Not anymore. On Aug. 19, the Bangkok Criminal Court approved Rosser's extradition to the U. S. to stand trial on six counts of producing and distributing child porno-graphy. The FBI and Thai authorities claim Rosser molested an unknown number of girls in Bangkok and Bloomington, most of them between the ages of seven and 11. The first alleged pedophile to appear on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, Rosser is said by authorities to have filmed himself having sex with an 11-year-old girl. (Rosser has vowed to fight the charges, though he wrote a letter published in a Bangkok newspaper in 2000 that stated, "Yes, I am a pedophile.")
Yet to many observers the problem remains more acute than ever. In a hard-hitting speech in Phnom Penh last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson charged that "Traffickers are able to operate with impunity (in Cambodia) because of inefficient law enforcement, compounded in some cases by official corruption." And Cambodia is hardly alone. Take a stroll into the Sunee Plaza in Pattaya, Thailand, or through Manila's Rajah Sulayman Park, and it's impossible not to notice girls as young as eight painted up like Barbie dolls and openly selling themselves. "Chicks, you want chicks?" asks a pimp in Manila, with a swagger that suggests he has nothing to fear from the law.
To be sure, there have been some advances. For one thing, technology used to trace known pedophiles has helped law enforcement agencies to coordinate their efforts globally. "We've now got software we can use with an image database that can compare details in new child porno-graphy to determine if it matches previous material," says Anders Persson, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol in Lyons, France. "The software can compare settings, furniture, rooms and body parts of people in the pictures—including those of known pedophiles—and match them with material that has already been traced back to their origins. When you start seeing the same places and settings in new images, it usually means many of the same people are involved again."
But in countries like Cambodia, high-tech gizmos stand little chance against a scourge that has become virtually an epidemic. Best estimates put the number of prostitutes in Cambodia at about 30,000, and as many as one-third of these are thought to be under 18 years old—many of them trafficked into the country illegally from neighboring Vietnam. These child prostitutes are highly profitable bait for well-heeled visitors. More than 65% of all tourists to Cambodia are men, and one-fifth of them are there for the sex industry, according to a survey of travel agents by World Vision, a Christian NGO active in child protection.
Sex tourists and Western pedophiles make for high-profile arrests. Yet they aren't the prime culprits. "Foreigners are not the only ones who exploit our children," says Mu Sochua, Cambodia's Minister for Women's Affairs. "The real disease comes from within." Indeed, child protection advocates say locals are the biggest offenders—and the ones least likely to be caught and punished. In Cambodia, the threat of punishment is miniscule, as there is no legislation prohibiting sex with children. (However, some cases have been brought against men who have raped children.) Meanwhile, child advocates say the fear of AIDS has boosted the allure of underage partners for local men, and that buying a virgin is a sign of prestige to some members of Cambodia's élite. "It's become socially acceptable to sleep with young girls," says Sochua. "The message is, 'It's O.K. Do it. You won't be punished.'"
That's typically true, in part because brothels throughout the region are often protected by corrupt police and government officials with a vested interest in making only occasional, symbolic busts in which prostitutes—but no pimps or customers—are arrested. Says Pierre Legros, founder of a child rights NGO in Phnom Penh: "You can't change a system that is rotten to the core, no matter how good your legislation or how much pressure is applied."
His pessimism is borne of experience. Last May, a police raid of a brothel in Cambodia's Svay Pak netted 17 Vietnamese girls, of whom 11 were under the age of 18. Yet Legros points out that none of their pimps were arrested. "They were tipped off," he says. Worse was to come: the girls were ruled to be illegal immigrants rather than victims of human trafficking and were sentenced to three months in jail. Thai Senator Wallop Tangkananurak, chairman of the legislature's Committee on Women, the Elderly and Youth, remarks, "The problem of child prostitution and child abuse is like a field of grass that is growing higher and higher." Until attitudes—not only laws—are changed, it will be hard not to lose children in the thickets.