Trafficking from Philippines to Canada via Costa Rica

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Subject: Trafficking from Philippines to Canada via Costa Rica
From: Casa Alianza - Regional Office (bruce@casa-alianza.org)
Date: Mon May 22 2000 - 11:24:16 EDT


Page URL:
http://www.nationalpost.com/news.asp?f=000517/291113&s2=natio
nal&s3=reporter

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Promises of a new life lead to the brothel
Toronto native Enrico Cacciatore brought 11 Filipinas to Costa
Rica, where he
now lives, as "ecotourists," with promises that they would
eventually get
jobs in
Canada as strippers. The only sights they saw were a Costa Rican
brothel
and strip club. Mr. Cacciatore is merely a bit player in a global sex
slave
industry that
involves two million women and children, officials say.

Marina Jimenez
National Post

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - Authorities credit Enrico Cacciatore and
his
associates with one of the more bizarre and ingenious schemes
contrived in
an industry rife with them: the international sex trade.

Mr. Cacciatore, a Toronto native, brought 11 Filipinas to San Jose,
where
he now lives, under the guise of an organization called Friends of
the
Rainforest. As Costa Rican "president" of this eco-tourism group,
Mr.
Cacciatore was supposed to show the women the Central
American country, its
"unspoiled rainforest" and "nature conservation methods."

Instead, the only sights the women saw were North American sex
tourists and
the red neon lights of Olympus, a brothel and strip club in
downtown San
Jose, where the women were taken directly from the airport. Costa
Rica was
only ever intended as a weigh station on the journey to their final
destination: Canada. But the promised jobs as "burlesque
entertainers" in
Toronto strip clubs -- where the Filipinas believed they would only
have to
disrobe, but not sell, their bodies -- never materialized. Canadian
immigration officials in Guatemala rejected their work permit
applications,
much to the disappointment of the "eco-tourists."

Mr. Cacciatore reddens slightly when reminded of the failed
venture. "It
wasn't my idea," explains the soft-spoken 43-year-old tee-totaller,
who
wears his silver hair tied back in a ponytail, a fake Tag Heuer Swiss
watch, and carries a cellphone with the moniker: Sex Devil. "The
idea was
they'd move to Canada, but we couldn't get the work permits from
Canada
Immigration. It wasn't our fault."

In the past, it had not been a problem. Mr. Cacciatore estimates he
made
about $150,000 (before expenses) during a two-year period, when
he brought
150 Costa Rican women into Toronto as strippers.

---

Authorities believe Mr. Cacciatore is a bit player in a global industry that represents a new form of slavery: the trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation. The industry involves an estimated two million women and children from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, according to a recent report by the Central Intelligence Agency. In Latin America, the women are called "blancas," slang for sex slaves. The CIA report identified Canada as both a transit hub for foreign sex workers on their way into the United States, as well as a destination.

In the last year, law enforcement agencies in the Greater Toronto Area have raided 16 strip clubs and laid 650 criminal charges against owners and sex workers in an operation known as Project Almonzo. Some of the establishments that were raided -- Candyland in Toronto and Extravaganza in Brampton -- had, months earlier, been the destination of Mr. Cacciatore's Costa Rican dancers.

Bert O'Mara, a Toronto Police detective who is the Project Almonzo co-ordinator, said in many cases, the women were treated as "slaves" in that they were bound financially and emotionally to their employers, often living on-site, their behaviour controlled by strip club managers.

"Often the women are poor, and are willing victims for unscrupulous agents who bring them to work in problematic clubs that promote prostitution," says Det. O'Mara, who notes that Project Almonzo includes officers from the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP, Peel and Durham Regional Police, Ontario's Alcohol and Gaming Commission and the federal immigration department.

Mr. Cacciatore does not see himself as a trafficker. Sinking into a black leather couch in Fantasia Club, the bar he opened last month in San Jose, he says candidly: "I don't coerce women or hire underage women. I offer them an opportunity to have a better life in a different country. I'm not doing anything bad, perhaps immoral to some."

The self-described pimp arrived in Costa Rica's capital four years ago, leaving behind two former wives, four children and a career in commercial real estate in Toronto. His timing was propitious. Human Resources Development Canada had recently identified a shortfall of local talent for strip clubs, and ruled that Canadian jobs would not be affected if foreign dancers were given temporary work permits.

As an agent, Mr. Cacciatore put ads in the local papers, interviewed women -- checking their bodies for scars and tattoos -- and obtained work permits for them. He and his Toronto business associates made about $1,000 on each of the estimated 150 women he sent to Toronto from 1996-98.

By 1998, problems began to surface. "There were concerns the women were being exploited," said Lorna Tessier, spokeswoman for Canada Immigration. "We began to exercise diligence to make sure what we were processing abroad was what it appeared to be."

She said only about 824 work authorizations for strippers have been issued since 1998 -- many of them renewals (in contrast, 4,400 permits for street entertainers were issued between 1994-97).

Requests for Costa Rican strippers continued to pour into Mr. Cacciatore's office -- but Canada immigration officials began scrutinizing his applications more closely, requiring proof the women had experience.

Mr. Cacciatore continued to go on "see-tours" in Panama and Nicaragua, trolling for women. But he turned his attention from the Canadian scene to his own business. "I didn't want this to be a whorehouse," he says, looking around his dimly lit bar. "But guys want women."

And the energetic Canadian, who speaks fluent Spanish and has a loyal Colombian girlfriend, believes he has a good eye. His name means hunter in Italian, after all. He prefers the "European" look of Colombians and Venezuelans to the broad noses and darker complexion of Guatemala's indigenous people. He shops for his product in the economical market of beautiful, destitute Central American "muchachas," where the buyer is king.

---

Bruce Harris, executive director of Covenant House in Latin America, says his organization has been watching Mr. Cacciatore for months, and has forwarded 11 anonymous complaints about him to Lilliam Gomez, Costa Rica's special prosecutor for sex crimes. "We believe he was trafficking in women by bringing them to Canada where they were sexually exploited," he says.

Mr. Harris believes the Filipina "eco-tourists" -- ostensibly allowed into Costa Rica last year to study red-eyed tree frogs and cloud forests - - were brought here under false pretenses. "Bringing women into Costa Rica to study ecology and promising they'll go to Canada is something he can't guarantee," he said. "The women were tricked."

Once it became clear they would not be issued work permits for Canada, most of the Filipinas opted to return to Manila. The three who chose to stay have continued to work in Olympus, San Jose's upscale brothel with its smoky striptease stage, on-site jacuzzis and $20 drinks.

Natasha, a former secretary from Manila, feels she was lured to this Central American country with the promise of a "Canadian dream": working in a club where prostitution was outlawed.

"Instead I'm in here," says the 24-year-old, dressed in a black camisole, panties and black over-the-knee boots, similar to the ones Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman. "It's disappointing."

When Natasha, who declines to give her real name, arrived in San Jose last February, she moved into a house Mr. Cacciatore had rented for all the Filipinas and says she was pushed to "work, work, work."

The house had a maid service and was in a good neighborhood; but the women had to abide by "house rules," and were not allowed to have male visitors or go out on their own.

She balked at having to sell her body -- as well as at having to turn over 70% of her earnings to the agents. After two weeks, she ran away, and began working in a Chinese restaurant. Unable to save any money to send to her eight-year-old child back home, she returned to Olympus last Christmas as a "freelance" prostitute.

She said she bears Mr. Cacciatore no ill feeling, but confesses: "I wish I didn't have to do this. My friends back home warned me, they said, 'Canada is a lie.' "

The version of Canada sold to Alejandra Cordoba, a 22-year-old Josefina, was also a lie, according to her police report. Mr. Cacciatore arranged a permit last year for Ms. Cordoba to work as a stripper in Club Pro Cafe in Toronto.

"They told me I'd make lots of money," she said in a police complaint filed in San Jose in August, 1999. "Enrico told me I'd have to do table dancing, but that no one would touch me because it was prohibited in Canada."

But when she arrived, she found that the definition of lap dancing was vague and that many clients expected sexual service from the "burlesque entertainers" in the VIP rooms on the second floor of Club Pro Cafe; the club even sold small white towels that customers put on their laps to mask the sexual activity.

"In the VIP rooms, girls were having sex with the customers in front of everyone," said Ms. Cordoba in her complaint. "I complained and was told, soon you'll get used to it. I felt bad, this wasn't what I was expecting."

After a few weeks, she fled back to San Jose and hid for two months in her boyfriend's house, fearful Mr. Cacciatore would come after her for the $3,000 she owed him (the cost of her airfare, visa, accommodation, food and transportation in Canada). She alleges Mr. Cacciatore threatened her boyfriend.

Mr. Cacciatore denies this and says simply that Ms. Cordoba's experience in Canada did not work out. She failed to repay him the money she owes him, but he says he is not pursuing the matter.

He said the agent cannot be responsible for everything that goes on at a club. "We contracted them to be dancers, what went on behind closed doors, I don't know," he said. "Some customers expected more, but the clubs were working within the law."

He said most of the Costa Rican dancers had a positive experience in Canada -- some even married and have settled there. None were kept as sex slaves, he said.

As for the Filipinas, Mr. Cacciatore says it is not his fault Canada immigration refused to give them work permits.

He says they all knew what they were getting into when they agreed to come here -- notwithstanding the higher ideals of Friends of the Rainforest.

"Some see progress in life," he said. "One Filipina met an American who bought out her contract and married her."

He treats all his employees well, he says, never hires underage women and does not condone violence or drugs of any kind. These days, he is focusing his efforts on recruiting women for his Internet-based escort service, where the real money is.

---

In Escazu, an upscale San Jose suburb of purple bougainvillaea trees and wide boulevards, a private security guard watches over Mr. Cacciatore's white-washed bungalow and four-by-four Jeep Cherokee.

Inside his home, unbeknownst to his neighbours, many of whom are diplomats, Mr. Cacciatore manages his "Latin sex cyber empire."

"Here it is, the pimping business," he says breezily, pointing to his computer and two posters on his bedroom wall that list 28 registered Internet sites and 42 more in development. Fantasiaclub.com, the most popular, guarantees Canadian and American sex tourists the elegant discretion of his bar, Fantasia, where there are no "pushy waiters" or naked women -- only escorts, a pool table and imported Cuban cigars.

"The girls are not there to hustle you -- rather to provide you company outside the club for a more private encounter," the sites advertise. He sells about 50 $50 memberships a month. One of his 20 "active" escorts is Melissa, a petite, sad-eyed 18-year-old in a red, sleeveless dress.

She explains that she has been selling her body since she was 14, the year her stepfather raped her and she became pregnant. She used to work for a well-known madam in San Jose who kept 80% of her earnings.

She makes US$250 a day (of which Mr. Cacciatore pockets US$150). She says "Rico," who has photographed her for his Internet site, is her friend and the best employer she has ever had.

"Sometimes I feel I am worth nothing because so many bad things have happened to me," she says. "I have no one to look after me. I call Rico when I am sick."

Melissa's dream is to work in Canada.

---

Mr. Cacciatore would like to take the next step: live sex shows for his Internet site. He plans to stay in Costa Rica and has no plans to return to Canada, a country with too many rules -- and "excuse me for saying this" -- too many bitches.

With his customary apologetic smile, he says: "North American women have pushed equal rights too far; men feel castrated and impotent."

He acknowledges he may be breaking the law in Costa Rica, where prostitution is legal, but living off trafficking is not.

"I'm known to Costa Rican police, immigration and intelligence services," he says candidly. "But I've never been charged."

He had one close call last fall, after Ms. Cordoba filed her police complaint. Immigration officials were going to deport him -- but a simple bribe fixed everything. The next day, the would-be king of Latin porn was back in business.

Tomorrow: Honduran youths indentured into drug trade


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