BOGOTA, Dec 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Latin America must tackle a social tolerance of children being sold for sex work and the growing online sex trade to boost low conviction rates for child sex trafficking, a rights group said.
ECPAT International, which campaigns against the sexual exploitation of children, said there are on average just nine convictions each year for child sex exploitation, including trafficking, in any Latin American country.
"In most countries the amount of prosecuted cases that have lead to convictions in the last year remains in the single digits," said Fabio Gonzalez, ECPAT International's Latin America coordinator.
Some Latin American children are trafficked for prostitution in and outside of their own country and others for pornography. Street children are particularly at risk of getting caught in sex trafficking rings.
"Commercial sexual exploitation of children is not seen as a problem in Latin America," Gonzalez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in Panama City.
"It is socially tolerated, especially in rural areas. People judge the child and not the man who is buying sex."
There are no reliable data on the prevalence of children being sexually exploited in Latin America. Anti-trafficking groups estimate two million children are sold for sex every year, in a crime that all too often goes unpunished.
"There's not a single country in Latin America with a centralised data system to measure the extent of child sex exploitation," Gonzalez said.
Experts say poverty fuels prostitution and makes children vulnerable to offers of money, while some are forced to sell their bodies for food.
While many countries in Latin America have passed laws to protect children's rights in the past decade, governments lack trained police or effective systems to monitor and stem the child sex trade, Gonzalez said.
Increasingly children are being sexually exploited online, a growing trend that remains poorly understood and documented in Latin America, Gonzalez said.
Mobile phones and the internet, including chatrooms, make it easier for criminals to exploit children and to sell and share child pornography through file sharing networks.
"Technology is also being used to recruit children for prostitution and not just pornography," Gonzalez said.
With more tourists visiting Latin America in recent years, child sex tourism is also an increasing problem.
Colombia's Caribbean Coast, parts of Peru and Brazil, and the Dominican Republic and Cuba, are known as sex tourism hubs.
Tens of thousands of children from Central America also get caught in sex trafficking rings as they migrate illegally to the United States to escape poverty and gang violence.
During their overland journey north, children fall prey to smugglers trafficking children and women into sex work in bars and brothels, particularly along the porous Guatemala-Mexico border and Mexico's state of Chiapas. (Editing by Ros Russell)