With an estimated 35,000 sexually exploited minors in Colombia, child prostitution is a widespread and lucrative industry. And, as symbolized by the sentencing last year of an Italian pedophile, the first such conviction in Colombia, "sex tourism" involving children has grown alongside the licit tourist industry in popular destinations like Cartagena.
In a three-part video series, "Children of the Wall," El Espectador takes a look at the prostitution of children in Cartagena. The colonial city is best known as a stopover for Caribbean cruises, attracting between 400,000 and 700,000 tourists a year. But not all visitors come with good intentions.
Last year Cartagena officially registered 400 cases related to the sexual exploitation of minors, according to the Prosecutor General's Office. The number of unreported cases is likely to be many, many more.
El Espectador identified three common business models for child prostitution rings in the city. The first is brothels, where young girls either live or are contracted out by day. Some sex dens are sophisticated enough to provide girls with fake IDs once they begin work, but not all brothels are as organized. As observed by General Ricardo Restrepo, chief of police for Cartagena, there have been some cases of mothers hiring out their daughters for 15,000 pesos (about $8), which includes payment for using a room in their own house.
Another common form of child prostitution is known colloquially as 'pre-pagos,' or escort services, which involve minors working with pre-arranged clients, sometimes organized through marriage or dating websites. Girls may also be deployed by pimps to bars and clubs, in an attempt to target wealthy, often foreign, potential clients.
The third is perhaps the most informal form of prostitution: girls from broken homes in working class neighborhoods who are coerced by neighbors or acquaintances into selling sexual favors, for fees as low as 2,000 or 5,000 pesos (between US$1.70 and US$2.70).
For the security forces, the challenge lies in identifying and dismantling the organized crime rings that exploit young girls and boys, even though such exploitation is also widespread on an informal level and may be tougher to target. Europol recently announced the bust of the biggest ever international online pedophile ring yet identified, with 184 suspects arrested so far.
But in Colombia, building up the evidence needed to smash organized prostitution or pornography rings is difficult in a slow-moving court system.
In one of Colombia's most high-profile cases so far, an Italian citizen, Paolo Pravisani, was sentenced in December 2010 for sex crimes involving children. It was the first such conviction in Colombia. Investigations began after a young boy, Yesid Torres, was found dead in Pravisani's apartment in 2009, where police also found a large collection of child pornography. But Torres' death has not yet been ruled homicide or linked to Pravisani, age 72.
The case is being handled by a local chapter of a children's rights NGO, Tierra de Hombres, which is currently processing 47 cases related to the sexual exploitation of minors. But convictions like Pravisani's are rare: the group has reportedly only seen 18 cases result in a sentencing.
As highlighted by El Espectador's video series, crackdowns on the more sophisticated and visible child prostitution rings must be accompanied by efforts to address the poverty and desperation that lead some parents to sell or abuse their children. One sexually exploited minor, known by the alias 'Dayana Andrea,' embodies an all-too-typical story: according to the video interview, she began prostituting herself at age 12, and eventually left home after being sexually abused by her stepfather.
In her years of working in the sex trade, she observes, no one ever asked her for an ID.
Part one of El Espectador's report can be seen below.