By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 31 -- Three Americans accused of traveling to Cambodia to have sex with children are expected to be charged in federal court here, officials said Monday, marking the first prosecutions under a new international initiative intended to combat child-sex tourism.
The initiative, Operation Twisted Traveler, targets Americans who exploit children for sex in Cambodia, which experts describe as a top destination for child predators. U.S. and Cambodian authorities, as well as nongovernmental organizations, were involved in the effort.
"This level of cooperation is unprecedented," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which coordinated the initiative with the Justice Department.
Before arriving in Los Angeles on Monday, the suspects -- Ronald Boyajian, 49, Erik Peeters, 41, and Jack Sporich, 75 -- were arrested by Cambodian authorities on charges related to child sexual exploitation. They are expected to make their initial appearances in federal court Tuesday afternoon.
The three men are current or former California residents, and all are registered sex offenders, authorities said. An attorney for Boyajian did not respond to a call to comment. The other two men do not yet have attorneys.
Child-sex tourism -- whereby minors are sold for sex through brothels or solicited off the street -- has long been part of the landscape in Cambodia. Like most countries where the crime occurs, such as Thailand and Mexico, Cambodia is a poor nation, with a $600 annual per capita income, according to the World Bank. In desperation to pay for food or health care, some families sell their children to foreign pedophiles or sex houses.
It is difficult to know how pervasive child-sex tourism is in Cambodia, or in any other country, because of the illicit nature of the crime. Undercover investigators, working with human rights activists, continue to find many brothel owners and traffickers selling minors for sex in Cambodia.
There are increasing reports of men traveling there to have sex with underage girls for as much as $4,000, according to the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report of 2009. The report designated the Southeast Asian country as among those that should receive special scrutiny because it has not made enough progress in eliminating the problem.
Cambodia has made some efforts. Over the past year, after enacting laws with anti-trafficking provisions, the government convicted a dozen offenders and prosecuted nearly 70. U.S. legislation, including the PROTECT Act of 2003, has also targeted trafficking. The legislation bolstered federal laws targeting predatory crimes against children outside the United States by expanding the range of crimes and increasing penalties.
Officials say Twisted Traveler, launched in October, will help enforce existing laws. Under the initiative, the FBI and ICE trained the Cambodian National Police and local police in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital.
"Some part of what we're trying to do here is change attitudes and change acceptance of child-sex tourism as something that's always been around or can't be changed," Carol A. Rodley, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, said in a telephone interview. "And I think that's very much true of the Cambodian police -- that their attitudes about the issue have changed in part because of the collaboration."
Authorities in both countries relied on information provided by Action Pour Les Enfants, a nonprofit group, and the International Justice Mission, a human rights agency. Their involvement, Rodley said, marked a breakthrough for Cambodia, which historically has had an uneasy relationship with such organizations because of their criticism of the government.
In a statement announcing the latest allegations, officials said Boyajian, of Menlo Park, Calif., is accused of having sex with a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl. Peeters, of Norwalk, Calif., is accused of engaging in sexual activity with at least three underage Cambodian boys, paying them $5 to $10. Sporich, of Sedona, Ariz., is accused of sexually abusing at least one Cambodian boy, and of driving through city streets on his motorbike, dropping money as a way to attract children.
If convicted, the men face sentences of up to 30 years for each victim.
Officials said they hope the arrests will deter would-be sex tourists. Over the past six years, ICE has arrested more than 70 suspects nationwide on charges of child-sex tourism.
"The appeal of a place like this is that it's very far away, and pedophiles feel like they can come here and be anonymous and be outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement," Rodley said. "I hope the message that it sends is one of deterrence."