Child Sex Industry Thriving in Mexico
Accused Include Americans, Men with Ties to Powerful Figures

By Brooks Egerton and Brendan M. Case
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
November 2, 2003

The man in the Franciscan monk's robe strode across Acapulco's main square one night last spring, wearing a footlong image of Christ around his neck and carrying a black plastic bag.

There is the man who abused us, the young witnesses cried to police. There.

The man in the Franciscan monk's robe strode across Acapulco's main square one night last spring, wearing a footlong image of Christ around his neck and carrying a black plastic bag.

There is the man who abused us, the young witnesses cried to police. There.

Officers found photos of naked boys in Jose Borja's bag and arrested him, capping a series of busts that started in the United States six years ago, led to the unmasking of a Mexican inn for pedophiles and shut down a children's home. These loosely linked cases spotlight Mexico's booming child sex industry, which features everything from pornography and prostitution to sex tourism and human trafficking.

In Mexico City, for example, as many as 7 percent of the street kids served by one charity are estimated to be HIV positive; many have worked in the sex trade. Down near the border with Guatemala, the city of Tapachula has become notorious for brothels that offer girls brought in from Central America. In far northern Mexico, procurers offer children as young as 10 to men walking the streets of downtown Nogales.

It doesn't stop at the U.S. border. Authorities say smugglers have lured Mexican girls to Southern California with false promises of housekeeping jobs, then turned them into virtual sex slaves at migrant labor camps.

Some adults accused of being players in the industry have ties to powerful figures.

Mr. Borja, for instance, has a friend in the upper echelons of Acapulco's Catholic Archdiocese, although its spokesman says Mr. Borja is not a priest or a member of any lay Catholic organization ? just "a sick man." Franciscan officials say they have no record of him being a member of their order.

Yet for at least two decades, and despite at least three previous police investigations of abuse allegations, he identified himself as Father Borja and ran a well-known home for street kids called Franciscan House. U.S. investigators said they have linked Franciscan House and another local shelter to the child sex trade. Mexican police declined repeated interview requests.

Mr. Borja, in a brief jailhouse interview with The Dallas Morning News , said he was an innocent victim of a plot stemming from a dispute over his land, which is near Acapulco's tourist strip.

Eye-opening case

Up the Pacific coast in Puerto Vallarta, meanwhile, Mexican authorities have accused a wealthy, well-connected California businessman named Thomas Frank White of drugging and molesting street kids.

Mr. White, who has denied any wrongdoing, spent millions to build a resort hotel and nearby children's home after ingratiating himself with city officials and the U.S. government's local representative. He fled to Thailand in 2001, just ahead of the law, and apparently began supporting another shelter there before being arrested this year on Mexican charges.

The case opened many officials' eyes, said Laura Aguilar, who runs a Puerto Vallarta foundation that is trying to combat abuse with police training and frank educational sessions for children. "We've recognized we're vulnerable," she said.

Rosa Martha Brown, a Mexico City travel executive who is emerging as an international crusader against child sex tourism, says it is a growing danger in several parts of Mexico and Latin America.

"The problem is really terrible in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta," said Ms. Brown, whose organization is pushing for training of hotel workers and in-flight educational videos.

Acapulco, she fears, "is going to become a Bangkok" ? a reference to the Thai capital, which has become almost synonymous with sex tourism. The Mexican city remains a beautiful beach destination, yet "now it's known not by the beauty but by the beast."

Perry Woo, who heads child sex tourism investigations for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Mexico has key ingredients in common with Thailand: a steady stream of visitors and a large supply of poor, desperate young people.

Visiting Mexico, though, "is a whole lot cheaper than flying to Bangkok," Agent Woo said. "It's the cheapest way to go."

'El business'

Nationally, thousands of Mexican girls and boys work in prostitution or pornography, according to a 2000 report by researchers from the Mexican government and the United Nations. The victims include runaways, throwaways, migrants traveling without parents, orphans and children who are trying to support poverty-stricken families.

Some have sex with adults to get food and shelter, while others seek drugs or toys. Some virtually live in slavery, while others make up to $100 a day ? about as much as the monthly minimum wage.

"A person comes up to you, and he asks you if you want something to eat, or if you want a soft drink," one young Acapulco man who worked in what street kids call "el business" told The News. "Then he asks you how old you are, and he asks you if you've had sex before. And that's how it begins."

In some of that city's neighborhoods, potential customers face similarly brazen approaches. "When we walked down the street, we were offered kids," said U.S. postal inspector Steve Sadowitz, who visited the city as part of a recent sex tourism investigation.

One name that came up repeatedly, first in Mexican inquiries and later in American ones, was Mr. Borja's.

"He had a home for children for many, many years," said Elena Azaola, a Mexico City anthropologist who coordinated the research for the 2000 report. "He abused children, and the authorities knew about it. But time passed, and they did nothing."

Dr. Azaola's team referred to Mr. Borja and his activities in the report, though not by name. She said at the time he seemed immune from justice and she feared legal reprisals.

Her report concluded that many adults who have legitimate tourism jobs are involved in supplying children to abusers, and that current and former government officials own some nightclubs that employ juvenile sex workers. It said that Mexican police "very rarely act against the exploiters" and frequently extort money from the youths.

Inn for pedophiles

Mexican authorities would not discuss what happened to the three investigations, all in the 1980s, that police began against Mr. Borja.

The Rev. Angel Martinez, the Acapulco Archdiocese's longtime No. 2 administrator, acknowledged that he got Mr. Borja a lawyer who secured his release after a previous arrest.

"I did it out of charity," Father Martinez said. "I've dedicated my life to helping people. He is one of the people I helped."

The events that led to Mr. Borja's current detention trace back to 1997, when U.S. agents seized a suburban Denver man's child-porn distribution businesses and kept operating them in a sting.

One customer, they discovered, would chat in e-mails about the availability of children in Acapulco. That eventually led agents to an inn there called Castillo Vista del Mar, which charged up to $1,000 a week for room, board, stunning cliffside views ? and boys as young as 6.

Timothy J. Julian, who lived in the Chicago suburbs, set up the resort in early 1998, marketed it online and hired a bilingual American who had long lived in Mexico, Robert W. Decker, to run it. Both men had been convicted previously of child sexual abuse in the United States, which federal authorities say is a common trait among those who travel abroad to molest.

Both men are now in U.S. prisons awaiting sentencing on further abuse-related convictions: Mr. Decker for possession of child pornography, which was discovered when Mexico deported him and he crossed into Texas by taxi; Mr. Julian for conspiring to run a child sex tourism business and helping send a Mexican boy to another abuser in the United States.

Mr. Decker declined an interview request, while Mr. Julian proclaimed himself innocent. He said that criminals such as Mr. Decker had falsely testified against him in hope of leniency in their cases, and that a juvenile witness mistook him for another man.

Several other Americans identified during the Castillo Vista del Mar investigation have since been convicted of abuse, too. The most recent was a former school pediatrician from New York, Stefan Irving, who befriended Mr. Decker in the 1980s after also being convicted of molestation. Mr. Irving, who declined an interview request, is awaiting sentencing for crossing U.S. borders to molest boys. At Mr. Irving's trial a few weeks ago in Manhattan, a Mexican youth testified that he saw Mr. Irving take two 10-year-old boys to a Castillo bedroom. He said he himself had moved into the inn when he was about 13, homeless and sleeping on the ground under amusement park rides.

The youth said he went to Castillo after being told "that I would never be hungry again." He had sex, he said, with Mr. Decker "and many more whose names I don't remember. ... I want to forget it."

Court records paint Mr. Decker as the central character at the inn, which closed in early 1999. "He had access to the boys" through connections to Mexican church groups and children's homes, said Agent Woo, who worked on the case before becoming national head of child sex tourism enforcement.

While pursuing leads in Mexico, Agent Woo said in an interview, he learned that Mr. Borja was "supplying children and using his capacity as a priest." But U.S. authorities couldn't charge him because he's a Mexican citizen who wasn't traveling to the United States.

Mr. Julian said he had never dealt with Mr. Borja but suspected that there were connections between another children's home in Acapulco and sex tourists. He based this suspicion, he said, on the sudden disappearance in 1999 of an American acquaintance who took children from that home on trips and had a Web page that encouraged support for the place.

"He took off in the middle of the night," Mr. Julian said. "Something got hot."

U.S. officials other than Agent Woo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they shared Mr. Julian's suspicions. They declined to elaborate, saying that the matter is under investigation.

Increased penalties

In the wake of the aggressive U.S. inquiry, Mexico took further action against child sexual exploitation. The state of Guerrero, which contains Acapulco, dramatically increased penalties for child pornographers.

"We're a state that's facing up to reality with concrete actions," said Jesus Ramirez, Guerrero's attorney general.

And Mexico's Federal Preventive Police worked closely with the Americans on the Castillo case. It is now running its own child exploitation investigations, taking matters away from notoriously corrupt local officers.

In April, the federal police rounded up nearly 20 suspected abusers and said, without elaboration, that some were connected to Mr. Julian and Mr. Decker. Ten children were rescued during the arrests.

The suspects included several U.S. citizens, plus a handful of Canadians and Mexicans and one Briton. One Canadian committed suicide in his cell last spring, according to prosecutors. The rest remain jailed in Acapulco's sweltering prison, awaiting trial.

The prisoners include Robert D. Teerink, a former high-ranking executive for Southlake-based Sabre, a Fortune 500 travel services company that once was part of American Airlines. He left Sabre in 2000 and moved from Dallas to Acapulco. He had been Sabre's Mexico marketing boss in the mid-1990s.

In a jailhouse interview, Mr. Teerink denied the charges against him.

"I lived a quiet life with a basset hound and three cats," he said. "Now I'm accused of the worst atrocities. ... I believe pedophiles are the scum of the earth."

Another prominent detainee is Denis C. Hoffman, a Los Angeles businessman who financed Steven Spielberg's first film and later co-owned a doughnut shop with him. Robert Rosen, a California lawyer who represented Mr. Hoffman in 1990s litigation with Mr. Spielberg, said he was aware of the arrest but knew no details.

"As far as I know, he's a wonderful, wonderful person," Mr. Rosen said.

Enrique Gandara, a Mexico City attorney representing five other American defendants, described them as "innocent people, absolutely innocent, who are going through hell in the Acapulco prison. Their only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Mr. Gandara said that one of the supposed victims doesn't exist, another recanted and a third was actually an adult. He said he declined to take the cases of some detainees because he suspected that they were guilty.

According to The News' review of police files, some defendants were arrested primarily on the basis of children's accusations, while others were found in the presence of naked minors or with stashes of child porn, cameras and video equipment.

"That was the most painful thing I've seen in my life," said Alicia Diaz, a sex crimes prosecutor in Acapulco. "It's something I'd like to forget forever.

"I'm a mother. I have a 13-year-old boy."

Lawyer: Prospects grim

Mexican authorities have charged Mr. Borja with molesting boys and taking sexually explicit pictures of them. He typically served them alcohol before the abuse, prosecutors allege, and sometimes tied them up and beat them. The prosecutors said they lacked evidence to charge Mr. Borja with supplying children to others.

One photograph in his police file shows a boy of about 10, at least half-naked, seated on the tussled sheets of an unmade bed. A wall in the background is adorned with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and other religious icons.

Mr. Borja's attorney, Jose Guadalupe Luna, said his client's legal prospects are grim.

"It's very difficult because he's been identified by some witnesses, and there's other evidence against him as well," Mr. Luna said.

He added that two accusers have disappeared, and "the defense lawyer has a right to question them."

In his brief interview, Mr. Borja appeared disheveled and dirty. He insisted he is a Franciscan missionary and said he has been a strong supporter of ultra-conservative Catholic clerics. He denied ever engaging in sexual activity with minors.

"I'm a virgin," he said. "I am a religious man. I have lived a life of chastity."

One of Franciscan House's neighbors, Eva Moreno, said she could "vouch that he was a good person."

As she recalled, "he always had a big pack of kids right behind him."


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