With hubs like Thailand and the Philippines cracking down, sex tourists from the U.S. are finding new victims in Latin America, where an estimated 2 million kids are homeless after last year's hurricanes. For guidance, they have a series of hushed contacts and encrypted e-mails. A few have been caught--Rounds was convicted by a Honduran court and is serving a 10-year sentence for molesting three boys. But others not only continue their predations but actually smuggle children into the U.S.
The Senate may soon be hearing a proposal that airlines and airports take special measures to educate passengers about the 1994 sex-tourism law, which prohibits Americans from traveling abroad for sex with minors. It is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. "We are weeding out the hard-core child molesters who get on planes, spend thousands of dollars and rape these children," says Jim Nagle, the senior U.S. customs agent investigating sex tourism. "Are we being the world's sex police? No. But if you're an American who is violating this law, we will enforce it."
In Miami last week, a Honduran peasant who as a boy had been selling cilantro for pennies to make a living testified that he was lured into the pedophile underground by Marvin Hersh, 58, a Florida college professor. "I thought he was one of God's marvels," said Juan Antonio Ramirez, now 18. "Since he was so nice, I did it from the bottom of my heart... I'm ashamed, but the truth is the truth." Hersh is the first American to be prosecuted for traveling abroad to have sex with a minor. According to Juan's testimony, he befriended the boy's family, gave the children Gameboys and a toy helicopter, and paid the rent. But prosecutors say he also molested Juan, then 14, and two of Juan's brothers after inviting them to his hotel room to watch videos. Prosecutors say Hersh used an illegal passport to smuggle Juan into the U.S.; he enrolled the boy in a Boca Raton, Fla., school, telling teachers and neighbors the boy was his son from an old affair. Juan told investigators he and Hersh had sex three times a week, and if he refused, he'd be sent to his room. Child-welfare officials moved in after Hersh's adult son and ex-wife grew suspicious. Juan was placed in foster care.
Hersh has pleaded innocent to all charges and has challenged the sex-tourism law's constitutionality. Says his lawyer David Tucker: "It's a troubling statute because it criminalizes conduct which may not be illegal in other countries. If you're in France and driving under the influence of alcohol, do we have a right to prosecute you when you get home?" But even if Hersh wins on constitutional grounds, he faces charges of smuggling a minor into the country for sex, possession of child pornography and passport fraud.
FBI and U.S. customs agents say the case has uncovered an informal network of suspected pedophiles who share ways to avoid getting caught. In separate investigations, nine men have been taken into custody for intending to leave the U.S. for sex with minors. "It's always been a shadowy existence. We don't really know what we have yet because we're only getting into it," says Walter Deering, special agent in charge of the State Department's diplomatic-security service, which has investigated recent cases of child smuggling.
"These kids are a commodity--like a sack of potatoes," says Bruce Harris, executive director of a children's shelter in San Jose, Costa Rica. One doesn't have to go far to see his point. Down the street from the San Jose police headquarters, 10-year-old prostitutes await customers from the Holiday Inn.