U.S. out of step with Costa Rican reality on human trafficking

The U.S. ambassador said Wednesday that she is well aware that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. She disputed a contrary statement attributed to her in a news story that appeared in the morning’s edition of A.M. Costa Rica.

The ambassador, Ann S. Andrew, delivered her comments through Eric Turner, a press officer at the embassy in San José. He said the ambassador was concerned that either she might have misspoken or been misquoted in saying that prostitution is illegal in Costa Rica.

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The comments were to a reporter at a presentation of a $200,000 grant to the Fundación Rahab, an organization that helps former prostitutes enter the normal workforce.

A.M. Costa Rica stands by the story, but the ambassador could have been talking about human trafficking, which certainly can be illegal.

As A.M. Costa Rica has reported in the past, U.S. officials and even Costa Rican law enforcement officers lump human trafficking activities together.

Human trafficking, under the U.S. definition, includes forced labor, slavery and a couple of Colombian girls who prostitute themselves in Costa Rica seeking a better life.

Costa Rican law does not square with the U.S. concept. The Costa Rican prohibitions in the 2009 immigration law basically cover transporting illegal immigrants. The law says nothing about prostitution. A 2009 criminal law would penalize anyone who promotes prostitution or helps a prostitute enter or leave Costa Rica. But the law covers many other crimes, including slavery, forced labor, begging and extraction of human organs.

Said the U.S. State Department in its 2011 human trafficking report:

“Costa Rican women and children are subjected to sex trafficking within the country, and residents of the north and central Pacific coast zones are particularly vulnerable to internal trafficking. Women and girls from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries have been identified in Costa Rica as victims of sex trafficking and forced domestic service.”

Nowhere in the report does the State Department mention that prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. Consequently, prostitutes are characterized as victims, and Costa Rica is admonished for not having shelters for trafficking victims.

Clearly, State Department workers have little experience in learning about the facts of Costa Rican prostitution. The bulk of the prostitutes in Costa Rica are here willingly. Many began this type of work when they were underage, and some have been urged into this life by a parent.

That is not to say the life is not a tough one. One Russian woman died at unknown hands, but the killers are presumed to be part of an Eastern European criminal organization. Her expat sometimes boyfriend believes she was killed for free-lancing. There are other tales of foreign women being beaten for trying to run out on persons who profit from their work.

More often than not, however, the foreign prostitutes are sending money home and are living in overcrowded conditions to save cash.

A.M. Costa Rica has documented the case of two Dominican prostitutes who said they got visas in their home country through bribery and who said they paid the outstanding half of the bribe to a person who answered a back door at the Costa Rican immigration agency. The U.S. State Department would characterize them as trafficking victims even though they trafficked themselves.

The State Department says that child sex tourism is a serious problem, particularly in the provinces of Guanacaste, Limón, Puntarenas and San Jose. That view is opposite to that held by many expats who fear contact with underage women. They are continually warned about the possible penalties.

A recent conviction involved an expat who was accused of having sexual contact with an underage woman in a center for prostitution a short walk from the judicial buildings in San José.  He presumed that only women over 18 were working in the establishment. The case has other complexities and is under appeal.

The State Department placed Costa Rica on what is called Tier Two watch list for human trafficking. And Costa Rica continues to make efforts to appease U.S. evaluators.

Still, a typical human trafficking case involves a couple of bus drivers found to have a load of illegal Nicaragua immigrants on a back road in Guanacaste.

Clearly, the basic question is can participating in a legal activity, prostitution, be promoted to human trafficking? And if prostitution is legal, why does not the U.S. government adjust its perceptions?

According to Mariliana Morales, director of Fundación Rahab: “Prostitution is practiced and is accepted here, especially since it has become part of ordinary culture in Costa Rica.”

The U.S. State Department has yet to accept that point of view.

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