Teenage prostitution a way of life in Guatemala

“I only wanted to be a child, and they didn’t let me.”

— Twirling her reddish hair from a bottle, the child sticks a tiny braid in her mouth.

She smacks gum.

She hasn’t lost the baby fat in her cheeks but the little girl is gone from her eyes.

“Sometimes it made me sick,” mumbles the 14-year-old from Honduras, recalling her oldest client — a 54-year-old man — at the brothel where she worked.

Her cheeks flush red. She looks to the floor. Wearing hip-hugging jeans, her legs start to sway back and forth. She fidgets at the memory.

“I felt bad. I didn’t want to do it,” she says, putting a red and white bead necklace in her mouth and sucking on it.

Scared and alone, the 14-year-old was trapped in prostitution.

The girl’s name isn’t being published because she is a victim of sexual exploitation.

While U.S. authorities try to crack criminal networks funneling trafficking victims from Guatemala to North America, nonprofit and governmental agencies in Guatemala are waging battles against human trafficking in their own country.

They’re trying to rescue girls like this.

Children are among the tidal flow of people coming from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

Final destination: the U.S.A.

Minors doctor their identifications to bump back their birth dates so they can move across borders alone, experts say, or hook up with smugglers to sneak them into the United States. Children can slip into the hands of traffickers who promise them legitimate work in Guatemala City, or even more alluring — a gig in the United States.

They can end up as slaves, bound in the sex trade.

Adventure was the lure in this 14-year-old’s case.

The prospect of a road trip to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, lured the girl to join two older women who approached her with the offer to travel.

The women — 23 and 18 — told the girl and her mother the girl could visit her grandfather. They got her mother’s blessing. After all, the 14-year-old was just one of 16 children in her family.

When they reached the border of Honduras and Guatemala, one of the older girls had sex with a border agent to allow them to cross. The act got them free passes across the border.

The 14-year-old wasn’t expecting to leave Honduras.

“They didn’t tell me anything,” she said.

Once they arrived at Guatemala City, the women and the girl went directly to a brothel called El Paisano. The 14-year-old told the women she didn’t want to work there.

She didn’t want to sleep with men. She didn’t want to strip.

The 23-year-old yelled at her:

“You’ll be alone,” she said. “You’ll starve on the streets.”


Casa Alianza: www.casa-alianza.org or www.covenanthouse.org To donate to Casa Alianza call the U.S.-based Convenant House, at 1-800-388-3888 and specify Guatemala or mail to Convenant House, P.O. Box JAF 2973, New York, N.Y., 10116-2973 and specify Guatemala.

“I was going to stop. I didn’t want to be there. But the girl said I’d have to be by myself if I didn’t,” said the 14-year-old, referring to the 23-year-old who brought her to Guatemala.

The 14-year-old likes to dance for fun. But she refused to do the kind of dancing her bosses at the brothel demanded. She wouldn’t strip.

“I didn’t want to dance because you have to get naked in front of everyone,” she said, her freckled nose scrunching like a child reacting to a parent’s dinner quota of greens.

Her bosses agreed but said she would have to have sex.

That is the part she hates talking about.

For each ocupado, or half-hour of sex, she split the client’s bill with the house. She pocketed $4.50 and the same amount went to the house. Clients paid to be her drinking buddy. She got $2 for swigging beer. A chunk of her take went to perfume or spiked heels they were told to buy at the bar for swollen prices.

Barely approaching puberty, the girl became a scalding commodity in the sex trade.

She was at the brothel about two weeks before authorities busted it in summer 2005. She was taken to a girls’ shelter run by Casa Alianza, a child advocacy group that conducts raids at Guatemala bars with police and immigration agents two to four times a month.

Casa Alianza operates safe houses and programs for street children throughout Latin America and is a branch of Covenant House, the faith-based organization in the United States.

She’s one of the rescued.

“I only wanted to be a child, and they didn’t let me,”

a sign at the shelter greets in Spanish.

The hunt for little girls

The 14-year-old’s story is a reoccurring plot in the lives of girls rescued by Casa Alianza. Another girl was 11 when her mother gave her to a man about 50 years old as a child bride, shelter officials say. The mother got money from the man.

Prostitution is legal in Guatemala at 18 but recruiters force girls into the sex industry as young as 13, Guatemala’s child advocates say.

“Virgins attract more business. Clients demand them,”

said Dora Alicia Muñoz, former coordinator at Casa Alianza’s shelter for girls 12 to 18 and young mothers up to age 22 — where the 14-year-old lived.

In the estimated 600 Guatemala City bars and brothels, secret rooms are built to stow scores of underage girls, a 2003 Casa Alianza report said. The 13- to 16-year-olds, called patojas, are reserved for exclusive or trusted clientele.

Others cater to tourists with high credit card limits.

GRAPHIC: A closer look at Guatemala

Photo by Chad Yoder

GRAPHIC: A closer look at Guatemala

Since most owners helm a handful of brothels, they shuffle underage girls between them. They stay a week or two in each bar to decrease the likelihood the owners will get caught by authorities if a client snitches.

Girls from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua get lured by prospects of work in restaurants or as maids in the United States. They come from families without fathers, were raped as children or were pushed out of their homes to find work.

Traffickers hit poor, rural areas in Central America looking for victims.

“Most of them come from disintegrated families so girls are more vulnerable to go with a boyfriend who treats her well, and some adults come to them and say, ‘Would you like to work in Guatemala? We will pay you very well,’” said Claudia Rivera, Casa Alianza’s communications and development coordinator.

Instead they get trafficked into Guatemala City brothels.

The United Nations estimates 2,000 children are exploited, many in trafficking situations, in Guatemala City. Of those, 1,200 children are from El Salvador; 500 from Honduras and 300 from Guatemala.

More than 30,000 children are involved or at risk for sexual exploitation in Central America, ECPAT International estimates. ECPAT stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes and is a nonprofit network in 67 countries.

Between 2002 and 2003, Casa Alianza investigators ducked undercover to visit 284 night clubs, bars, massage parlors and the like in Guatemala City. They confirmed almost 180 girls were underage. Another 400 more looked between 13 and 17 years old.

But investigators couldn’t prove it.

There’s little advocates can do to prove identification is phony without technology or coordination. Brothel owners often supply girls with ID cards to make them 18 years old or a permanent resident of Guatemala, even if the girls are neither.

What’s more, some brothel bosses hook girls to drugs and alcohol at a tender age. Their addictions can keep them trapped in prostitution if pimps supply them with drugs. Addictions become so potent some girls will trade a dose of paint-thinner they sniff on their “wipey,” a rag, for sex, advocates say.

“They take control. They give them food,” Muñoz said, referring to how brothel owners treat the girls.

“They’re commercial goods. It’s a form of slavery.”

“I only wanted to be a child, and they didn’t let me.”

Sell your body: Few alternatives

Cash brought in from prostitution — in a country where jobs are almost nonexistent — can make it hard for some girls and women to snip themselves from the thriving sex trade.

“Here, there’s no money and it’s a way to earn money quickly and easily,” said Karen Vargas, a 25-year-old Casa Alianza outreach worker.

Women can earn a decent wage selling their bodies — for $4.50 or more per ocupado.

Prostitution is an established part of Guatemalan society.

Nearly 58 percent of Guatemalans view female prostitution as common, according to a 2005 survey by Vox Latina and published in Prensa Libre, a leading Guatemalan newspaper.

More than 40 percent of Guatemalan men have paid for sex at least one time and about 23 percent of men had their first sexual experience with a prostitute, the survey said.

Not all brothel owners treat women badly, experts say.

Some brothels offer baby-sitting for their children, bring in a gynecologist for check-ups at the bar and arrange meals.

Advocates struggle with convincing Guatemala’s police officials and immigration agents that trafficking of underage girls for prostitution is a grave problem.

“They’re not approaching the girls as victims,” said Maria Villarreal, director of Guatemala’s ECPAT office and the Latin America representative.

“It’s a patriarchal culture. They think the girls are sexually exploited because they like to be sexually exploited. They are seen as the bad girls,” she said.

Child trafficking victims picked up by authorities in Guatemala City brothels are sent to Casa Alianza. But many girls can’t acclimate. They run away from the shelter.

“The girls are interested in living in the here and now. They’re girls who are accustomed to have money in their palms,” said Leonel Dubón Bendfeldt, Casa Alianza’s programs director. “But the environment is one where they treat them like animals and not like human beings. We want the girls to feel like people with rights, not like objects whose rights have been abused.”

Casa Alianza officials relentlessly pitch their program to girls they come across during brothel raids they undertake with authorities in the endless rows of seedy Guatemala City bars that harbor silent victims.

You can go to school.

You can have a future.

“I only wanted to be a child, and they didn’t let me.”

You can be the child you are, they tell him.

Broken promise, mended

Soon after the women took the 14-year-old trafficking victim from Honduras to the Guatemala City brothel, they abandoned her. Left her to fend on her own.

The girl worked at the bar for a few weeks until she was picked up in the summer 2005 raid.

Now rescued, she loves it at the shelter.

“I only wanted to be a child, and they didn’t let me.”

What about it?

“Everything,” she said. “Here, they support you. It’s not like other places. Here, you’re never treated badly. None of that stuff.”

Girls greet staff with kisses and hugs though days are marked by the sporadic teenage temper tantrum about not being treated fairly or other girls talking behind their backs.

At the shelter, they learn things they wouldn’t outside. Casa Alianza teaches cosmetology, sewing, baking and other skills. One intern hosted karate classes. Girls take turns helping staff cook and clean.

Casa Alianza has a “reinsertion” team of psychologists and social workers to rejoin the girls and rescued children with their families after rehabilitation.

One week this summer, the number of shelter occupants almost broached 80 — the shelter’s capacity. Many girls are former prostitutes and trafficking victims.

This summer morning, a group of 30-some girls sit on a basketball court while a visiting school performs a skit in the flower-dotted courtyard.

In a bakery off the basketball court, two shelter residents prepare rolls for lunch. The smell of rising bread fills the kitchen.

“They teach us to be punctual. You have to be here at a certain hour and if you’re not, they could fire you.

They teach us to save money because if you don’t, we’d never know how to save,” said Claudia Leticia Lazo, 24, tucking cheese and ham slices in the dough.

They get paid about $100 a month to work there.

As for the 14-year-old, Casa Alianza has contacted the girl’s family in Honduras. They want her back.

“A little girl should be with her mother,” said Muñoz, the shelter coordinator.

She hopes Casa Alianza has jostled her memories of being a child so she can start sanding away the jagged ones of being a prostitute.

Music pumps from outside the shelter’s kitchen where the girl is sitting and talking to adults. The 14-year-old looks to the open door.

“Can I go dance?” she asks Muñoz.

She loves to dance now that it doesn’t involve taking off her clothes.

Of course, Muñoz smiles.

The child runs out.

“I only wanted to be a child and they didn’t let me.”

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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