CALAMAR, Colombia―Back in Venezuela, they were teachers, police officers and newspaper carriers, but were forced to flee their homeland in search of work and money to survive.
But the women, without identity papers, ended up working as prostitutes in sordid bars in Colombia, saving all they can to provide for their families back home, still in the throes of economic crisis.
Mother-of-three Patricia, 30, was beaten, raped and sodomized by a drunken client―but she keeps on working in a brothel in Calamar, in the center of the country.
“There are customers who treat you badly and that is horrible,” she says. “”Every day, I pray to God that they are good [to us].”
Alegria is a teacher of history and geography but in a Venezuela gripped by chronic hyperinflation, she was earning just 312,000 bolivars a month: less than a dollar.
Her salary was not enough “even for a packet of pasta,” the 26-year-old mother of a four-year-old boy told AFP.
In February, she crossed the border into Colombia.
She initially worked for three months as a waitress in the east, a job which offered room and board, but Alegria was never paid, getting by on tips.
“I sent my tips home to my family,” she said. Six people, including her son, were relying on her.
Eventually, even those were confiscated, so Alegria made her way south to Calamar, which is located in an area scarred by decades of armed conflict.
The region is a hub for drug-trafficking, and a bastion of dissident former FARC guerrillas.
With nine other women, Alegria―a pseudonym she gave AFP for this story that means ‘happiness’―prostitutes herself every night in a bar in the town of 3,000 people.
Each client pays between 37,000-50,000 pesos ($11-16), of which 7,000 is kept by the establishment’s manager. On a “good night,” Alegria can earn the equivalent of between $30 and $100.
“We never intended on prostituting ourselves. We’re doing it because of the crisis,” says Joli, her voice cracking.
This 35-year-old lost her job as a newspaper carrier in 2016 because “there was no more paper to print them.”
After four years of recession and years of financial mismanagement, Venezuela’s crisis has seen poverty soar as basic necessities such as food and medicine became scarce.
Inflation is set to hit a staggering 1.4 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, which says 2019 will see that figure reach an astronomical 10 million percent.
Joli left her three children with her mother before trekking from town to town and job to job looking to make ends meet.
When she crossed the border into Colombia without a passport, she had nothing but the clothes she was wearing.
Some 1.9 million Venezuelans have fled the crisis-ridden country since 2015, according to the United Nations.
Joli’s story is a painful one.
She is divorced from the father of her children, but he died of renal failure, denying her the help she needed to raise them.
Then, she said, the man she was due to marry “died of a heart attack due to a lack of medication.”
“My back was against the wall,” Joli said.
She said she couldn’t even find work as a cleaner because of her Venezuelan accent so ended up in Calamar, so she turned to sex work. In June, her 19-year-old niece, Milagro, joined her at the brothel.
“At first I felt terrible,” said the teenager.
But she stuck to it, trying to help her sick mother, her brothers and a two-year-old child.
Her mother has since died.
Beside the financial hardships and obvious unpleasantness of the work, many women struggle with hiding the truth from their families.
“They don’t know what I do, even my mother,” admits Alegria. “It would be too difficult for her after sacrificing five years of her life to pay for my studies.”
She dreams of teaching in Colombia but without a passport, it’s impossible.
She tells her loved ones she works in a bakery but, sick of lying, she finally confessed the truth of an emergency team of medics from Doctors of the World (MDM) in Calamar.
Jhon Jaimes, an MDM psychologist, says the women suffer from “anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder.” Their fear of the armed men in the region is very real.
On top of that, the tropical climate exposes them to run-of-the-mill infections as well as dengue and malaria, he added.
Then there are sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies that result when clients refuse to wear condoms.
At the MDM hospital, a doctor treats them, fits them with birth control implants and offers advice. Some break down in tears.
Around 60 Venezuelans work as prostitutes in Calamar. MDM gives them food, hygiene products and contraceptives.
Back at the bar, they emerge from their siesta into the steamy humidity and start preparing for work: applying lipstick, brushing their hair and squeezing into hot pants and tiny, revealing tops.
It’s an unforgiving life, but one not entirely without hope.
Former police officer Pamela, 20, went to San Jose del Guaviare, a three-hour drive from Calamar, for an abortion and managed to continue on to the greater Bogota area.
She now works as a waitress for $10 a day―only 10 percent of what she could have in the brothel, but one she prefers over the one she started with in Calamar, where she was basically her pimp’s property.
“This guy lied to us,” she says ruefully.
Milagro has also found a way out, in the form of a pilot she is now dating.
Mother-of-four Alejandra, 37, says she isn’t looking for a husband.
“One man isn’t enough. I need a lot to feed the little ones,” she says.
Her youngest child, just two months old, was fathered by a client.