Colombia’s booming tourism industry has a dark underbelly.
Authorities say they’ve broken up an “Israeli mafia” that allegedly promoted drug-fueled parties and sex with minors to international tourists.
In a series of raids, Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez said authorities had detained eight people, including six Israelis and two Colombians. Among those arrested were Mor Zohar, described as an Israeli ringleader, and a Colombian policeman who was accused of passing confidential information to the group. Arrest warrants have been issued for another eight Israelis.
Authorities also seized almost $50 million in assets and property from the organization, including hotels in Santa Marta, Cartagena, Medellín and the capital, Bogotá.
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Martínez said the suspects offered tourism packages largely aimed at Israeli businessmen and Israeli nationals who had recently finished mandatory military service. The tours included stays at hotels, haciendas and yachts, and featured drugs, music and sex with underage girls and adolescents.
The bust, announced late Sunday, shines a light on the seedier side of Colombia’s growing tourism industry.
Prostitution among consenting adults is legal in Colombia, and cities including Cartagena and Medellín have become hotbeds for such encounters. In 2012, more than a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents and members of the armed forces were sanctioned for soliciting prostitutes in Cartagena as they were supposed to be preparing for the arrival of President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas.
But Martínez said the Israeli gang went far beyond the law, and was “responsible for the exploitation and sexual slavery” of girls and women.
Authorities accuse the group of actively recruiting poor schoolchildren and women from broken homes as they built a network of sex workers. The women were typically paid between $70 and $120 for their services. The gang plowed its profits back into real estate and other legitimate businesses.
Authorities identified “Benyamin Mush,” an Israeli, as the leader of the criminal enterprise. “There is evidence of him moving through Central and South America where he has organizations that engage in sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and drug sales similar to the one he had established in Colombia,” the attorney general’s office said in a release.
Police began investigating the case on June 15, 2016, after an Israeli national, Shay Azran, was assassinated in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Authorities believe the killing took place due to a business dispute and the investigation eventually led them to Assi Ben-Mosh, an Israeli who had been visiting Colombia since 2009 and owned the Casa Benjamin hostel in the hard-partying beach town of Taganga.
Ben-Mosh, who has always maintained his innocence, was deported in 2017 for “organizing massive sexual encounters with drugs and alcohol,” but the attorney general’s office said he was a key part of the criminal organization and one of the business partners in the sex trade.
Operation Sodom, as the raid was called, is part of a larger Operation Vesta, aimed at dismantling networks that promote illicit sex. Authorities say that under Vesta they’ve captured 18 people and broken up gangs that preyed on more than 250 girls and women in Cartagena.