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Colombia: Sexual exploitation of minors

Publish Date: 29 Sep 2004

Source: AP WorldStream English


Sexual exploitation of minors taints Colombia's Caribbean tourist city

CARTAGENA, Colombia - Colombia, the world's kidnapping capital and site of a four-decade civil war, is not exactly known as a tourist attraction. But there's a notable exception - Cartagena, a sparkling colonial city on the coast that Colombians call "the jewel of the Caribbean."

Cartagena's history as a Spanish bastion against English invasion, its cobblestone streets, quaint plazas, colonial churches, art museums and seafood restaurants attract many tourists. Yet behind the thick, ancient walls lurks a darker attraction: the sexual exploitation of minors by foreigners.

The city has become a magnet for men, many of them Europeans, seeking sex with young girls and sometimes boys, many of them from families displaced from their rural homes by fighting among leftist rebels, government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.

On Cartagena's main hotel strip, foreigners openly haggle with underage girls selling their bodies or duck past pink neon lights into a so-called discotheque.

Inside, bored-looking teenage girls sitting at tables perk up only when a man walks by. He takes his pick, pays as little as 40,000 Colombian pesos (US$15 dollars; ?12) and takes her to a room across the road.

"Unfortunately, Cartagena has the image of being a place where people can have whatever kind of sexual relations they want," said Fabian Cardenas, the coordinator here for Renacer, a private group helping victims of sexual exploitation. "There are many foreigners who come here with the sheer objective of having sex. And what the tourist wants, the tourist gets."

Many taxi drivers or bar owners can tell visitors where to find sex in Cartagena. One Sunday afternoon, a security guard at a beach told a visitor he could supply underage girls, even though they were "all really tired and hung over" after a busy weekend.

An estimated 1,500 girls and boys work in Cartagena's sex industry. Over the last three years, Renacer has learned of girls as young as 7 and boys as young as 9 being sexually exploited, Cardenas said.

Cartagena joins a list of Latin American cities, in countries like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, that are frequented by "sex tourists" looking for minors.

Poverty and domestic sexual abuse push many children into the sex industry.

"The kids are on the street because of desperation," said Bruce Harris, the former Latin America director of the nonprofit children's rights group Casa Alianza. "The last thing they have to sell is themselves. This is mixed with the fact that the laws for the most part are still very weak, and there's corruption in the application of the law."

Crackdowns on the exploitation of minors in Asia have also driven the industry into Latin America, said Harris, who is based in Costa Rica - another destination for sex tourists - and just recently stepped down from his post at Casa Alianza after 15 years.

In Colombia, Bolivar province police chief Col. Jesus Gomez, who oversees Cartagena, said detectives are investigating criminal sex rings in the city, but have yet to make any arrests. Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations like Renacer and the Catholic Church are trying to help the youngsters.

"Nobody talks about it, but the exploitation of children has gotten very serious," said Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, a Catholic leader. "This is something we have to deal with."

The problem is not confined to tourist districts.

At a brothel in Cartagena's rundown Bosque neighborhood, several teenagers relaxed before the Friday night rush, watching television and chatting at the tables they would later dance on.

One 17-year-old - who declined to give her name, like other sex workers interviewed - said her family in the eastern city of Cucuta thinks she is working at a restaurant. She said she plans to return home once she saves up enough money.

"This is just for a little while, I hope," she said.

The impoverished fishing village of Zapatero near Cartagena is home to at least half a dozen teenage prostitutes, many sharing rooms in wooden shacks. They are taken aboard merchant ships and passed from sailor to sailor, often leaving sick and in some cases physically abused, Cardenas said. Many get hooked on drugs.

Outreach workers for Renacer - which means "to be reborn" in Spanish - roam Cartagena's streets and visit strip joints to offer underage prostitutes a way out.

In a town a half-hour outside of Cartagena, about 30 teenage former sex workers are trying to put the past behind them at a Renacer rehabilitation center. For many, it may be their last chance to put their lives in order.

"I came here because I need to do this," said a 15-year-old runaway who worked as a prostitute and is now trying to shake a cocaine addiction. "It's my best chance."

© 2004 AP WorldStream English