Dozens of U.S. citizens, perhaps as many as 50, could be detained in the coming weeks in the wake of a child-sex trafficking sting that is shining a spotlight on the seedy side of Colombia’s booming tourism industry.
In mid-October, Colombian and U.S. authorities, working with two nonprofit groups, staged three simultaneous raids in the cities of Cartagena, Medellin and Armenia. By the time the busts were over, 55 children, some as young as 11 and 12, had been rescued from sex-traffickers. In addition, at least a dozen people were detained on allegations of trafficking of minors, pimping and pandering.
Those busts, however, are just the leading edge of a larger sweep that aims to jail U.S. citizens who have been traveling to this Andean nation seeking sex with minors.
“We’re starting with concrete individuals that we know have already been here and already done it or are in the midst of their travel to come here for the second, third, fourth times to do this,” said Angie Salazar with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. embassy’s deputy attaché. “We don’t know how many [will be detained] yet because we’re still pursing all of those leads, but I would say probably in the 50s.”
Salazar said agents are following a trail of email communications and monetary transactions made to Colombian individuals and brothels that deal in underage sex. Some of those busts are likely to be made in Florida, she said. U.S. law allows prosecution of citizens who travel for underage sex, even if the crime is committed abroad.
The Oct. 11 operation was unique for the hemisphere because of the active role that nonprofit groups played. While many organizations help pull minors out of the sex trade, members of the California-based Operation Underground Railroad essentially set up a law-enforcement sting. The group contacted traffickers, played the role of tourists seeking underage sex, and organized simultaneous meetings in three cities for Colombian police to swoop in on.
Tim Ballard, the organization’s founder and CEO, who led the bust near the beach resort of Cartagena, said he was offered four virgins — three girls and one boy, all ages 11 and 12. They were his for $1,000 apiece.
Mateo, another team member who asked that his last name not be used because he is still working undercover for the group, led the bust in the city of Armenia.
The team was following a tip that a man there had been producing child pornography for the past eight years. Mateo posed as the middleman for wealthy individuals “who had conquered everything in the United States and this was the one thing they couldn’t do: have sex with minors,” he explained.
“The reason it worked is because this happens all the time,” he said.
The team rented a farm near the city to host the fictitious sex party, and the organization brought in other actors to play the roles of the wealthy clients. For just over $2,000, their contact brought 16 girls to the party — about half of them underage.
Since it began operating in January, Operation Underground Railroad says it has rescued 230 trafficking victims in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Guatemala. Beyond helping victims, the group’s goal is to take criminals off the street.
“The problem is everywhere, and it seems to be in every country,” Mateo said. “We’re not out to eradicate the whole thing; what we want to do is eradicate the impunity.”
Steve, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who participated in the bust and asked for anonymity for the safety of his family, has been working sex crimes for almost a decade. But he said the Colombian busts were eye-opening.
“When you see an 11-year-old boy who is thankful that the police are there because he was about to be sold into this trade, or a 13-year-old girl who thought she was going to a birthday party — those are heart-wrenching cases,” he said. “The volume of kids being offered was even shocking for me.”
Child prostitution is a global phenomenon, and Colombia is no exception. But as this country sheds its troubled past and emerges as a tourism hotspot, child-trafficking is becoming an issue.
During the first five months of the year, international tourism, at 1.6 million visitors, increased 9.1 percent over the same period in 2013, according to government statistics. U.S. citizens made up the largest share, accounting for 18.5 percent of visitors, followed by the European Union with 16.4 percent.
Child-sex trafficking “is a problem that worries us greatly because it’s growing exponentially,” said Luis Gonzalez, with Colombia’s attorney general’s office, which participated in the sting. Not only is the government seeing an increase in the number of travelers searching for underage sex, but it has also detected larger, more-sophisticated operations.
“One of the things that worries us is the link between business conferences and the illegal sex trade,” Gonzalez said.
There are no accurate statistics about sex tourism here, but the U.S. government informs foreign countries when convicted child-sex offenders will be traveling. Colombia “is one of the highest” destinations on that list, Salazar said.
Colombian women are renowned for their beauty, and the country has lax attitudes toward sex. Prostitution is not illegal, and most cities have “tolerance zones” where sex is advertised openly. Cartagena’s reputation as a beachfront sex haven was only underscored in 2012 when almost a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents and some military personnel, who were in the city ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama, were caught hiring prostitutes.
In many rural areas, selling sex is seen as a way out of poverty, said Zared Garzón, an assistant director at Renacer, a Colombian nonprofit group that rescues and rehabilitates child sex workers.
“There are areas that are permeated by crime, where drug money has created a culture where everything can be bought and sold,” she said. “The problem is very complex, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that many people don’t question it when they see boys or girls being used by adults for sex.”
Renacer estimates that 35,000 children nationwide are being exploited by the sex trade.
Attitudes are changing, however. The government has rolled out ad campaigns to dissuade sex-seekers, and new laws allow authorities to shut down hotels and other businesses that turn a blind eye to child-sex trafficking.
U.S. authorities hope that a string of high-profile busts will put Colombia’s children off limits.
“I think you’ll see over the course of the next couple of years Colombia will be viewed as a place that’s not safe to come and commit these crimes,” said Steve, the Homeland Security agent, “and you are going to be getting in trouble if you come here to do that.”