On the surface, the historic northern city of Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast is an up-market tourist destination, with cruise boat passengers strolling through the old, walled city's maze of narrow streets as sight-seers duck into air-conditioned boutiques and cafés to escape the tropical heat.
But there is a seedier side to this travel-brochure charm. The backpacker hostels that line a picturesque street just outside the old city are in a notorious red-light district and many of the men dozing on benches in a nearby park are not having a siesta, but waiting to pick up sex workers.
According to Mayerlin Verqara Perez, a programme coordinator at Fundación Renacer, a non-governmental organisation working to prevent the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, almost every other person on Cartagena's streets after a certain hour at night is connected in some way to the sex trade.
The man in the sleeveless black t-shirt, smoking a cigarette, is a well-known pimp, she says, and the girl in the tight, yellow dress with the European-looking man in shorts are almost certainly a sex worker and her client. Even the group of over-dressed teenagers loitering near the entrance to the old city, are probably selling sex.
"It's become a lot worse in the last 10 years," said Perez. "There are more children doing sex work and they're starting younger."
Children drafted into sex work
Colombia’s Caribbean coast has attracted a growing number of international visitors over the last decade as the country’s security situation has improved. But beyond the walled city and the main hotel strip, Cartagena's inhabitants are still mostly poor, especially those displaced here from other parts of the country by the armed conflict between leftist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary groups.
The combination of wealthy visitors and desperate locals has given rise to an alarming growth in sex tourism. "Cartagena is recognised as somewhere you can easily access sex with adults and children," Fabian Cardenas, regional director of Fundación Renacer, told IRIN/PlusNews.
"The authorities are doing a lot of surveillance, but the simple fact of looking like a tourist means you're likely to be offered these things by people working in the informal tourism industry."
Cardenas said it was common for male tourists to be approached by waiters, bellhops and taxi drivers offering introductions to sex workers and escort services. Even the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages that ferry tourists around the old city earn a commission for delivering clients to sex clubs.
Fundación Renacer estimates that some 650 children are working in the sex trade, many of them coerced into it by their parents or relatives. Every year, the organisation convinces about 400 of them to participate in a psycho-social assistance programme that includes testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), counselling, skills training and education about sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN
|Cartagena's red-light district is quiet by day|
The organisation uses field workers like Perez to identify and gain the trust of the children and teenagers before inviting them to join the programme, but pimps and abusers have started making use of new technologies to make them less visible. "Ten years ago we'd find the kids in the parks and in the night clubs, but the use of cell phones and Internet makes them harder to identify," she said.
Children who agree to participate in the programme don't necessarily stay off the streets. "We try to convince them of the need for change and show them all the ways they're being maltreated, but it's hard because they have a strong link with the streets and they often don't think of themselves as victims," said Cardenas.
Many of the children are also hooked on drugs or alcohol, given to them by pimps to keep them in the sex trade. Our night tour of Cartagena takes us past a bar in the red-light district, where Perez recognises two girls loitering near the entrance. They are drop-outs from Fundación Renacer's programme, who have returned to the streets because of drug addiction.
The prevalence of HIV among Colombia's general population has remained under one percent, with concentrated epidemics mainly affecting men who have sex with men.
The Caribbean region, however, has seen an increase in heterosexual infections in recent years. Whereas nationally only one out of every four people living with HIV is a woman, on the Caribbean coast the ratio is one in three.
|People come here from other countries or cities to have sex with children because they think it's safe|
According to Ricardo Garcia, UNAIDS country director, the region's macho culture, which makes it socially acceptable for men to have multiple partners, is probably one explanation for the trend, but the impact of sex tourism may be another.
Many of the young people who come to Fundación Renacer's centres are diagnosed with STIs. So far, the organisation has only identified three with HIV, but Cardenas said many are afraid to be tested.
"Most don't take any protective measures and they're surrounded by myths," he said. "They think you can tell by looking at someone if they're sick with any of these diseases, and that washing the genitals with Cocoa-Cola after sex will protect them."
Condoms are also not always easy for child sex workers to come by. Some pimps provide them, and Fundación Renacer hands them out at clubs as a way of making contact with potential recruits to their programme, but Cardenas said most under-age sex workers have low levels of knowledge about HIV and tend to comply with clients' preferences when it comes to condom use.
Clients also often harbour the illusion that child sex workers are free of STIs and that condoms aren't necessary, said Cardenas. "People come here from other countries or cities to have [unprotected] sex with children because they think it's safe."