Pedophilia fallout

  • 2001-12-13
  • Eric Jansson
It was a brisk night in October 1999, and I went out to buy some orange juice and bread for tomorrow's breakfast at a 24-hour shop on Caka St. That night was one when my mind - like all decent local journalists' minds at the time - felt drunk and ill. Latvia's "pedophilia scandal" was in full swing.

Nobody knew what to make of it, but everyone had to write about it. Nothing makes a basically honest newsman more nauseous than writing in his obligatorily haughty tone of journalistic certainty when his only "facts" are ambiguous innuendo. He becomes an accidental accomplice to slander, and the guilt weighs on him.

I remember rounding the corner from Elizabetes St. onto Caka, thinking about all the ugly motivations at play. The scandal was fueled by local journalists on political payrolls, by the helplessness and scripted moral outrage of politicians, by a lusty suspicion of homosexuals, and by the natural fear that grips people when they know their society is immeasurably, perhaps incurably perverted.

But there were so few facts. We just knew that a company, Logos Centrs, had been accused of trading in child sex. We really did not know much more.

The main rumor was that children had been sold off for porn shoots and prostitution by their penniless parents, for consumption by a ravenous and untouchable elite. The secondary rumor was that pedophilia was widespread in Latvian society. But who had seen anything to prove either rumor? It was almost all innuendo.

One number stayed in my mind, and it still does: 10,000. The head of Riga's Child Protection Office had told me that he saw Logos' office after the raid, and that there was a database with about 10,000 children's names on it. He also told me that there were videos confiscated of children being forced to perform sexual tricks with dead bodies and animals.

The videos allegedly played for subscribers over the Internet. Those sounded to me like facts - horrible, but concrete, provable - yet underreported, and not much to go on.

But how could a journalist measure how widespread the child sex industry had really become? Could he somehow get inside the pedophiles' world?

I kept walking, pondering the mess, until I saw a strange figure ahead on the pavement. It looked like some kind of willowy girl in a tattered white sundress, who had lost her balance. But as I came closer, that seemed wrong. It must have been a boy, maybe 15 years old. He was wearing old high-top basketball shoes under the sundress, untied on bare feet.

Lanky, he moved without any grace, as if knocked silly in a fight. Closer still, I saw that a line of lipstick had been scrawled across his face, from his mouth to his cheek. He was swaying and stumbling but trying to walk, like a kid with a weak constitution after a heavy inhalation of glue or something stronger. His eyes were glazed with empty elation.

As we came face to face, he kept grinning and mumbling, and I wanted to say or do something. But there was nothing to say or do. The boy was so loopy and physical that subduing him would have been difficult, and keeping him subdued would have been even harder.

I felt an urge to get him off the street but, alone, was unable to do it. Other pedestrians passed him, too, oblivious or unsure how to react.

Shaking off the weird scene, I walked into the store and bought my breakfast, walked out, passed the boy again and went home.

I assumed that the poor boy was a prostitute, drugged after a job, probably before another. There are child prostitutes on Caka St., though officially there are none.

So after sleeping on my guilt, I resolved to find out something more. In fact, I resolved to meet with a pimp and buy myself a child. Not for one night, but for good. The transaction would be arranged on the pretense of "adoption," with a wink. If I could do that, then it would be possible, with certain honesty, to write about child sex slavery in Latvia.

Eventually I called up an excellent local crime journalist - no name here, sorry - and asked him to give me an evening's tour of the city's vice lairs, starting with Caka St. The tour ended in a street-level bar used as a heated rest-stop by adult hookers, but where child prostitutes supposedly could be found through a curtain and up the stairs.

There in the bar, my colleague and I agreed to try to buy a child, not that evening but eventually. The barman across the room from us would be our first test contact as a potential trader. So I struck up a friendly conversation with the barman, in an effort to build up trust.

Talking was easy because, to my surprise, in that grimy hole of an establishment he spoke fluent English and French. I wondered, are some of his clients perhaps international?

My colleague used his superior contacts with local police to win quiet support for our mission. The police were thrilled with the idea that someone would try a sting operation like this. As a foreigner, I could pose credibly as a buyer interested in Latvia's inexpensive human meat-market.

The goal would be to buy a child with no promise of returning him or her, then to keep the child safely somewhere, with police cooperation, for a few days to prove that the sale could really go through. Then, only then, could we draw credible attention to the child sex trade. We could say we bought ourselves a slave.

But even before we could go back to the same bar, the BBC flew in out of nowhere and tried a quick sting operation of its own. In too limited a way, their correspondent succeeded.

The BBC managed to take a child for an evening from an orphanage on the pretense of a "photographic shoot," with promises to return the child in a number of hours. The trouble was, the BBC aired its report as proof that children could be bought. In fact, all it proved was that one orphanage's house-mother was negligent and corrupt, but no pimp.

However lame, the BBC's effort froze us out, since it undoubtedly put polyglot pimps on guard for sting operations. As one of the few foreign journalists based in Riga, then as the correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, my face had been seen, and my colleague was equally recognizable or more so. So we never went ahead with it, and it irritates me to this day.

It irritates me because there were 10,000 children on that database, I am told, but just a few people have been punished for Logos' possibly vast crimes, now years later. One does not compile a database of 10,000 by working alone, or even with a small group, meanwhile producing and managing a child porn and prostitution ring.

But now that the political clamor has died down, the crimes are forgotten, and with them the victims. I wonder what happened to that kid on Caka St. He is just one. There are thousands.