The highway between Bogotá and Medellín is one of Colombia's worst sites for child sex trafficking and exploitation, as criminal groups abuse underage, underprivileged girls who are now being encouraged to fight back by going to the authorities.
Girls between 12 and 15 years old, usually from very poor families, have been forced to offer sexual services to drivers passing through the service station known as Caracolí, located between the municipalities of Honda and La Dorada, as was first reported by El País. This service station is just a few meters away from a police station, yet it's one of the focal points of a network of pimps and motel operators working along this crucial road.
A number of organizations assisting survivors to file reports with authorities told InSight Crime that at least 39 underage girls were sexually exploited around the Caracolí service station.
Through long investigations, involving wiretaps and intercepting phone calls, authorities have managed to identify some of the sex traffickers and the modus operandi of these networks.
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The usual method is that potential clients are approached and offered a catalog bearing the photos of the children, one investigator who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime.
Once a price has been agreed to, “they call the chosen girl and take her to the indicated site, whether it is a motel or private residence,” the source added. This type of sexual exploitation operation, showing a catalog instead of having the girls present, is also known to exist in Medellín.
However, other girls reported having been coerced by their families. One 14-year-old girl identified as Patricia told El País that her aunt first took her to Caracolí and offered her directly to truck drivers for 20,000 Colombian pesos (around $6).
In March 2019, prosecutors dismantled one sex trafficking ring which forcibly recruited girls around the town of Guaduas, 60 kilometers away from La Dorada and the highway, according to judicial sources consulted by InSight Crime.
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The girls are now fighting back. An increasing number of them are filing complaints with authorities with the assistance of organizations such as Todas con las Mujeres.
Colombia is known as a destination for child sex trafficking. More than 100 cases of child sexual exploitation were filed with authorities every month between January 2013 and July 2018. And the figure is rising, with the number of reported cases having tripled in the last five years.
Yet the conviction rate has been abysmal. Of 85,000 investigations into claims of child sex abuse between 2005 and 2018, only 6,116 ended in a conviction.
To date, no arrests have been made related to complaints filed by the survivors of the crime networks operating on the Bogotá-Medellín highway.
Despite wider investigations into sex trafficking in Colombia, this lack of a response for the "girls of Caracolí," as investigators refer to them, has shown the lack of protection being offered to these girls and to other potential targets, leaving them as easy prey for criminal groups.
Most of these cases have been filed in Bogotá and Medellín, considered to be major centers for sex tourism and child exploitation.
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The case of the girls of Caracolí has also shown how child sex trafficking rings have extended their reach to other highways across the country, where they allegedly act with impunity due to a lack of state controls in service stations and other facilities.
Due to fears about obstruction of justice related to the case, their complaints are now being overseen in Bogotá by Mario Gómez Jiménez, Colombia's special prosecutor for crimes against children and adolescents, who is in charge of the investigation.
Access to justice has historically been limited for the victims of child sex trafficking, who often do not file complaints. Authorities say that this has meant they do not have a full understanding of how many children have been abused in the country.
Gómez Jiménez told InSight Crime in an interview that many girls also do not want to participate in witness protection programs as they fear they could be taken far away from their families and homes.
The girls also refrain from speaking out for fear criminal gangs will target their families in retaliation, he explained.
This vulnerability has also seen many girls seek protection from different criminal groups or abusers, who may pledge more protection or only a certain type of client.
Members of Todas con las Mujeres, who have followed the girls of Caracolí for the last year to assist and document their lives, told InSight Crime that many of these children are no longer at Caracolí, but that they are sexually exploited at other points along the Bogotá-Medellín highway.