Police in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, on the border with Venezuela, have dismantled a child sex ring featuring underage migrants, in an unsavory example of how organized crime exploits precarity in border regions.
In late June, police discovered five girls, aged 12 to 15, in a room for rent on the second floor of a bar in Cúcuta, in Colombia’s northeastern Norte de Santander department. The girls, some of whom were identified as Venezuelan migrants, had been deprived of their identification papers, Caracol reported.
Local politicians, government officials, drug traffickers and members of the country’s security forces have all been connected to the sex trafficking ring, according to authorities cited by La Opinión, while members of the National Police’s child protection arm knew of the ring and allowed it to continue. Three people, including Yhizley Yhatzury Pedraza Pérez, better known as “La Yiya,” were arrested.
La Yiya reportedly recruited Colombian and Venezuelan minors on social media by promising them careers as models. She then took away their identifying documents and forced them to take intimate photos and videos to send to clients. The girls' sexual services were advertised on social media and in catalogues at the bar.
The sting was the result of a two-year operation by Colombian police forces with support from the FBI. During the operation, indications of corruption among local authorities in Norte de Santander forced the case to be transferred to forces in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
SEE ALSO: Human Trafficking Coverage
The investigations into the network purportedly began in November 2019, with the arrest of a security businessman who police discovered going to a motel with three underage girls.
That same year, police authorities began to receive complaints of local “chiquitecas,” parties where underage youths gather to listen to music and are often encouraged to consume drugs and alcohol. The authorities passed these reports onto municipal authorities in Cúcuta, but no action was taken.
These parties were reportedly used by the sex trafficking network to recruit young girls and boys for sexual exploitation. The minors were reportedly intoxicated or drugged and then forced to have sexual relations with clients.
This is not the first sex trafficking ring dismantled in Cúcuta over the past year. In August 2021, authorities arrested six people connected to a sex trafficking ring run by two sisters and their mother. The women lured their victims with false job posts for opportunities in Panama and Ecuador.
InSight Crime Analysis
The sex trafficking networks dismantled over the past year illustrate how border areas become hotspots for sexual exploitation, and the role of technology, corruption and women in facilitating this criminal economy.
Venezuela currently has the second-highest number of displaced people in the world. Since the socio-economic crisis began in Venezuela around 2015, an estimated 2.3 million have emigrated to Colombia, which receives the second-highest number of refugees in the world.
According to the United Nations, refugees and internally displaced persons are more vulnerable to sex trafficking and are easier to coerce with promises of employment. Additionally, in the case of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, “their irregular status” makes it easier for their disappearance to go undetected.
As a result of this dynamic, Venezuelan women accounted for 34 percent of the human trafficking cases attended to by Colombia’s Ombudsman's Office in 2021. Norte de Santander, the department with the second-highest number of Venezuelans in Colombia, is also the department with the most sex trafficking victims.
The trafficking of women and girls has been on the rise in Norte de Santander since 2019, likely exasperated by the global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A report published by Border Lab in 2021 found human trafficking into the department to have almost tripled 2020.
High poverty and unemployment rates, and the presence of illegal armed groups, military forces and illegal mining operations, have also contributed to Cúcuta, and other border cities, becoming hotspots for sex trafficking. Two commonalities unite cities in the border area: the strong supply of potential victims and a parallel demand from the criminal economy.
Meanwhile, social media, corruption and female victimizers all facilitate this criminal economy. Social media is used to “hunt” or “phish” for victims, often lured by job offers. The victims are then forced to "work" in bars or entertainment establishments, or as webcam models.
As evidenced by this most recent case, the ongoing sexual exploitation of minors would not be possible without corruption, including that of the local political structure and the police forces charged with protecting underage girls.
The case also spotlights the role of women in sex trafficking. Globally, women comprise up to one-third of the perpetrators of human trafficking, but they are less likely to be arrested and prosecuted than their male counterparts.
So far in 2022, Colombian authorities have rescued 661 minors from sex trafficking, surpassing in just the first six months of the year the 649 minors rescued in 2021, Blu Radio reports. But the number of victims is likely much higher.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, for every registered victim, there are twenty more that have yet to be identified.