A Medellin project aims to turn public opinion against what they see as a concerning indifference to sex tourists who increasingly visit Colombia’s second largest city.
The project, pushed by local NGO Pazamanos, is called No to Sex Tourism and involves a poster campaign which will draw attention to the darker side of the tourist trade that exists in Colombia´s second city.
Tourism has risen dramatically in Medellin since the early 2000s, and with it a percentage of visitors who are drawn to the attraction of drugs and sex and an image of Colombia as a haven for seedy activity.
Pazamanos face an uphill battle in their struggle against what they see as a dark blot on Colombia, as they have very little legal standing in their argument.
Prostitution for women over the age of 18 is legal in Colombia and drugs are readily available in all of the tourist zones of the major cities. Police in Colombia are known to turn a blind eye to child prostitution and accept bribes when tourists are caught with small amounts of illegal drugs.
In an interview with Colombia reports, Juan Anadon, project coordinator for Pazamanos, stressed that their principal aim was not to pressure the government into changing legislation, but to make a change in the public perception of sex tourists and how they affect the city and its people. This “hearts and minds” campaign will focus on the main tourist zones in Medellin, with a view of expanding over time if the response is positive.
Since the drug trafficking heydays of the eighties and nineties, the image of the Colombian woman, especially that of the “paisas” from Medellin, has become deeply sexualized.
The drug culture saw a rise in plastic surgery, skimpy, revealing clothing and an overtly macho culture which has continued until today.
This fashion for breast and buttocks implants, botox inflated lips and long hair extensions has become embedded in the image of Colombia, and one only needs to walk the streets of a major Colombian city to see that it is not only an image, but a reality for many women.
Plastic surgery is a massive trade in Colombia, and public transport and city center billboards are plastered with adverts for affordable body modifications.
According to Pazomanos, this sexualization of women in Colombian society has led to a lack of respect and abuse of women who are often treated as sexual objects. This objectification of women is a big factor when dealing with sex tourists, who visit the country in search of cheap sexual encounters with young women, which are often unavailable or risky in their own countries.
However, although shaming the sex tourists is one aim of the campaign, the main target audience are Colombians themselves.
Pazamanos stated that families and friends need to become more sensitive to sex tourism, as a means of offering advice to those girls who become involved in the sex trade.
Aside from prostitution itself, a growing problem is young women who are not forced into the sex trade by an outside influence or through necessity, but more through a wish for a better life, or access to expensive goods and a flashier lifestyle that they cannot obtain through their normal working lives.
Juan Anadon said that increasingly students and young women who are not living in poverty, are dating and sleeping with older foreigners as a means of enjoying the VIP lifestyle or funding their studies.
Anadon hopes that the new campaign will raise awareness, and make people view this lifestyle as demeaning for the young women involved.
It should be noted while the project aims to target foreigners who come to Medellin to have sex with prostitutes that the finger of blame falls on Colombian men, too. While the figures of Colombian citizens who use prostitutes are unavailable, due to the murky world in which the transactions take place, and the secrecy demanded by the majority of users, local sex tourism organizers claim that a massive percentage of users are not foreign. A source who would prefer to be left unnamed stated:
“Of Medellin’s hundreds of brothels, only one is oriented towards foreigners. The many brothels, strip clubs, and avenues of Medellin’s red light districts are populated with over 98% local Colombian men. “
Availability and facilitating by local businesses
Sex tourists who visit Medellin or other prostitution hotspots do not have to look very far to fulfill their desires.
Taxi drivers are known to facilitate the sex trade and will often take customers to private apartments or brothels for a small commission.
Hotels are known to turn a blind eye to guests arriving with sex workers, and a number of pay by the hour “love motels” exist in cities like Medellin, where confidentiality is taken very seriously and guests can arrive and leave via taxi without even having to speak to anyone directly, paying for the room in advance online.
For Pazamanos, the aim is to post visual aids in these tourist areas which sex tourists frequent as a means of guilt-tripping the foreigners into thinking twice about their actions and as a means of putting pressure on the general public and business owners to reject this type of trade, and improve the overall image of Medellin and Colombia worldwide.
An uncomfortable focus has been placed on Medellin in the last fortnight by the release of the UK newsgroup Channel 4´s documentary “Medellin, the world´s biggest brothel”.
The documentary by Peruvian journalist Guillermo Galdos paints a grim picture of life in Medellin. The running theme throughout the documentary is that while life has improved for the majority of people since the lawlessness of the eighties and nineties drug wars, that the city is a dangerous place for young women who can often find themselves forced into the sex trade.
It highlights a concerning level of child exploitation arising in cities such as Medellin, where underage girls are being manipulated and sexually extorted by crime groups and sold as a commodity.
One can only hope that the negative press received after the recent documentary, and the campaign of groups such as Pazamanos will lead to Colombians taking a step back and thinking about the way they are viewed by foreigners, and the effects of the sex trade on the country itself.
While the campaign faces an uphill battle in changing the sexually objectified image of Colombian women which seems ingrained in many parts of Colombian culture, Pazamanos argue that if they can change the path of a handful of young women, and change the opinions of others, that they will be making progress.