FBI Most Wanted caught in Nicaragua: What draws US pedophiles to the region?

Stigmatized in the US, some registered sex offenders like Eric Toth decide to move abroad to start fresh in a foreign country – and Central America is becoming a popular spot.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Eric Justin Toth of the US is escorted after a presentation to the media at police headquarters building in Managua Monday. Toth, a former Washington schoolteacher on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for alleged child pornography had been arrested in the Central American country of Nicaragua, a federal law enforcement source said on Monday.

After nearly five years of living on the lam, accused pedophile Eric Justin Toth, a 31-year-old former school teacher sought for his alleged production and possession of child pornography in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, was running out of places to hide in the United States.

Mr. Toth, who is described by the FBI as an intelligent and charming individual who mastered the art of blending in wherever he hid, was chased through seven states across the US before finally giving law authorities the shake in 2009. The FBI eventually put Toth on their list of Top 10 Most Wanted Fugitives last year.

So when the runaway pedophile was finally collared this week by Nicaraguan police, who discovered him living under an assumed identity in the remote tobacco-growing region of Nicaragua’s north-central highlands, it was hailed as a major victory for the country’s law enforcement. After all, Nicaraguan Police Chief Aminta Granera noted, Toth replaced Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s wanted list.

Unfortunately for Nicaraguans ­– and Central Americans in general – Toth is not the only US pedophile skulking about the isthmus in sunglasses and a guayabera. Though Toth’s case made international headlines, he’s only one of a growing number of American sex predators who is turning Central America into a near-shore tropical hideout.

Ostracized by sex offender registries and notification requirements in the US, some pedophiles are moving abroad to seek a fresh start in life. And countries such as Nicaragua, which is opening its doors to tourism and foreign investment, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to prurient sex tourists and pedophiles. Costa Rica and Panama have long attracted their fair share of foreign predators, but neighboring Nicaragua – where costs are lower and people are poorer – is quickly developing a reputation as a playground for sex offenders.

“This region of the world is quickly surpassing Asia for its levels of sex tourism,” says Steven Cass, executive director of Breaking Chains, a Christian ministry group that battles sexual exploitation and rescues victims in Latin America. “We are seeing a major spike in activity and as a result have been very successful lately in working with local governments and US federal agencies to capture and dismantle pedophile and human-traffickers rings.”

Mr. Cass says his group has participated in recent pedophile busts in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, netting seven men – including two US citizens – and rescuing more than 40 victims ranging in age from 12 to 16. One man, a 61-year American businessman who was working in Managua as the executive of a large textile factory, was arrested earlier this month after police found evidence that he was regularly abusing girls as young as 8.

When the zone defense fails

US legislation such as Megan’s Law and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act provides an effective zone defense inside the United States; police are responsible for keeping tabs on sexual predators in their jurisdiction, but once the sex offender leaves town, they become someone else’s problem. When registered offenders decide to move from one US town or state to another, they must notify local police so authorities in the next town can be put on alert.

But US laws don’t restrict registered sex offenders from leaving the United States, and that’s when the zone defense can fall apart. Though sex offenders must notify authorities about their intent to move abroad, US authorities can only notify Interpol or their foreign counterparts – they can't add the offender to an international sex offender registry, for example . And sometimes communication breaks down across the borders.

When US citizen Ronald Leno, a 64-year-old repeat sex offender who served several jail sentences in Massachusetts for stalking and multiple rape convictions, was arrested in Nicaragua in late 2011 for raping a 14-year-old girl and using other minors for commercial sexual exploitation, the Nicaraguan Police had no idea about his prior convictions. Even though Interpol Washington sent a letter to Nicaraguan authorities in January 2008 to “advise of the subject’s situation,” Nicaraguan police said they first learned of Mr. Leno’s presence in late 2011 when neighbors tipped off the cops about his suspicious behavior.

Scott Matson, a senior policy advisor for the US Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART), says US authorities have worked to improve information-sharing and close registration loopholes for sex offenders in the United States. But he admits more needs to be done to tighten the net across borders.

“We are working to create a better coordinated system internationally,” Mr. Matson says. But doing so is a big task that involves many government agencies, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to passport services and the FBI.   

Still, the FBI says this week’s arrest of Toth in Nicaragua – “the result of an exhaustive and well-coordinated investigation by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, the FBI Legal Attaché, and Special Agents of the Diplomatic Security Service assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Managua” ­– shows they take pedophile cases very seriously, even beyond US borders.

“Hurting a child is a particularly horrific crime and, no matter where in the world these individuals try to hide and no matter how long it takes, we will pursue all those who take part in such disturbing activity,” Valerie Parlave, the FBI Washington Field Office assistant director in charge, told The Christian Science Monitor today.

“For five years, we worked together with our law enforcement partners in the United States and abroad in pursuit of Eric Toth. As evidenced by his apprehension, we will find these individuals and bring them to justice,” Ms. Parlave says.

Reporting for this piece was also conducted in Managua, Nicaragua.

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