GERMAN postal inspectors thought they were about to catch a drug smuggler. In September 1993, 15 unusually thick envelopes reached Frankfurt by airmail from Bangkok. All bore the same return address printed in Thai, headed by a name in English -- ''Team 504.''
But when inspectors opened the envelopes, there were no drugs inside. Instead they found dozens of photographs of naked Thai boys along with a letter, written in German, listing prices for child pornography, made-to-order sex videos involving boys as young as 8, and trips to Thailand. Team 504 promised to provide ''one or several boys for one day, one night, or a longer period,'' according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Monitor.
''Do you want to do all the things you cannot do in cold, unfriendly Europe?'' the letter asked. ''We can organize nearly everything. It is only a question of price.''
The discovery of the envelopes turned out to be the beginning of a cold, unfriendly confrontation between law-enforcement agencies and the apparent proprietor of Team 504, a German named Bernd Karl-Heinz Nierenz. He is now on trial in Bangkok on more-recent charges of sexually abusing Thai children.
When foreigners are accused of such charges in Thailand, the end result is usually not punishment.
''I've observed a number of cases, and always they've bailed out and never been convicted,'' says a Western law-enforcement official working in Thailand, speaking on condition of anonymity. Foreign and Thai law-enforcement officials say ''bail'' is often a euphemism for bribery.
But the police and the judge involved in Nierenz's current case have so far refused him bail, in what may be a sign of a growing determination to punish foreigners here.
''I think [the Thais] are getting more serious,'' says the Western official. One senior government prosecutor suggests that the Thai justice system may make an example of Nierenz.
Thai activists working to stop the sexual exploitation of children say they are trying to make their justice system more effective to create a deterrent.
Until now, activists have concentrated on raising global awareness of the problem and on encouraging foreign pedophiles' home countries -- such as the United States, Sweden, Germany, France, and Australia -- to write laws allowing the punishment of illegal acts committed abroad. All five of those countries have approved such legislation.
Foreigners do not outnumber Thais as patrons of prostitutes under 18, but they appear to be the predominant exploiters of prepubescent children. Because they are relatively wealthy, visitors and expatriate residents have skewed the economics of the international sex trade over the past two decades, activists say, causing rapid increases in the numbers of child prostitutes in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Nonetheless, proponents of a tougher approach toward sexual abusers of children in Thailand face formidable obstacles:
*People accused of such acts frequently bribe their way to freedom.
*Local police are hampered by corruption and a lack of resources.
*A culturally ingrained sense of tolerance dampens attempts to make judges, prosecutors, and police take the problem seriously.
After examining the Team 504 letters, German authorities asked their Thai counterparts to investigate. The first time Thai police visited the address on the envelopes, no one was home. When they returned, they found Nierenz. He was later convicted of possession of child pornography and spent about six months in a Thai prison before being returned to Germany in March 1994 to face charges there.
A German judge declined to jail Nierenz, instead fining him 13,000 deutsche marks. He returned to Thailand in June 1994, police say.
Tipped off by a private group that works with street children in Bangkok, Thai police investigated Nierenz again early last December. This time they found him with four boys under the age of 15, and arrested him on various charges involving the sexual abuse of minors. Bangkok newspapers ran photos, taken at a routine display of the suspect by police, of the boys simultaneously covering their faces and pointing at Nierenz, who hides his own face from the camera.
Nierenz has asserted his innocence both in the 1993 and the current case. This February he did not respond to a note that his jailers promised to deliver to him requesting an interview. His trial will not reach a conclusion for several months.
One reason Nierenz has been denied bail is that Sudarat Srisang, then a representative of an international advocacy group called End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), immediately protested conditional freedom for Nierenz, citing his previous conviction. Ms. Sudarat recently resigned from ECPAT, but is forming a new group to monitor and promote the enforcement of Thai child-sex laws. The Bangkok-based Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights, a leading Thai nongovernmental organization, also serves as a watchdog.
But even when activists monitor cases closely, police and judges are usually willing to free suspects on bail, despite overwhelming evidence that foreigners flee.
Last Dec. 30, for example, four weeks after Nierenz's more recent arrest, a French national named Michel Tyrogalas skipped his bail. He had just been sentenced to four years in prison for criminal sexual violations involving two boys under 15, but was granted bail pending an appeal.
'Exceptions' for foreigners?
Critics have accused the Thai government of looking the other way when foreigners are accused of sex crimes in order not to jeopardize the tourism industry.
Wanchai Roujanavong, a prosecutor in the office of Thailand's attorney general who follows child sex-abuse cases, says it has not been a ''policy'' to let foreigners go. But he concedes that ''exceptions'' have been made in cases involving foreigners ''because the tourism policy is so strong.''
The embassies of accused foreigners often face difficult choices in these cases. Many are legally obliged to replace a passport if a citizen reports the original lost or stolen. Some nations prefer to have their nationals prosecuted at home, while others only support local prosecutions if the penalties are no more severe than under their own laws. Observers agree that there is vastly more international cooperation in the prosecution of drug trafficking.
Lack of police action
Within the Thai justice system, there are plenty of factors inhibiting the enforcement of child-sex laws. The police, for example, appear to lack both the commitment and the resources to pursue offenders. Police Col. Bancha Jarujeet, known as one of the country's most effective enforcers, was recently removed from the leadership of a child sex-crime task force, allegedly because he was doing his job too well.
''He interfered with other people's profits,'' says Saisuree Chutikul, a former Cabinet minister who is now an adviser to the prime minister on women's and social issues. Tourism and the sex trade are major industries in Thailand, and some powerful elements of the society are arrayed against efforts to enforce existing laws, much less pass tougher legislation.
Colonel Bancha asserts that his task force received only minimal support from the police bureaucracy and the government. He says the 26 officers assigned to the unit did not have their own room, had only one phone, and had to fund undercover operations out of their own pockets. Bancha provided his own mobile phone, a necessity in Bangkok, and used his own car. He says nongovernmental organizations concerned with the issue occasionally rented cars for the officers to use.
Prosecutors in child-sex cases also have a difficult time keeping witnesses available for trial. Many child prostitutes are homeless and cannot be located easily, if at all.
''Because they are victims and not the accused,'' says Mr. Wanchai, the prosecutor on the staff of Thailand's attorney general, ''we have no authority to keep the children.''
Here again, nongovernmental organizations serve a vital role, providing a home for children until they testify, but it is unclear whether the NGOs hold the children against their will as cases proceed through the courts. Wanchai acknowledges the inadequacy of these arrangements, promising future reforms.
More than two years ago Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai announced a crackdown on the sex trade, but Bancha remains skeptical of the government's real intentions. ''Your mouth moves, and you wink your eyes,'' he says, paraphrasing a Thai proverb. Prosecutor Wanchai counters that the government now feels the eradication of child prostitution is as important as economic development.
The need to change values
''All the men,'' says Wimolsiri Jamnarnwej, a law professor and the president of the Women Lawyers Association of Thailand, ''think [child prostitution] is not serious.... It's very difficult to change the attitudes or social values of men.''
Ms. Wimolsiri's statement is sweeping, but Thai activists and even some law-enforcement officials agree that their cause would be helped if Thais were not so tolerant of certain sexual activities.
Thais tend not to be scandalized by the idea of adults having sex with teenagers, as a visit to a Thai red-light district will amply demonstrate. Even in Thai villages, says Sanphasit Koompraphant of the Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights, ''everyone will allow you [to seek out a young partner] and propose something.''
''It's a business,'' he adds.
Wimolsiri hopes a new law now before the Thai legislature will help change this attitude, since it does more than previous statutes to criminalize the patronage of child prostitutes. She says the new law also increases penalties for sex crimes and mandates educational programs for underage prostitutes.
Ms. Saisuree, the government adviser, says, ''What we have been trying to do is revise the legal process, because that has been one of our weaknesses.'' But she adds that the Thai government is also working to expand educational opportunities for children, especially girls, which she says is the most effective way of keeping them out of the sex trade.
Sex tourism diversifying
Amid these efforts to combat child prostitution and pornography, the entrepreneurs and businesspeople who generate this trade are diversifying. Timothy Bond, a longtime children's rights activist now based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, says he sees growing numbers of foreign sex tourists in that city. There are similar reports from Cambodia and the Chinese provinces of Yunan and Hainan.
The exposure of Team 504 uncovered one network used by pedophiles and child-pornography consumers. But more and more of these people are exchanging information by computer, a medium almost impossible to police.