These stories are the result of a joint investigation by Toronto Star reporters Robert Cribb, Jennifer Quinn and Julian Sher, and El Nuevo Herald reporter Juan O. Tamayo.
An odd combination of Washington’s trade embargo on Cuba and tough U.S. laws on sex tourism has kept down the number of U.S. travelers who fly to the island to abuse underage girls and boys.
U.S. residents account for an estimated — and chilling — 25 percent of child-sex tourism worldwide, said Miami-based FBI Special Agent Heather Armstrong, a member of the Crimes against Children Squad.
About one-quarter of the child-sex tourists in Cambodia surveyed about 10 years ago were from the United States and Canada, said Carol Smolenski, head of the U.S. branch of the global monitoring group End Child Prostitution and Trafficking.
And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says its Operation Predator led to the arrest of a record 1,655 child pornographers, child-sex tourists and facilitators, human smugglers and traffickers of minors in fiscal year 2012. Florida accounted for 406 of the arrests, including 81 in the Miami district.
Yet U.S. child-sex tourism to an island just 90 miles off the coast of Florida falls far short of the levels of exploitation by Canadians and Spaniards found by a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and the El Nuevo Herald.
“When we talk about hotbeds of activity, [Cuba] is not one that comes up,” said one ICE official familiar with child-sex tourism cases.
Federal prosecutors in South Florida said they knew of no cases of child exploitation in Cuba since 2004. That’s when Miami Beach resident Angel Mariscal was sentenced to 100 years in prison for having sex with underage girls in videos shot in Cuba and his native Ecuador. He was HIV-positive.
Some child pornography seized by U.S. authorities in recent years appears to have come from Cuban computers, said Michelle Collins, with the Exploited Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington.
But James Cason, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana from 2002-05, said he could not recall any U.S. sex tourists jailed there during his tenure. U.S. diplomats in Havana reported in 2009 that some Americans were jailed there for child prostitution but gave no number.
State Department officials say they did not know whether any Americans are currently jailed there for sex crimes.
Perhaps the key reason for the lack of U.S. sex tourism to Cuba is Washington’s trade embargo on the communist-ruled island, which has limited travel there for more than half a century.
Cuban Americans can visit anytime, but they know “that the police can throw them in jail anytime” and that U.S. consular officials in Havana “cannot protect them,” said Cason, now the mayor of Coral Gables.
Non-Cuban Americans are barred from tourist trips and can go only on group “educational” trips that are tightly guided and can cost upwards of $5,000 a week. Only about 67,000 went to Cuba in 2011. In contrast, more than one million Canadians visited the island in 2012, and a week in Varadero beach can cost them as little as $600.
What’s more, U.S. and state laws, as well as regulations and procedures, are tough on sex tourists and allow for the tight monitoring of their travels.
Federal laws make it a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison to engage in sex abroad with anyone under the age of 18 or to “facilitate the travel” for sex tourism.
Many states require convicted sex offenders to give up to a 21-day notice of foreign travel, including passport number, destination, itinerary, means of transport and purpose of trip. Florida requires notification 48 hours before departure.
Those notifications are forwarded to the Marshals Service’s National Sex Offender Targeting Center, which has about 40 officers tracking down the estimated 700,000 sex offenders who violate their reporting requirements.
Targeting Center chief Rich Kelly said his unit also notifies Interpol and the destination countries when sex offenders are traveling abroad. More than 540 such notifications were sent in 2012, double the number from the previous year, Kelly added.
In partnership with the FBI, the Postal Service and other U.S. agencies, ICE’s National Child Victim Identification System also manages an archive of child-sex images designed to help identify the victims.