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Crime & Courts

Local law enforcement battles child sex trafficking abroad

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2014 at 08:36 AM

TAMPA — When federal agents interviewed a Pasco County middle school teacher as he was about to fly to Belize, agents said the 48-year-old told them it’s legal to have sex there with girls as young as 16.

But, they said, David Wendel Thompson added he tried to meet only women who were at least 18.

However, authorities say Thompson was going to Belize to try to have sex with two girls ages 13 and 15. It would have been his 10th trip to the country since June 2011.

When Homeland Security agents searched Thompson’s bags during his layover in Miami, they found condoms and Cialis, a drug for erectile dysfunction, according to a criminal complaint affidavit.

Although agents found a camera with photographs of women and children in Belize, they found no child pornography. So they allowed Thompson to proceed on his trip.

Belize refused Thompson entry, however, and when he returned to Miami, he was arrested on a charge of enticing a minor for sex. He could face up to life in prison if convicted.

Although Belize recently outlawed the commercial exploitation of children, it is legal there for children as young as 16 to have sex in exchange for payment, according to the U.S. State Department.

But it is a federal crime for U.S. citizens to travel to other countries to have sex with children, regardless of whether they are breaking the law overseas.

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Last year, 19 people were arrested nationwide on sex tourism charges, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nine people were convicted in that time period. In the past 10 years, 260 people were arrested and 205 convicted on sex tourism charges.

Among the defendants was a man whom authorities say operated a charity in Haiti and forced children there to have sex with him to stay in a shelter and school.

A former Miami physical education teacher also was accused of multiple trips to Thailand to have sex with young boys.

This month, a former Cape Coral man was accused of operating a sex tourism business in Ecuador.

Belize is a “source destination” for sex trafficking and forced labor, according to a State Department report issued last summer.

Authorities say destitute children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for money their families desperately need.

“The countries that are frequently traveled are countries where the poverty is higher and there’s not many options for families or income,” said Homeland Security investigations agent Paul Thompson, who is not related to the defendant.

Southeast Asia and Latin America are common destinations for child sex tourists.

“Americans, capitalizing on their relative wealth and the lack of effective law enforcement in the destination countries, easily purchase access to young children to engage in illicit sex acts, sometimes for as little as $5,” according to a 2010 Justice Department report to Congress.

American sex tourists are typically white men age 40 or older, the report states.

“Some reporting indicates that as many as 80  percent of the child sex tourists in Latin America and 25 percent of those in Southeast Asia are U.S. citizens,” the report states.

Thompson, the Homeland Security agent, said the harm done to vulnerable children escapes the attention of many in the U.S.

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The Internet plays an increasing role in child sex tourism, which used to rely on illicit travel agencies.

The Justice Department states that the Internet, just as it has radically changed child pornography, has “revolutionized the child sex tourism industry.”

Officials say defendant David Wendel Thompson communicated on Facebook with the two girls they said he targeted in Belize.

“i will make sure u always have money,” Thompson reportedly wrote on Facebook to the 13-year-old. “it hurts i want to do so much for u i need u to give back a little ... and i always want to be special to u so let me b your first.”

Authorities said David WendelThompson sent a similar message to the 15-year-old, saying, “i just want to be ur first thats my present so i can be special to u.”

A Facebook security unit alerted Homeland Security to the sometimes-lewd conversations Thompson was having with the girls, according to the affidavit. A Facebook spokesman declined to discuss the case or provide information about its security unit.

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The scenario is not unusual in Belize, according to the U.S. government.

“A common form of human trafficking in Belize is the coerced prostitution of children, often occurring through parents pushing their children to provide sexual favors to older men in exchange for school fees, money, and gifts,” according to the State Department report.

Belize is considered a tier 2 country for human trafficking, according to the State Department, which ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the worst.

The State Department noted the recent outlawing of commercial sexual exploitation of children but said 16- and 17-year-olds in Belize remain vulnerable to the exploitation because it is legal for them to have sex in exchange for payment.

Although Belize doesn’t fully comply with international anti-trafficking standards, “it is making significant efforts to do so,” according to the State Department report.

Problems remain, however.

“Lack of punishment for trafficking offenders, especially complicit officials, remained a significant obstacle to the government’s ability to authentically address its trafficking problem,” according to the report.

Belize’s refusal to allow Thompson into the country may be a sign of its increased efforts to fight trafficking.

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Floy Turner, a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent who works with the Organization of American States on preventing child trafficking in the Caribbean, said, “Obviously, maybe he aroused their suspicion because he’s going back and forth, and they would be asking him what is the purpose of his traveling to kind of gain some insight, and say there is something suspicious in his demeanor and why he’s traveling. They probably did a pre-interview, and maybe he aroused some suspicions.”

Turner went to Belize in 2010 to help train officials there on preventing human trafficking and said authorities were very receptive to the training.

“When I was in Belize, I felt the officials were really attempting to be proactive,” Turner said.

The country, she said, is “right up there” as a destination for child sex tourists, although it is not as well-known as Thailand or Costa Rica.

“It’s not the top, but it’s an easy location from the United States,” Turner said.

Maybe, she theorized, that’s why David Wendel Thompson went to Belize.

“Maybe he thought it wouldn’t arouse so much suspicion,” Turner said.

Turner said she’s proud of the U.S. law against traveling overseas to have sex with children.

“I can’t think of anything worse, other than homicide, to go and have sex with some poor little child who’s 13 years old,” she said. “What a despicable crime. That’s just horrific. It’s child abuse at its worst.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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