Colombia’s tourist hotspots show high levels of child sex exploitation: UNICEF

(Photo: ADN)

The sexual exploitation of children in Colombia is most prevalent in the country’s tourist hotspots, according to UNICEF Colombia.

UNICEF delegate Viviana Limpias said Colombia’s tourist destinations have a high rate of sexual exploitation compared to other cities.

The official made this troubling statement during a conference about sexual exploitation of children and adolescents in Colombia.

“The places where it occurs have a growing level of tourism. It generally occurs in the crowded tourist cities of Cartagena, Medellin, Barranquilla, the the tourist corridor from Bogota and Leticia,” said Limpias.

The UNICEF official praised the work of local anti-child sex abuse organisation “Muralla Soy Yo” (I am the wall) which aims to raise awareness of the growing problem of child sex exploitation in the walled tourist city of Cartagena, and promote community action against people paying for sex with underage youngsters.

Two days after the international day against sexual exploitation and human trafficking of women and children on September 23, a march organised by Muralla Soy Yo took place in central Cartagena and saw hundreds parade though the city with banners, and then embrace the symbolic city walls of the old town of Cartagena, in a bit to raise public awareness about the problem.

Commercial sexual exploitation affects an estimated 2 million children in the world, of which 70% are girls, according to ECPAT, the global organization working to eradicate child prostitution, child pornography and child sex-trafficking.

In Colombia there are an estimated 35,000 children involved in the sex industry, with 2,000 of them in the Caribbean tourist hot spot of Cartagena.

Documentary puts Medellin in spotlight

A fierce media battle has raged in Colombia over the past week following the release of a controversial documentary by British television network Channel 4 in which Medellin was dubbed “the world’s biggest brothel.”

The documentary by Peruvian journalist Guillermo Galdos, says among other things that the streets of Medellin have an extremely high rate of child sexual exploitation, partly organized by gangs who have reportedly been selling girls’ virginity to high paying customers.

Medellin has refuted the claims. “We don’t minimize the problems we face, but we reject the biased reports that have always tried to stigmatize Medellin,” the city’s Mayor Anibal Gaviria said in a message on Twitter.

In comments made to newspaper El Tiempo, Deputy Mayor Wilson Lopez argued that problems with organized crime groups and under-age prostitution could be found in most large metropolitan cities worldwide and that Medellin was receiving an unfair amount of attention, for a city which had worked hard to rebuild its name.

The shocking claims in the channel 4 documentary have been backed up by Medellin councilman and defender of children’s rights in Colombia, Luis Bernardo Velez who publicly stated that child exploitation and the sex trade of minors in Medellin is a real problem which is being ignored by the police and government authorities.

The grim reality

The Channel 4 documentary shows areas of Medellin where underage sex workers are working in the open with no concern of police interference. Even though the legal age of consent is 14 in Colombia, the law is very clear on that fact that paying for sex with a minor under the age of 18 is illegal.

El Tiempo cited police sources who stated that they were aware of a hotel racket which allowed sex with minors, of which there are roughly 20 in the center of Medellin alone.

Child sex workers live in a world of extortion and intimidation and are often obliged to pay for use of hotels rooms through sex with the owners.

“The owners of these places require minors to have sex with them in exchange for letting them work there. For one piece, as it is called, they charge between 8 and 15 thousand pesos ($4 – $7.5),” said an unidentified police source.

Children must also pay for their security, but with sex, as well as for permission to work in the streets.

In the center of Medellin, near to Parque Berrio metro station and seconds from Botero square, one of the main tourist spots in the city is an area well known for underage sex workers. El Tiempo report a rising trend of tourists visiting the square to ask for Pokemon, girls between the ages of 10 and 12 years old.

Unnamed police sources states that foreigners will be charged more, but are often offered various young girls to choose from.

Areas with high levels of child sex exploitation in Medellin

  • Prado viaduct (central Medellin)
    102 girls and one boy
  • Parque Bolivar
    38 girls and 9 boys
  • Veracruz and Parque Berrio
    30 girls
  • San Diego
    27 girls and two boys
  • Barcacoas
    22 girls
  • Plaza Roja Pinilla
    22 girls
  • Raudal
    4 girls

Medellin councilman Luis Bernardo Velez stated after the documentary was aired, that he has been campaigning the local council to tackle this problem for a number of years, but has seen little effort made to deal with the problem, and assure these exploited youths are safely cared for.

As of August of this year, family welfare services of the Antioquia state had received 47 reports of minor exploitation. 26 of these were in Medellin alone. In 2011, the total year figure reached 58 cases.

With four months left in the year, it is likely that the 2014 level will show an increase.

However, city officials make it clear that any kid on the street is a potential victim of child sexual exploitation, so the numbers could be much higher.

Experts argue that the problem of child sexual exploitation goes hand in hand with that that of homelessness, which puts children into a very dangerous and vulnerable situation.

Between 2010 and 2011 the Ministry of Social Inclusion identified 950 children living homeless on street, of those 507 were boys and 443 girls.

Although numbers decreased significantly in 2012 (there were 390 street children), reports of sexual exploitation increased.

Government response

Experts agree that more needs to be done by the government, and that police need to stop turning a blind eye to underage sex workers and child exploitation.

The Mayor of Medellin, the national police and ICBF have initiated a new project this month which aims to strengthen measures against the sexual exploitation of children in the city.

The new Project will see CCTV security cameras installed in child exploitation hotspots around the city as a means of deterring potential customers and providing evidence for criminal prosecutions.

New officers are being trained to specifically trained to combat this part of the sex trade, and projects will be organised to raise public awareness about the problem.

The Medellin city council has also offered 16 new vehicles to the childhood and adolescent branch of the police.

The organizers of the project have agreed to meet again on October 16 to assess the results of the police action.

“We have been fighting this problem and continue to do so, but also need citizens, fathers, mothers, relatives and people close to those who have been victims of this situation to make complaints to the competent authorities, to attack those who abuse our children and adolescents who are our greatest wealth” said Medellin Mayor, Aníbal Gaviria.

With Medellin authorities places in the hot-seat by the uncomfortable revelations made in the channel 4 documentary, one can only hope that these new found efforts to combat child exploitation continue, and that citizens and police officials stop turning a blind eye to this problem which would seem inconceivable on such a wide scale and in such a public manner in many other large metropolitan cities.


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