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The girl's mother and father asked for 0 for use of the girl, which David said he eagerly paid. As he spoke, adult prostitutes mingled with foreigners in the hotel lobby as younger ones strolled the streets outside.

"It involves a certain level of political maturity on the part of governments to acknowledge the severity of the problem, as opposed to the ostrich syndrome of keeping your head stuck in the sand," said Bruce Harris, regional director of Covenant House (Casa Alianza) Latin America, an organization that helps street children.Although there are no statistics to quantify the scope of sexual exploitation of children in Central America, anecdotal evidence, independent surveys and a string of recent arrests of Americans--as well as of other foreigners and locals--support the contention that the problem is growing.The increased demand for child prostitutes in this region and others stems partly from the mistaken impression that older prostitutes are more likely than younger ones to have AIDS or carry the HIV virus, experts say. Kovaleski Washington Post Foreign Service SAN JOSE, Costa Rica The sexual exploitation of girls and boys, largely by American men, has reached alarming proportions in Central America, according to children's rights advocates who say the region is now a priority in their struggle against child prostitution and pornography.A major reason for growth in the Central American child-sex trade, children's advocates say, is that traditional destinations for such activity--chiefly Thailand and the Philippines--have blunted the sex tourism business over the last two years by enacting public awareness campaigns and stricter laws and enforcement measures.

Prostitution among the children who live and work on the streets of Latin America--their number has been estimated at up to 40 million--has long been a consequence of the region's poverty.But as such countries as Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua step up efforts to promote their beaches, volcanoes and natural beauty as tourist destinations, they attract greater numbers of men from North America, Europe and other Latin American countries looking for sex with children."What we are seeing is the dark side of tourism," said Heimo Laakkonen, the head of UNICEF in Costa Rica.Laakkonen said that while sexual exploitation of minors is not a new problem in the region, "with the increase in tourism, the problem has gotten worse." Sitting at the bar in the dingy Del Ray Hotel here one recent evening, a 33-year-old California bartender named David said he was on his second trip to Costa Rica in as many years.He spoke brazenly about how he had scanned several Web pages advertising youthful-looking female prostitutes in Costa Rica in his efforts to have sex with a girl who had no previous sexual experience.David, a stocky, unkempt man who insisted that only his first name be used, boasted of how he had arranged for one of the many taxi drivers connected with the sex trade to bring a 13-year-old girl from her parents' home in a poor San Jose neighborhood to his hotel. and nobody looks like they have a real problem with it," he said.