It's 5 a.m. on Providencia Street in Chile's capital, and you can still see children as young as 5 peddling red flowers as their parents look on from the shadows. They've been working all night, and flowers aren't the only thing they sell.
Child prostitution is a problem that has plagued much of Latin America for decades. But just as Chile has been sheltered from the rest of the region's economic problems, to most people here this was a social problem that existed only elsewhere.
That changed late last year with the eruption of a sex scandal involving business impresario Claudio Spiniak, whose family made its fortune building a luxury-spa empire. He is alleged to have been at the helm of a prostitution ring that recruited street children. Mr. Spiniak denies the charges.
The sordid case has been front-page news for the past three months, with police officers and high-ranking businessmen under arrest. Two senators, one a former mayor of Santiago, are under investigation. [Editor's note: The orginal version of this story incorrectly stated that two senators were arrested in connection with the sex scandal case.]
It has taken a scandal of this magnitude to open Chile's eyes to a problem long ignored. Now that it has come to the fore, the government is taking bold steps by strengthening laws and increasing funding to groups working on the problem, all in the name of helping thousands of at-risk children.
"It has gone from being a topic that was absolutely unseen to one that has been made visible - thanks, unfortunately, to these horrible events," says Marcela Abarca of the National Service for Minors (SENAME), a government department specifically dedicated to the protection of children. "In terms of public policies and help for children, this is pretty positive. It is showing people that a problem exists, that this is a crime, and that it damages those children. That wasn't recognized before."
Francisco is one of the hidden tragedies. His mother died giving birth, and his father was shot shortly after that. He grew up in orphanages, and at the age of 7, he escaped to an even rougher life on the streets. For half his life, he worked in the sex trade. It was the only way to feed himself, he says.
"I saw that other kids were doing it, but all of them did it out of need," says Francisco. He is 15 now and has been off the streets for three months.
A recent SENAME study estimates that there are 4,000 children in the commercial-sex trade in Chile, though other studies have shown the number could be as high as 15,000. Some start as young as 5 years old, making anywhere from $1 to $50 per episode.
"We haven't seen the phenomenon that exists in Thailand, where there are establishments where little boys dance on tables," says Claudia Fuentes, founder of Alert and Response against the Sexual Abuse of Children (ARASI), a nongovernmental organization. "We haven't reached that level, or at least we don't see it explicitly.... It is still very hidden."
ARASI has identified 65,000 online networks of pedophiles across the country. Thirty of them are now before the courts. It's hard to know how many people are involved because one person can belong to many networks.
Ms. Fuentes entered the battle against pedophiles for personal reasons. Her daughter was kidnapped, raped, and used for child pornography when she was only 4 years old. A year later, the child's assailant was behind bars. His case is still before the courts, but he could get as little as three years in prison. Fuentes set out to change that.
In September 2002, the lower house of the Chilean Congress passed a bill that would toughen sentences for sex with minors and the production of child pornography. But it lingered in the Senate for more than a year - until Mr. Spiniak's arrest.
A week later, the Senate had approved the bill. Then in December, the Chilean Congress went further, amending the bill to raise the age of sexual consent to 14 from 12. Sex with a child under 14 will now automatically be considered rape and carry a prison sentence of five to 15 years. For the first time, paying minors for sex will be a crime. The law went into effect last week.
Jonathan, a 15 year old in a pink tube top, says he has always felt like an object. He says he got off the streets after the Spiniak case broke. He heard about several children who went missing and got scared.
Jonathan counts himself fortunate that nothing serious ever happened to him.
He is the exception to the rule.
Maria San Martín sold herself for two years and experienced the dangers of living on the street. She was raped by a client, and a friend was killed by her pimp.
"Thank God I lived to tell this," she says. "But so many girls have died."
Francisco also had it rough. He was beaten by pimps and clients. He now lives in a shelter called Margin, which tries to get children off the street by helping them find alternative forms of work. Margin is made up of former sex-trade workers like Maria, who search the streets for others and offer them alternative ways to make money. That was the selling point for Francisco.
"This foundation made me change," he says, a twinkle in his eye. "I left prostitution and now I'm working, as a traveling salesman - and legally." He peddles key chains on buses and is learning to make crafts.
Sociologists say child prostitution boomed during the economic crisis of the 1980s. Thirty percent of Chile's children are poor. Ms. Abarca says such poverty is a factor, but not a determinant.
Those working on the front lines say that investing in children is the only way to stop this epidemic. Diana Medel of Firmament, a children's rights organization, says it's an obligation, given that Chile ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, designed to protect the rights of children against all forms of abuse, in 1999.
"We need to help them, give them a good place to live, the chance to study and work, and heal them, spiritually and psychologically," says Ms. Medel.
In November, the government of Chile announced it would give SENAME an additional $700,000, doubling its budget. Experts here say at least 10 times that amount is needed to make a significant impact.
Still, the national scandal has led to increased budgets, tougher laws, and public attention. And the number of children reporting sexual abuse has increased five-fold over the past few months.