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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - The two little girls, arms folded across their chests to ward off the unseasonable chill of the night, eyed the pair of tall gringo men speculatively, then offered tentative smiles. You look like you might want to buy something. Meet Stephanie, 12, and Ivette, 13, two members of a fast-growing Costa Rican work force: child prostitutes.
The country that prides itself as Latin America's most stable democracy and the inventor of ecotourism is becoming the hemisphere's best-known playground for pedophiles.
Every night, as many as 2, underage prostitutes walk the streets of San Jose or cater to more affluent clients behind the walls of stately homes converted into brothels in the city's best neighborhoods.
Other children take off their clothes to pose for lewd pictures that will be passed around the Internet - which, until last year, wasn't even a crime in Costa Rica. The problem has been developing for years.
In , the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm, Sweden, issued a report noting that Costa Rica was becoming an important center for child prostitution, but the government's failure to act has generated increased international scrutiny. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report saying it was "deeply concerned at the high incidence of commercial sexual exploitation of children in Costa Rica.