Adela, a wispy adolescent-looking girl with braces and a blonde ponytail, recently ventured to the tourist hub of Cartagena from her hometown on the other side of Colombia to try sex work for the first time.
"I get a lot of foreigners, and they like that I seem so young," Adela told VICE News recently, as she swayed in her pink sparkled crop-top, jeans and bangle bracelets in the colonial Caribbean city center.
She claimed on a recent day that she was of age to work — prostitution is legal in Colombia starting at 18 — but would not share an ID to prove it. All she wanted to do, she said, is support her baby by servicing wealthy travelers in Colombia's tourist capital. "I came here because there's more tourism, so more money," she said.
Adela is among thousands of young women, many of them minors, serving Cartagena's booming sex tourism market. Underage prostitution is increasing, local experts say, as highlighted by a high-profile sex trafficking bust last October involving a local beauty queen. Due to the sensitive nature of the business, she and several other subjects asked VICE News not to publish their last names.
Colombian officials admitted the problem was out of control last month during a session of the Colombian senate's human rights commission, where a "sex tourism alert" was issued as foreigners began flooding the city during peak tourist season. About 35,000 minors face sexual exploitation in Colombia, and 2,000 of those are in Cartagena, UNICEF reported earlier this year.
'The girls say they prefer the foreigners because they pay more.'
VICE News visited Cartagena recently to examine why so many youths are being drawn into sex work, and found a highly organized scheme serving lusty foreigners while pumping profits to tourism agencies, taxi drivers, and other entrepreneurs. Finding sex for pay is easy here. Prostitutes fill the main square nightly in Cartagena, and line police-patrolled streets. A network of taxi drivers and candy vendors profit from matching new visitors with the youth of their desire, sources said.
Luis, a cabbie, told me he handles about 10 different prostitutes, some minors and some of legal age. He drives the girls to clients and takes passengers to the girl of their choice.
"I have the luck of always picking up foreigners who come for this," Luis told VICE News. Fares give him anywhere between $30 and $100 for being taken to a girl, depending on how beautiful she is. "The underage girls always earn more, for being young."
Some residents told VICE News that half the women in their neighborhoods work in the sex industry. Impoverished youths often feel pressure to enter the lucrative field.
"Many fathers or husbands of girls' mothers say the girls have to go look for money or they'll get kicked out of the house, and this is the only work there is," said Maira Payares, a housekeeper from one of Cartagena's poorest neighborhoods. "The girls say they prefer the foreigners because they pay more."
Underage sex workers can also be manipulated by organized prostitution rings, as a bust in October demonstrated. On October 12, a former Miss Cartagena and model Kelly Suarez was arrested for bringing girls as young as 12 years old to a nearby island to serve men posing as rich American tourists who were actually US investigators.
'In Cartagena, just walking on the beach you can get anything — from kayaks to drugs to women to kids.'
Suarez had promised the fake American tourists that she "had experience preparing, recruiting and controlling girls," an investigator who participated in the sting, Matteo, told VICE News. As he and Suarez discussed the sex party, the "dolled-up" former beauty queen sat between a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old girl on a couch in a working-class Cartagena neighborhood. She told Matteo "the girls would do anything we paid for."
Suarez insisted her innocence to local news outlets, but Matteo said her pledge to provide girls for sex has been caught on a video that will be used in her upcoming trial. I visited the jail where Suarez is held, the Centro de San Diego in downtown Cartagena, but twice she declined an interview, claiming she was exhausted from talking to reporters.
"In Cartagena, just walking on the beach you can get anything — from kayaks to drugs to women to kids," Matteo said.
International businesses have also exploited minors, with underage prostitutes on cruise ships and photo albums on the beach for tourists to select their girl of choice, authorities said.
One popular Israeli hostel in Cartagena recently received a flurry of media attention for having on-site prostitutes that dined and partied with the men — as the clients kept on their yarmulkes, photos showed. There was no proof that underage prostitutes were there, and the hostel continued operating as usual after the news.
"People sell tourist packets that include going downtown to visit the chapel and the Clock Tower, and drugs and sex," Cartagena city councilman Herman Zapata said in an interview.
Some local officials have denied the phenomenon to avoid "generating scandals," Zapata said. One Cartagena official argued that "sex tourism does not exist in Cartagena," in a public debate right after the island bust.
In certain ways, the October sting seems to have pushed underage prostitution in Cartagena further underground, with vendors and brothels hesitant to admit they employ minors.
The popular brothel Casa del Rosillo, a red-trimmed stucco house teeming with flawlessly made-up females and men from different countries, typically offers underage prostitutes, sources told VICE News. But when I went undercover and inquired about services there, the owner, Rosillo, an unkempt middle-aged woman who stands behind a bar in the main social room, clasped her wrists in a handcuff gesture to signify she'd be put in prison if she had girls under 18.
Later, when I spoke with a taxi driver named Johnny about the underage inquiry, he warned me not to ask about such illicit services.
"They could tape record it and put you in jail. They just put my friend in jail for that, poor woman," he told me. Johnny apparently knew Suarez, whom he said he had driven to the boat launch the day she went to the island where she was arrested. "She's a good person, she's innocent," the cabbie said.
Sexual exploitation of minors has only been illegal since 2009, explained Humberto Padilla, who educates tourist industry providers about the law.
"I wouldn't say sex exploitation has increased, it's just become more visible," Padilla, who works for the youth protection organization La Muralla Soy Yo, or "I Am the Wall," told VICE News. "Before, people saw it as totally normal that a tourist would be with a minor."
Padilla still confronts hotel management who view such exchanges as normal, including during a recent workshop at one luxury waterfront hotel, he said. La Muralla Soy Yo, which receives support from Cartagena's tourism office, has gotten dozens of hotels, taxi drivers and even candy vendors to denounce underage prostitution. "Each day I feel like Cartagena is empowering itself more to fight this problem," Padilla told VICE News.
But a human rights lawyer for Cartagena's ombudsman's office said that Cartagena's extreme poverty — and rampant unregulated prostitution — had sparked a cycle that only worsens as more tourists visit the historic city.
"The government and city are blind to this problem and they do nothing for prevention. They don't invest in the poor neighborhoods," lawyer Alex Cuello said.
To some longtime prostitutes, the work is no better if they are of legal age. Sex work for them is rooted in desperation.
"I wouldn't recommend this work to anyone, young or old," a 32-year-old prostitute in downtown Cartagena told me outside her dilapidated brothel. She'd been in the field since age 15, she said. "I do this for my family. It's the same, underage or no."
But Adela, the young-looking girl I met earlier, said the work was worth it, for the cash. She and her colleague Alejandra said they make about $75 a day, compared to about $10 they might make in any another job.
"The oldest man I've had was about 45 — and very, very fat," giggled Alejandra, an even tinier young woman from Medellin, who also said she was a mother.
Adela admitted that when she arrived in Cartagena, she'd been so broke she'd slept on the beach and spent nights crying. But as she prepared to return home, she felt a sense of triumph. She said she now works in Cartagena for short periods.
"You get used to the work," Adela said. She laughed nervously, admitting she'd left her child at home with her parents, who'd she'd told she was visiting a friend. "It's all for the money."