the surface, the historic northern city of Cartagena on Colombia’s
Caribbean coast is an up-market tourist destination, with cruise boat
passengers strolling through the old, walled city’s maze of narrow
streets as sight-seers duck into air-conditioned boutiques and cafés to
escape the tropical heat.
But there is a seedier side
to this travel-brochure charm. The backpacker hostels that line a
picturesque street just outside the old city are in a notorious
red-light district and many of the men dozing on benches in a nearby
park are not having a siesta, but waiting to pick up sex workers.
According to Mayerlin Verqara Perez, a programme coordinator at
Fundación Renacer, a non-governmental organisation working to prevent
the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, almost every other
person on Cartagena’s streets after a certain hour at night is
connected in some way to the sex trade.
The man in the sleeveless black t-shirt, smoking a cigarette, is a
well-known pimp, she says, and the girl in the tight, yellow dress with
the European-looking man in shorts are almost certainly a sex worker
and her client. Even the group of over-dressed teenagers loitering near
the entrance to the old city, are probably selling sex.
“It’s become a lot worse in the last 10 years,” said Perez. “There are
more children doing sex work and they’re starting younger.”
Caribbean coast has attracted a growing number of international
visitors over the last decade as the country’s security situation has
improved. But beyond the walled city and the main hotel strip,
Cartagena’s inhabitants are still mostly poor, especially those
displaced here from other parts of the country by the armed conflict
between leftist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary groups.
The combination of wealthy visitors and desperate locals has given rise to an alarming growth in sex tourism.
“Cartagena is recognised as somewhere you can easily access sex with
adults and children,” Fabian Cardenas, regional director of Fundación
Renacer, told IRIN/PlusNews.
“The authorities are doing
a lot of surveillance, but the simple fact of looking like a tourist
means you’re likely to be offered these things by people working in the
informal tourism industry.”
Cardenas said it was common for male tourists to be approached by
waiters, bellhops and taxi drivers offering introductions to sex
workers and escort services. Even the drivers of the horse-drawn
carriages that ferry tourists around the old city earn a commission for
delivering clients to sex clubs.
Fundación Renacer estimates that some 650 children are working in the
sex trade, many of them coerced into it by their parents or relatives.
Every year, the organisation convinces about 400 of them to participate
in a psycho-social assistance programme that includes testing and
treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), counselling,
skills training and education about sexual and reproductive health and
organisation uses field workers like Perez to identify and gain the
trust of the children and teenagers before inviting them to join the
programme, but pimps and abusers have started making use of new
technologies to make them less visible. “Ten years ago we’d find the
kids in the parks and in the night clubs, but the use of cell phones
and Internet makes them harder to identify,” she said.
Children who agree to participate in the programme don’t necessarily
stay off the streets. “We try to convince them of the need for change
and show them all the ways they’re being maltreated, but it’s hard
because they have a strong link with the streets and they often don’t
think of themselves as victims,” said Cardenas.
Many of the children are also hooked on drugs or alcohol, given to them
by pimps to keep them in the sex trade. Our night tour of Cartagena
takes us past a bar in the red-light district, where Perez recognises
two girls loitering near the entrance. They are drop-outs from
Fundación Renacer’s programme, who have returned to the streets because
of drug addiction.
prevalence of HIV among Colombia’s general population has remained
under one percent, with concentrated epidemics mainly affecting men who
have sex with men.
The Caribbean region, however, has
seen an increase in heterosexual infections in recent years. Whereas
nationally only one out of every four people living with HIV is a
woman, on the Caribbean coast the ratio is one in three.
to Ricardo Garcia, UNAIDS country director, the region’s macho culture,
which makes it socially acceptable for men to have multiple partners,
is probably one explanation for the trend, but the impact of sex
tourism may be another.
Many of the young people who
come to Fundación Renacer’s centres are diagnosed with STIs. So far,
the organisation has only identified three with HIV, but Cardenas said
many are afraid to be tested.
“Most don’t take any protective measures and they’re surrounded by
myths,” he said. “They think you can tell by looking at someone if
they’re sick with any of these diseases, and that washing the genitals
with Cocoa-Cola after sex will protect them.”
Condoms are also not always easy for child sex workers to come by. Some
pimps provide them, and Fundación Renacer hands them out at clubs as a
way of making contact with potential recruits to their programme, but
Cardenas said most under-age sex workers have low levels of knowledge
about HIV and tend to comply with clients’ preferences when it comes to
Clients also often harbour the illusion that child sex workers are free
of STIs and that condoms aren’t necessary, said Cardenas. “People come
here from other countries or cities to have [unprotected] sex with
children because they think it’s safe.” (PlusNews)