FBI sting targets 'sex tourists' but raises legal questions
But arrests raise legal questions
BY VANESSA BLUM
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
March 16, 2008
For a down payment of $1,675, Jorge Muentes thought he had booked a package trip to Costa Rica, complete with airfare, hotel accommodations and 24 hours with a teen prostitute, according to federal prosecutors.
But the underground travel agency promising to fulfill "all his personal desires" was secretly run by the FBI.
When Muentes attempted to board his flight from Miami International Airport to San Jose on Nov. 15, federal authorities arrested the 48-year-old West Palm Beach father for trying to arrange sex with a minor overseas.
Muentes' case, which goes to trial Monday in Fort Lauderdale, comes in the midst of a federal crackdown on so-called sex tourists who molest children outside the United States. Since 2003, U.S. authorities have charged more than 70 alleged offenders, often arresting suspects abroad or as they step off flights from countries like Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Costa Rica.
Those convicted in the past year include a Miami Beach businessman who paid teenage girls for sex in Cambodia and a retired St. Petersburg truck driver who sexually abused victims from 7 to 15 years old on a trip through Southeast Asia. Both men returned with pornographic images documenting sexual encounters with multiple underage victims.
But Muentes' case is different. It is, in law enforcement parlance, "proactive," meaning would-be offenders are apprehended before they strike. That strategy has drawn criticism from defense lawyers who say the tactic amounts to entrapment and punishes what might be no more than a fantasy.
Muentes' attorney, David O. Markus, wrote in a brief that the charges against his client constitute police action against "a person's mere thought to do something abroad."
"I'm all for catching child predators," Markus said. "The problem is instead of netting the real criminals, this sting draws in innocent people like Jorge Muentes."
In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Rashbaum defended the charges, saying Muentes took concrete steps toward having sexual contact with a teenager by paying for the trip and attempting to board a plane.
"The defendant's actions constitute far more than mere thought," Rashbaum wrote.
Law enforcement officials declined to discuss the sting, saying they did not want to compromise ongoing investigations.
Muentes has been married for 17 years and has a 19-year-old son from a previous marriage. Before his arrest, Muentes made a living performing household chores such as cooking and driving for South Florida families, his lawyer said.
According to court records, Muentes called the FBI's undercover travel agency in September 2007 after seeing an advertisement in an adult magazine offering all-inclusive vacations with "clean, fun-loving companions of varying ages." The company supposedly is based in Fort Lauderdale.
Once Muentes made contact, the FBI agent called him repeatedly, up to three times in a single day, until he finalized his trip.
Prosecutors contend Muentes asked for dates with two female escorts, a 14- to 16-year-old as well as a 21-to 24-year-old. Upon his arrival in San Jose, he was to meet a man named "Jorge" and choose the women from a photo album.
Markus contends that even if Muentes considered having sex with a teenager, there is no evidence he would have acted on those desires once in Costa Rica. Having sex with a woman 18 or older, even paid sex, would not have been a crime because adult prostitution is legal in Costa Rica.
Muentes has no criminal record or history of abusing children, Markus said. If convicted, he faces a mandatory 10-year sentence.
The sex-tour sting has been in play for years and has snared more than a dozen men, including a Vietnam War veteran from New York whose case is also set for trial in Fort Lauderdale later this month.
The fake travel agency has operated under different names, including Costa Rica Taboo Vacations. Its current Web site offers "an all inclusive travel service that is truly all inclusive" and asks visitors to specify a preferred age, starting at 12 and under.
It might once have been that what tourists did overseas fell beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. But that is no longer the case, federal officials emphasized.
"Predators who think that they can evade the reach of U.S. laws by traveling abroad to sexually exploit children are sorely mistaken," said Anthony Mangione, special agent-in-charge of the Miami office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We will use every resource at our disposal to track them down."
The recent surge in sex tourism cases can be traced to a tough measure passed by Congress in 2003 that increased penalties for child sex offenders and closed a loophole that frequently had blocked prosecutors from going after Americans for sex crimes committed on foreign soil.
Some defense lawyers and civil-liberties advocates question whether the government is overreaching by prosecuting U.S. citizens for their actions abroad, especially if they do not break the laws of a foreign country. However, the cases are holding up in court, and prosecutors have a near perfect conviction rate.
Drew Oosterbaan, chief of the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, said it makes sense to take such crimes seriously.
"These are pedophiles or sexual predators who go overseas and do horrible things to kids, and then they're coming back to your community," Oosterbaan said. "Psychologists will tell you this is a sexual predilection that doesn't go away."
Even with the new law, however, sex tourism cases can be challenging and expensive to pursue. In the time it takes to build a case, victims disappear, witnesses balk at testifying and evidence collected by foreign governments may not be handled according to U.S. standards.
In contrast, sting operations that intercept men before they board a plane are cheap and easy to prosecute. The cases rely almost entirely on suspects' own statements to undercover FBI agents during recorded phone calls.
Joseph Mettimano, advocacy director of the international child welfare group World Vision, said he hopes those arrests serve to deter others.
His group runs a multimillion-dollar media campaign warning travelers that having sex with minors abroad can result in jail time back home.
"Americans aren't getting away with impunity on this anymore," Mettimano said. "The threat of prosecution and imprisonment is very real."
Vanessa Blum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4605.
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