says, was at a non-governmental home for former street children in Colonia Libertad called MERAC (Menores En Recuperación), run by adults who are former addicts. "[I] was infinitely touched by the experiences they have had to endure," she says of the 150 children who gathered around her and told her their stories. "Some children spoke about their experiences on the street where they had been sexually abused. Over 50 percent of the children at MERAC, boys and girls, have been exploited sexually for commercial purposes.... As a result, HIV/AIDS-infection rate is also very high amongst these children."

Calceta-Santos's report has already made its mark in Geneva and has been published in many papers in Mexico. "Sexual exploitation of children," she said recently, "is considered a kind of slavery. Yet it is worse than most kinds of slavery. It is...the most contemptible violation of human rights possible."

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