The recent scandal over the arrest of repeat sex offender Ron Leno has raised harrumphs of indignation from foreign expats and Nicaraguans alike. But the Boston bête noire is only the visible tip of a giant sex-crime scumberg that protrudes deep into Nicaraguan society.
Other cases of abuse uncovered recently by social investigators and human rights activists are starting to shine a penetrating light into the murky depths of Nicaragua’s sordid underworld of commercial-sexual exploitation and sex-slave trafficking. And it’s such a shockingly prevalent, organized and monstrous world that it makes Leno seem like a footnote.
Like the drug trade, the illicit sex industry in Nicaragua is occurring on all levels and in all directions. The perpetrators—locals and foreigners alike—come from all backgrounds and tax brackets, with an equally wide range of demented and prurient proclivities, according to experts.
Indigenous Miskito girls are being trafficked as sex slaves from the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) to Managua; girls from Managua are being trafficked to San Juan del Sur, girls from Rivas are being trafficked to Costa Rica, and girls from the countryside are being trafficked to the cities, according to various studies from various non-governmental organizations.
The individual stories gathered by rights organizations are alarming.
For example, the National Police’s Sex Crimes Unit is currently investigating a case in which a 30-year-old woman from Managua was smuggled without papers to Guatemala City under the false promise of getting work as a waitress in a restaurant. When she got there, the restaurant turned out to be a brothel, and the waitressing job turned out to be sex slavery.
After 15 days of being held captive, the woman managed to escape. Several blocks from the brothel, she ran into a Guatemalan police officer and frantically told him her story, looking over her shoulder the whole time. Little did she know the officer was a friend of the brothel owner. The cop threw her in the back of his car and took her back to the slaveholder, who beat her viciously for trying to escape.
She received such a savage pummeling that she had to be taken to the hospital, where she was put in a room under surveillance. With no one to turn to, she put her trust in a stranger and told the nurse what had happened. The nurse believed her, and helped her sneak out the bathroom window to avoid detection.
The woman ran to the bus terminal and pleaded her case to a Nicaraguan driver, who luckily was a good Samaritan and agreed to smuggle her back to Managua hidden as a stowaway in the bottom luggage compartment of the bus.
Though in this case the trafficking victim made it back home to safety, for many other Nicaragua women, home is where the violence is.
Nicaraguans are doing plenty of sexual exploitation of their own. And a lot of it starts in the family.
A new investigation of commercial-sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the popular beach tourism areas of San Juan del Sur and Tola produced stomach-churning findings.
The study, which like many social investigations in Nicaragua is based more on anecdotes than statistics, reveals a long list of inhumane and illegal behaviors, including:
- Parents who send their daughters into town to prostitute themselves to foreigners.
- Parents who bring their young daughters to bars and force them to have sex with local clients for 50 córdobas ($2.20).
- Young girls who go out to the road to ask passing tourists for rides to the beach, where they then offer themselves for sex in exchange for money.
- Young girls who offer themselves for sex in exchange for fashionable clothing or new cellular phones, which are then used by predators to keep tabs on the girls and control their movements.
- Young girls—15 and younger—who marry wealthy landowners (foreigners and Nicaraguans) in their 60s and 70s.
- Homeowners who coerce young domestic workers to have sex with them.
The study also found numerous cases that show how iniquitous the artisanal sex trade has become, and how crackbrained some of the predators are.
There’s the case of a 50-year-old man in San Juan del Sur who paid a poor woman 1,800 córdobas ($79) each week to rape her 13-year-old daughter every other day—in her own house. There’s a 15-year-old school girl from the rural community of Nancimi who was riding home on the bus when the man sitting next to her injected her with a syringe, knocked her out and carried her to his home where he forced her to be a sex slave. And the case of a man in his 40s who drifted into the rural town of Virgen Morena and kidnapped a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy who haven’t been seen since.
None of these stories were ever reported in the national media, and only some have been reported to police. That raises the question: How many other horrible secrets are being kept in rural communities?
“The most important finding of this report is that the problems of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking are seen as normal behavior and human nature rather than a violation of rights. So in that sense, the problem is even more alarming,” says Dr. Rosa Elena Bello Norori, director of Communal Medical Services, the Rivas NGO that conducted the study.
Bello says many people in rural communities think it’s normal to see an underage girl in a relationship with a much older man, and say it’s “just part of life” when teenage girls disappear from town and are not heard from for years.
“People aren’t recognizing what’s happening,” she said.
International organizations concur. A 2010 report on human trafficking in Nicaragua by Save the Children concluded, “We notice there is no culture of denouncing the crime because people don’t have a clear understanding of what it is.”
The Save the Children report also found that Nicaragua lacks information and data to “indentify with any precession the magnitude of the problem in the country.”
The combination of ignorance and machismo makes the problem even more difficult to uproot, Bello said.
“People’s natural way of thinking is to blame the woman or the girl for situations of sexual exploitation. It’s never the man’s fault,” Bello said. “Girls are blamed for flirting or getting involved with men. And even women who are trafficked and disappear are accused of abandoning their children.”
The cocktail of machismo and ignorance has also become institutionalized, as evidenced by the government’s questionable handling of numerous high-profile cases of rape and domestic abuse.
Former boxing champ and Sandinista sympathizer Ricardo Mayorga walked away from rape allegations thanks to an alleged deal hatched with President Daniel Ortega, according to Wikileaks. “(The FLSN) agreed to protect the boxer in the courts if he would give the party a large portion of his international boxing winnings and ‘advertise’ for Daniel in public. Mayorga agreed, and an FSLN judge found him not guilty in December,” according to a 2005 Wikileaks cable.
More recently, the government’s handling of the rape case of Fátima Hernández and the well-publicized allegations of domestic abuse against boxing champ Román “Chocolatito” González, offered further evidence that judicial procedure often takes a backseat to machismo and politics.
“I want to see…I want to see…who is going to be the brave judge who dares put Chocolatito González in jail? I want to see it!” challenged Sandinista apparatchik Enrique Armas, a city councilman for Managua, in response to calls for protective measures for González’s wife after she filed divorce papers and charges of abuses last week. After the boxer spoke to the media in his defense, President Ortega allegedly intervened again and instructed the boxer to not discuss his case anymore in public, according to Chocolatito’s mother.
The government’s machismo was also on full display during the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather and unable to seek medical intervention to terminate the pregnancy due to the government’s full ban of therapeutic abortion. Instead of denouncing the crime and arresting the rapist stepfather, the Sandinista government celebrated the pregnancy and called the victim’s childbirth “Another blessing from God.”
Gonzalo Carrion, judicial director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), says Nicaragua’s culture of silence, machismo and impunity starts with the presidential couple, who he says “set the bad example for the rest of the country.”
Carrion says Ortega “never showed his face” when he was accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter, and that culture of silence and impunity has become the norm.
Carrion worries the situation here will only get worse next year, when Ortega assumes his controversial third term as president.
“On Jan. 10, we will have an unconstitutional president after the fraudulent elections. And if the first citizen of the country doesn’t respect the Constitution, then we can’t expect to have a rule of law in Nicaragua,” Carrion said.
The human-rights activist worries that the country’s appearance of lawlessness and impunity will make Nicaragua even more attractive to sex tourists and predators looking for a fringe place to exploit minors.
“When you create a reign of impunity, foreigners and everyone else think they can commit crimes here and get away with it,” he said.
Next: Part IV: What’s being done to stop commercial-sexual exploitation? Police and civil society groups fight back against the illicit sex trade.