NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A vice president of a travel company is accused of plying a maid in Nicaragua who earned $32 per month with small gifts like a cell phone and a bottle of perfume so he could gain access to molest her 4-year-old daughter.
The allegations spelled out in an indictment filed in federal court in Bridgeport against Edgardo Sensi highlight what experts call a global problem of child sex tourism, in which predators try to exploit poverty and lax laws abroad. Advocates around the world are calling for tougher laws.
“Child sex tourism is one of the most heinous crimes and cannot be tolerated,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Bruce Foucart said in a statement. “ICE along with law enforcement partners worldwide is working tirelessly to bring charges against those alleged to have committed such horrific crimes.”
Sensi also gave the 23-year-old maid cash and a gold ring, took her to luxury hotels and promised her family he would marry her, according to prosecutors. He videotaped sex sessions with her daughter and repeatedly reminded the girl’s mother he was a powerful man, prosecutors said.
Sensi is being prosecuted under a 2003 law that makes it easier to charge child abusers abroad in American courts and provided stiffer penalties. That law, which has led to about 70 prosecutions, has helped deter child abuse abroad that once was so flagrant some travel agencies would advertise packages with code language for pedophiles, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“I don’t think there is any question that what has been done has changed the whole dynamic,” Allen said. “It is much more high risk. There have been significant numbers of prosecutions. It has gone much more underground.”
Investigators have seen an increase in Americans and other westerners traveling to countries in Eastern Europe and South and Central America to abuse children, Foucart said.
“Unfortunately this is a systemic problem,” Foucart said. “The government is doing all it can to combat the problem.”
Sensi, 52, of Jensen Beach, Fla., was charged with engaging in illegal sexual contact and producing child pornography outside the United States. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Jason Wandner, Sensi’s attorney, said he has been in contact with prosecutors “in hopes of resolving this matter amicably.”
“If we are not able to do so, we believe there are numerous factual and legal defenses that we will vigorously assert on our client’s behalf,” Wandner said.
In 2004, Sensi traveled to Nicaragua with a charity organization and befriended the maid, authorities said. One time he allegedly became violent with the girl’s mother.
Sensi has been detained without bond since his arrest last September by the Martin County, Fla. Sheriff’s Office, on possession of child pornography charges.
In November, a U.N.-backed conference concluded that tourists who go abroad to abuse children should face the prospect of prosecution in their home countries if they are caught having sex with kids in nations with lax penalties. About 3,000 experts plus government representatives from 137 nations backed the concept at the Third World Congress against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents in Rio de Janeiro.
Their final declaration called for nations to establish laws allowing stiffer prosecution of child sex cases for abusers who take trips to nations with few or no penalties because they know they’ll face little if any retribution.
A recent U.N. survey estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under age 18 were forced to have sexual intercourse or experienced other forms of sexual violence in 2002.
Studies show most sexual exploitation of children involves local abusers rather than foreigners, said Clara Sommarin, a child protection specialist with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). But sexual abuse by foreigners is a problem, she said, noting that the tourism industry has developed rapidly in some countries.
Authorities in Central America and the tourism industry have taken steps in recent years to combat the problem, with stepped up training, codes of conduct at hotels and tougher laws, Sommarin said.
“This is a huge challenge. It’s about changing attitudes and behavior,” Sommarin said.
Prosecuting such cases also was difficult because the child sex trade is so intertwined in the economies of some countries, Allen said.