Latest News

Death of 12-year-old girl forces Cuba to confront sex tourism

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.

For the two Cuban girls, 12 and 13 years old, it was just another sex party with foreign tourists — videotaped, fueled with marijuana and alcohol and sometimes involving sex with both men and women.

But this time 12-year-old Lilian Ramírez Espinosa, an asthmatic, gasped and blacked out.

Her badly decomposed body was found five days later on the isolated outskirts of the eastern city of Bayamo.

The girls “had been prostituting themselves for six months, but one of them had to die before the authorities noticed,” said Havana lawyer Laritza Diversent, who is helping with the appeal by one of the defendants in the case.

Lilian’ death on May 14, 2010, is the best documented and most horrifying example of child prostitution to emerge from Cuba since sex tourism began to blossom there in the early 1990s.

Canadian, Spanish and other tourists are flying to the island for sex with minors, a joint investigation by The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald has shown, although the extent of the problem remains unknown.

Cuba’s government “resists discussion of issues that might suggest weaknesses in the governing and social system,” said one report on child sex trafficking, written by U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2010.

Diversent said she was not surprised that girls as young as the ones in Bayamo were having sex-for-pay in a country where kids generally start having sex at the age of 12 or 13 and families face shortages of everything from tomatoes to shoes.

“The only thing never rationed was sex,” she said.

What was surprising, Diversent added, was that three Italians and 10 Cubans were tried and convicted in Ramírez’ death.

Simone Pini, 45, and Angelo Malavasi, 48, are serving 25-year prison sentences for murder and corruption of minors while Luigi Sartorio, 48, was sentenced to 20 years. The Cubans received sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years.

Diversent, who is helping Pini’s appeal and has the documents from the trial in September of 2011, said that while aspects of the case remain unclear she does not doubt the two girls were having sex for pay.

Lilian previously had “love relations” with four Cuban males aged 14 to 25, the lawyer added, reading from a police report. And the sex parties had been going on since mid-2009.

Nancy Muñoz Yero, the mother of one of the Cuban adults convicted in the case, said Ramírez and a girlfriend were known to hang around with foreigners visiting Bayamo, as well as local adults.

Pini said he did not know any of the girls and nothing about any sex parties, but added that Bayamo residents had told him the girls “did their little things. They didn’t play with dolls.”

The court’s final ruling in the case never mentions the word prostitution, Diversent said, although it notes that some of the girls in the sex parties received cash or gifts, such as clothes.

One of three prosecution videos presented at the trial shows one 13-year-old recounting sex encounters with both foreigners and Cubans, both men and women, with what was called “horrifying casualness.”

The videos also show some of the defendants recreating the events in the home and bedroom where they took place, as well as the recovery of Lilian’s body. They were posted on the Internet by the dissident news agency Hablemos Press.

Lilian and one 13-year-old girl were picked up by Pini and a Cuban youth near a Bayamo school for a party, according to the videos. Two other girls, aged 13 and 14, turned up separately but it was not clear if they engaged in sex acts, Diversent said.

Ramírez was asthmatic and blacked out while being filmed having sex with a Cuban man in his 20s, according to the recreation video. One 13-year-old girl is shown recalling matter-of-factly how Ramírez fainted. The 13-year-old laughs when the Cuban man uses a slang expression for a foreigner.

Believing that Lilian had died and afraid to take her to a hospital, Pini and others put her in the trunk of a car and dropped her off in an isolated spot on the outskirts of Bayamo, the video noted. The municipality has about 220,000 people.

An autopsy indicated Lilian died of asphyxia but not how, according to Diversent. Her body was found after a dog was seen chewing on a human hand, according to a prosecution video.

The three Italians and some of the Cubans claim they falsely confessed or incriminated others under heavy pressure by police interrogators and after weeks in isolation cells. Pini and Sartorio claim they have receipts proving they were in Italy when Lilian died.

“They told me they needed my help punishing the bad Cubans who were abusing the girls, and then they threw me in prison,” Pini told El Nuevo Herald during a lengthy phone interview from the foreigners’ wing of Havana’s Combinado del Este prison.

Muñoz Yero said her daughter, Yaina Coset Pardo Muñóz, 31, also agreed to falsely incriminate another woman after police kept her in an isolation cell for 25 days and then asked her to help put the guilty ones in prison.

“Now she’s ashamed that she told lies,” the mother said during a phone interview from Bayamo. The daughter, a former administrator at the local Museum of Archaeology is serving a 22-year sentence for murder and corruption of minors.

What’s more, Diversent said, a Bayamo resident recently signed a notarized declaration for Pini’s appeal saying that on the day Ramírez died he saw a young girl and a man in his 30s or 40s walk into the thicket where her body was later found.

The man, Pedro Medel said he told police what he had seen and days later recognized the girl from a police photo of Lilian, but was not called to testify at the trial, the lawyer added.

Asked what might have happened to Lilian, Pini said he could not speak freely on the prison telephone.

“I am very much afraid of the Cuban authorities,” he said, “because they can do anything here — make up evidence, erase evidence, erase anything.”

Related stories from Miami Herald