German cars are not unusual in the Czech border town of Cheb. By day, the BMWs and Mercedes come to buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol. By 10 p.m., the shops are long shut, but the cars still arrive. A black BMW with a German licence plate and a baby chair on the back seat stops at a street corner. The lone driver rolls down the passenger-door window and speaks briefly to the teenage girl standing in the bitter cold. The girl climbs into the car and they disappear into the night. Welcome to the child-prostitution capital of Europe.
The men who go to the town know that to have sex with a child, you don't have to take a plane to Thailand, you just need to take your BMW over the border. Bavaria is seven kilometres to the west, Saxony is 10 kilometres to the north. A 10-minute drive from Germany and everything has a price. Teenage girls, pre-pubescent boys and what's known as "the special" - children of three and four, so young that they don't offer themselves but are offered by others, for rent or purchase.
The teenage girl returns half an hour later, DM50 (£20/€25.39) richer. She looks 15 but, with her make-up smeared, it's hard to tell. With a dry, cutting wind blowing down the street, she tries to straighten her clothes - not hard to do when you are wearing just a miniskirt and a T-shirt.
"The Germans like us to wear very little," she says, tottering in platform shoes, her eyes unfocused. The prostitutes up and down the streets in Cheb refer to the drivers of the big cars not as men, or as customers, but as "the Germans".
Nobody knows when, exactly, "the Germans" started arriving in droves for sex with the children of Cheb. Nor is anyone sure how many prostitutes work in and around the town. There are no official figures, but estimates run into the thousands. Prostitution is legal in the Czech Republic from 15 years up, but the average age of prostitutes in the area is 14 or younger, according to local social workers.
Cathrin Schauer has worked on the streets of Cheb for seven years. Many of the children are homeless, often drug addicts, she says. They start by sniffing glue and move on to "piko", a cheap amphetamine that suppresses feelings of cold and hunger. Schauer and her colleagues distribute condoms and lubricant and teach prostitutes about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, even though they know that many of them are already infected with hepatitis, syphilis or HIV.
They work for Karo, a street project supported by the German Red Cross and the European Commission, and operate a drop-in centre where prostitutes can go to for medical treatment.
"For five years, we've been looking for a doctor that would be available for a few hours in the week," says Schauer. "But with no luck; no one here wants to have anything to do with the prostitutes."
A trained nurse, Schauer provides what care she can, and carries out blood tests on the older prostitutes. She doesn't test the younger children. "I don't want to have to give them a positive test result as well," she says.
Many of the child prostitutes are drawn from Cheb's large Roma population, like the two 13-year-old boys, Karci and Jacek, waiting in a deserted car park. Dark-haired and wearing an earring, Karci counts on his fingers the German words he has learned in his four years as a prostitute. "Masturbation, blow job, kissing, oral, anal," he says in a flat voice, continuing his lexicon on his other hand.
"The Germans" offer good money, says Jacek in broken German. "Thirty marks, 50 marks. On the weekend a lot of them come, one after another."
Why do they prostitute themselves? "For the money," says Karci, looking down at his low-slung trousers. "For jeans, Adidas shoes, drugs . . ."
Jacek gives his unemployed parents some of the money, telling them he won it in on slot machines. "If my father knew what I do he would beat me," he says.
"Many Germans, many horny, good for us," says Karci.
But business is slow for a Saturday night, says Jacek, looking around the empty car park. Most of his customers over the border are glued to their televisions, watching the German soccer team play Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier.
You can find prostitutes all over Cheb: in the park on Evropska Street, in darkened doorways in the Roma district and in the 98 bordellos in the area, quite a number for a town with a population of 38,000.
"We are a little sensitive about this topic," says Petr Jaks, the deputy mayor of Cheb. "The sex tourists are 99 per cent German. Without them there would be no prostitution here." He says the town has introduced measures to curb the flow of sex tourists. New laws forbid street prostitution in the city centre, and video cameras monitor the main streets.
But the laws are useless without police co-operation, of which there is none. Of the hundreds of child prostitutes working in the area, only nine cases have been investigated.
A new Czech-German-Polish commission to combat sex tourism started work recently. One of its main aims, couched in diplomatic language, is "to get police to motivate themselves more intensively". Translated, the commission hopes to get police in border areas to accept there is a problem.
The reaction of Cheb police to questions about child prostitution is fairly standard for the Czech border area. "It can be that such a thing goes on, but we know nothing of it," says a spokesman. The teen and pre-teen girls and boys hanging around the city are just out for the night. The rapes of pre-pubescent girls are unfortunate but isolated cases. There is no problem.
Prostitution is endemic in almost all Czech border areas with Germany. They wait just past the border crossings, alongside the traders selling cigarettes and green bottles of Becherovka, the Czech national drink.
The Chance group, a Prague street project, compiled a report that counted almost 100 children under 15 who regularly sell themselves at the capital's main train station. Social workers counted two girls and three boys aged eight or younger, and some nine boys and girls at the station are between nine and 10. The report lists eight boys and three girls in the 11-12 age bracket and at least 70 prostitutes aged between 13 and 14. The numbers keep rising with age.
"There are 14-year-old boys who do it for five or 10 marks," says Micha, a male prostitute quoted in the report. "For us older ones, that's a big problem, because the young ones destroy the price."
The report says that the typical price for sex with a minor is between DM30 and DM50 (£12-£20) but varies wildly. Pregnant women are highly sought after and better paid. For a few extra marks, clients can usually negotiate unprotected penetrative sex from young prostitutes they mistakenly assume are unlikely to be carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.
"The police really never intervene," says Petr, another prostitute, in the report. "They really look away, the police are nothing."
German authorities say their hands are tied by Czech apathy to the problem. A 1993 law giving German police the power to prosecute men who have sex with minors, even abroad, should be a help in the fight. The law can imprison men found guilty for up to 10 years, but the law is next to unenforceable.
Still, there have been some prosecutions, such as a 33-year-old man from Dresden found guilty of 19 cases of sexual assault of children in the Czech Republic, as well as the production and distribution of pornographic materials.
The judgment describes how the man forced two Czech girls, aged nine and 10, to perform gymnastic exercises, naked, while he took photographs. In the presence of the children's mother, he had penetrative sex with them on several occasions over a period of 12 months. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in June, 1999.
In Cheb, the Karo team observe the prostitutes as they work, noting licence-plate numbers and passing details to the German police. "We get the licence-plate numbers, but we cannot prove anything. The men just say they were asking for directions," says Josef Heisl, a police superintendent in the Bavarian city of Regensburg who investigates sex tourism.
For a successful prosecution, authorities must catch men in the act of having sex with minors, which is next to impossible, or get victim statements that implicate the client and those who forced them into prostitution, which almost never happens.
"To do that, they would often have to testify against their own parents or siblings," said Otto Schily, the German interior minister, last year.
He was speaking at the launch of the exhaustively titled Project to Fight Sex Tourism involving Child Abuse in the Czech Republic, a task force with the unfortunate acronym KISS.
Since the high-profile launch, however, Karo workers say little has happened from the German side. As a show of support, Schily sent a deputy to the German border crossing Schoenberg last year. The woman arrived by helicopter, handed over a few anti-child-prostitution postcards and a cheque for DM20,000 (£8,000) for posters. She declined to cross the border into the Czech Republic and, within the hour, she was in the helicopter on her way back to Berlin.
Most political interest has come from the Saxon branch of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the reformed communist party. "There is nothing in Cheb that we haven't already heard about from Thailand, only worse and more brutal," said Hans-Juergen Mertha, a PDS politician, after a recent visit to the town. "When I think about these Germans, it's hard to think about Goethe or Bismarck. You're forced to think of Freud."
A decade ago, the people of Cheb hoped to attract wealthy German tourists over their newly opened borders. Today, the Czech Republic is held up as a model candidate for EU membership, ripe to attract foreign investment. But Cheb has managed to attract only German shoppers by day and German sex tourists by night, as well as the occasional journalist.
As the Czech Republic looks to its future in the EU, thousands of its youngest citizens have no futures, peering through another car window at their next customer on the streets of towns like Cheb, or as Germans call it, the Bangkok of the West.