When police handcuffed David Strecker on September 4, 2015 in a Costa Rican airport, the 66-year-old American remembers thinking he'd only have to answer a few questions before he could board his flight back home.
But Strecker never made it on the plane. He's been behind bars ever since after being accused of violating Costa Rican law by promoting prostitution. Now, Strecker—a Florida resident who ran a popular blog about his sexual exploits abroad, mainly in countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Costa Rica, where prostitution is legal—will be the first person ever tried under the law in the country's history.
The statute Strecker is being charged under is part of a 2013 human trafficking law that, among other things, prohibits the use of any media to promote the country as a "tourist destination accessible for the exploitation of sexual commerce or for the prostitution of persons of any sex or age."
Fernando Ferraro, a former Costa Rican justice minister who sponsored the law, told VICE that it was designed to prevent illegal dealings, like sex slaves and child sex workers. A 2016 US State Department report found that child sex tourism was a "serious problem" in the country and that it remains a common destination for trafficking victims.
"Certainly the country has to protect its image as a tourist destination," Ferraro said. "But it's not just a matter of image. A lot of times criminal organizations, or human traffickers, are connected to the prostitution industry."
Strecker is an unabashed fan of the prostitution industry, but he claims that all he does is run a blog devoted to advising sex tourists like himself, not telling people to become sex tourists. Likely the most famous john on the internet, Strecker has whitening hair and tanned skin that has begun to sag from his once-defined arms. He's a former softball player and a diehard Yankees fan who freely quotes George Steinbrenner and has a tattoo of the Yankees logo on his right shoulder. In Costa Rica's La Reforma prison, where he's being detained, he's the lone American inmate and regularly wears muscle tees and sandals—about as gringo as gringo gets.
Strecker first made a name for himself on sex tourist forums and internet groups, where he detailed his experience touring the brothels and bars of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. He would later come to be known as "Cuba Dave" and would co-author a book called Cuba Dave's Guide to Sosua, Dominican Republic, which has since been banned from Amazon.
Once it became apparent that there was interest in the Cuba Dave brand, Strecker began documenting his sex-fueled travels through Costa Rica with suggestive blog posts, trip report videos, and photos with his girls. (He claims the women were always clothed and consenting when he photographed them.) He soon developed a following of horny male travelers by sharing his stories from the legal prostitution scene and imparted wisdom on "how not to fall in love" from his more than 40 trips to Costa Rica alone.
"Over the course of those years, I came to realize this is not real," he told VICE in a recent phone interview. "This is fantasy. This is entertainment. A 60-year-old man sleeping with 20-year-old women and believing that they really like them is crazy. So the majority of stories and videos were to explain that."
In Costa Rica, he focused his efforts mainly on an area of bars and hotels frequented by prostitutes in downtown San José known as "Gringo Gulch."
One 2010 post from his blog, which has been taken down since his arrest, read: "Miriam likes to have fun, and she is my girlfriend every day for an hour when I am in San Jose. She understands what I like, and I understand what she does. My advice is to remember what you are here for in Costa Rica, and don't question your (Costa Rican) girlfriends so much."
Strecker maintains his site was nothing more than a travel blog created to advise the single male tourist, but prosecutors say he was purposefully promoting the country to fellow gringos to come and take advantage of the legal pay-for-sex industry.
"The criminal case began after various publications were found on the internet made by the suspect in which he was apparently inviting other North Americans to visit Costa Rica, indicating that prostitution services in the country were easy to find," a spokesperson from the prosecutor's office told VICE via email.
Costa Rica—where prostitution is legal but pimping, or soliciting clients for a prostitute, is not—has long been considered one of Latin America's most popular destinations for sex tourists. Author and researcher Jacobo Schifter estimated in his book Love and Lust: American Men in Costa Rica that up to 10 percent of Costa Rica's tourists are there to have sex with prostitutes—which adds up to as many as 80,000 sex tourists per year.
Aware of that reputation, authorities are working to clean up that image and help the tourism-dependent economy come off more like Disneyland and less like Thailand.
In recent years, Costa Rican police have worked to break up organized trafficking groups and pimps who take advantage of sex migrants and child sex workers. An annual report from the US State Department said that over the previous year, officials here conducted 25 raids where sex trafficking was suspected. The State Department noted that Costa Rican government was making considerable efforts to turn around its historically poor track record when it came to fighting trafficking.
While it's not clear that Strecker was involved in any such activities, prosecutors have requested that Strecker serve 12 years of jail time for three counts of violating the statute against promoting prostitution—one count each for his CubaDave.com website, Facebook page, and a YouTube video.
The prosecution is reportedly honing in on specific photos published on the pages, as well as certain passages from the blog posts. One such entry, which Strecker said prosecutors had harped on zealously during preliminary hearings, includes the sentence, "Your pleasures are only dictated by the size of your wallet."
Strecker's lawyer, Luis Diego Chacón, said he's confident that the case will be dismissed in the trial set to begin November, since the sex tourism law was meant to combat organized human-trafficking groups, not bloggers.
"This law wasn't intended for people who have a travel site," he told VICE. "If you looked at his website, you wouldn't have seen any language deemed inappropriate in his home country in the United States."
If the trial drags on, Chacón may try to convince the judges (Costa Rican trials are decided by three judges rather than a jury) that because the domain's server was located in the US, then it should be US laws that apply.
Since the Costa Rican law hinges on promotion, Strecker's defense will also try to argue that he was merely informing readers about the country's prostitution scene, not advertising it to them. Strecker claims that before he started his blog, he received hundreds of emails from travelers asking for advice on the best prostitute-friendly hotels and the safest neighborhoods for gringos. So rather than answer each one, he doled out his advice from his web page.
"Every single thing I'm being charged with is legal," he said. "They should actually be patting me on the back for warning some of the guys about this stuff."
Now, though, he's on the verge of a trial that could end with him being sentenced to more than a decade in prison. It's been that kind of dramatic fall for the pseudo celebrity, who said his yearlong stay in preventive prison has forced him to think about why he was targeted in the first place.
All he can come up with, he said, is that he's the piece at the center of a government "ploy" to send a message against sex tourists like him.
"This is a country where if you happen to say the wrong thing, you're going to end up paying for it," he said. "I really believe I'm just being made an example of."
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