By Stephen Thorne, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – Smugglers have been spiriting Haitian quake orphans out of the country to become sex slaves in the Dominican Republic, authorities say.
A Mountie just back from Haiti says authorities have uncovered so-called “safe houses,” where predators hide children before whisking them over the border.
The perpetrators pose as aid workers or even work for legitimate charities, specifically to gain access to children, RCMP Sgt. Lana Prosper told The Canadian Press.
Investigators suspect some of those preying on desperate children in Haiti also peddled child-sex videos found online from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries after the 2004 tsunami.
It’s just a matter of time before videos of young Haitian quake victims surface, said Prosper, just home from a month in Haiti with a team from the Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Since we’ve been there and since we’ve been back, there have been groups of children found at the border in so-called safe houses,” she said.
“People put children into these homes and then wait till darkness to get them across the border. It’s happening.”
Prosper’s team worked in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, helping the national police force protect children after the Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed 230,000 people and left a million homeless.
They went in after international authorities realized that children orphaned or displaced by natural disasters are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Following the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, kids were sold to brothels, used in the production of sex videos or forced into sex slavery.
Like Thailand and some former east-bloc countries, Haiti and neighbouring Dominican Republic were already known destinations for pedophiles looking to capitalize on poverty and instability.
Several Canadians have recently been convicted of sex crimes involving Haitian children:
— John Duarte, a former priest from Windsor, Ont., who worked with a legitimate charity, was sentenced to 18 months in April after pleading guilty to sexual interference involving three Haitian teenagers. He was arrested last October in the Dominican Republic after an investigation by Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP.
— Two Quebec aid workers pleaded guilty in November 2008 to multiple counts of sexually abusing teenage boys while working at a Haitian orphanage. Armand Huard, 65, is serving three years and Denis Rochefort, 59, got two. Complaints by a dozen Haitian boys led nowhere until local police officers complained to Canadian cops on a Haitian mission. The Canadians prompted a Quebec-based investigation.
Prosper’s unit works from a glass office building in a suburban Ottawa industrial park, where police spend their days surfing the web. They monitor chat rooms, use advanced search tactics and do whatever is legal to trace videos, identify victims and track down predators in a murky underworld that victimizes children the world over.
Prosper, herself the mother of a little girl, says these people are “pure evil.” They inflict pain and humiliation on the most vulnerable, damaging innocent minds and young bodies, destroying lives in the process.
She says online groups have a kind of depraved hierarchy, where members gain status by providing new images — stills or, better yet, video — of first-time victims or bizarre sex acts involving children, even infants.
Some provide graphic, made-to-order videos for less than $1,000. They’ve even auctioned off victims’ underwear.
“These people will travel to do whatever they can to these children and get them at their most vulnerable time,” Prosper said in an interview.
“In their forums and that sort of thing, they’ll say ‘join these aid organizations, it’s less paperwork, it’s less background checks’.
”And when your whole country is falling apart after such a major disaster, your top priority may not always be to check everybody coming in that belongs to every aid organization.”
They hunt in the street, in orphanages, even in homes. Some despairing parents hand over their own offspring, either for profit or in the misguided hope they’re sending the children to a better life.
Prosper’s team spent much of its time visiting orphanages, collecting photographs and biographical data of children at risk as baseline data.
They’re currently trying to determine if any of the children recovered from the safe houses came from the orphanages they visited.
But their efforts are just beginning.
The Haitian National Police list about 250 orphanages in Haiti. UNICEF puts the figure at about 600. Prosper estimates there are really about 1,000.
Most average between 40 and 60 children, but some hold 400 or more.
“This was Phase 1,” said Prosper. “Right now, on paper, I have Phases 2, 3 and 4 still that we need to go back and continue to do.”
A onetime teacher from New Brunswick, Prosper joined the Mounties 17 years ago after discovering one of her young preschoolers was being abused by her mother’s boyfriend.
She said the daily grind takes a mental and physical toll, but the payoff is beyond measure.
“There’s nothing worse than hearing these babies, these little children saying ‘stop, Daddy; don’t hurt baby.’ And you can see it in their faces. Those ones are very bad. But it’s the little ones who lay there and don’t say anything and you can see their eyes.
“If we continue to do this work then, maybe, maybe somewhere along the line that child can be rescued. Because, really, one child does make a huge difference.”
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