Sexual exploitation of minors taints Colombia's Caribbean tourist city
CARTAGENA, Colombia — As the world's kidnapping capital and site of a four-decade civil war, Colombia is not a tourist Mecca. 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 visitors. 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 the main hotel strip, foreigners openly haggle with underage girls selling their bodies or duck past pink neon lights into what purports to be a discotheque. Inside, bored-looking teenage girls at tables perk up only when a man walks by. He can take his pick, pay as little as $15 and take 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," says Fabian Cardenas, the local coordinator for Renacer, a private group that helps 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."
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 says.
Cartagena isn't alone. Many Latin American cities, in countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, are now being frequented by "sex tourists" looking for minors, as a result of shift in the business from Asia following police crackdowns.
Poverty and domestic sexual abuse push many children into the sex industry.
"The kids are on the street because of desperation," says Bruce Harris, the former Latin America director of Casa Alianza, a children's rights group. "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."
Bolivar Province's police chief, Col. Jesus Gomez, who oversees Cartagena, says detectives are investigating criminal sex rings in the city, but have yet to make any arrests.
Meanwhile, non-governmental groups like Renacer and the Roman Catholic Church are trying to help the youngsters.
"Nobody talks about it, but the exploitation of children has gotten very serious," says 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 relax before the Friday night rush, watching television and chatting at the tables they will later dance on.
One 17-year-old — who declines to give her name, like other sex workers interviewed — says her family in the eastern city of Cucuta thinks she is working at a restaurant. She says she plans to return home once she saves up enough money.
"This is just for a little while, I hope," she says.
The impoverished fishing village of Zapatero near Cartagena is home to at least a half 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 says. 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 from 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 get their lives in order.
"I came here because I need to do this," says a 15-year-old runaway who worked as a prostitute and is trying to shake cocaine addiction. "It's my best chance."MORE IN NewsPORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Full Story
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