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Colombia sex tourism boom lures foreigners seeking underage girls

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At night, sex workers take up their positions in the Colombian city of Medellin, where a tourism boom has led to a rise in prostitution that is dragging in underage girls.

Once synonymous with lawlessness, the birthplace of Pablo Escobar has become a trendy hotspot for tourists and digital nomads drawn to its mountainous landscapes and vibrant nightlife.

However, a seedy and dangerous underbelly remains, with child prostitutes on offer and a string of tourists drugged and murdered by their matches on dating apps.

“Women drive tourism here in Medellin because men come to Colombia to look for women and to get high,” a sex worker who gave her name only as Milena and said she was in her thirties, told AFP.

Milena said she earns between $150 and $300 per night, the equivalent of the minimum monthly wage in Colombia.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia but several high-profile cases of children being exploited by foreigners have put the local government on guard against sex tourism.

Pedophiles are “taking advantage to come here and have sex” with children, said Jazmin Santa, a member of an independent organization fighting against the sexual exploitation of minors.

Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez declared the city had hit “rock bottom” after an American citizen, 36, was found by police with two girls, aged 12 and 13, in his luxury hotel room in late March.

He was released and returned to the United States, sparking outrage in Colombia.

Gutierrez temporarily suspended prostitution in the touristy heart of the city, El Poblado, and vowed to tackle the gangs involved in pimping out children.

But sex workers can still be seen openly negotiating with tourists in the area.

At least a dozen foreigners have been arrested in Medellin this year for suspected sexual exploitation of children, according to the police.

The age of consent in Colombia is 14, but paying a minor for sex is illegal.

Santa’s organization recorded 714 child victims of sexual exploitation between 2020 and 2022, based on police data.

In April, local media published the alleged chats of a Colombian-American citizen who had negotiated with a sex trafficker to rape a minor of “10 or 11 years” in exchange for $150 and an iPhone XS.

He was arrested at the airport in Miami before taking a flight to Medellin.

The suspect “had entered Colombia 45 times since 2022. These abuses against our children have been occurring with great intensity for years,” said the mayor, Gutierrez.

According to city hall, the number of visitors to Medellin has increased sevenfold in less than a decade, with 1.5 million coming to the city last year, half of them foreigners.

The city expects a record number of visitors this year.

“Most tourists don’t come looking for sex… of course we have some. As long as they do it legally, we in the city can’t do anything,” Medellin’s Tourism Secretary Jose Gonzalez told AFP.

He said the city wants to focus on “health tourism, sports tourism and digital nomads.”

In March, Gutierrez proposed regulating short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb after apartments were used to host parties with underage girls. He has since signed an agreement with the platform to exchange information on guests suspected of criminal behavior.

The mayor’s office presents the restriction on prostitution in some areas as a bid to “scare away” demand for sexual services.

But the president of the region’s sex worker union, Valery Ramirez, said the ban was “punitive and unconstitutional.”

As the debate rages, normal tourists have tried to keep to themselves.

Carl Manz, a 33-year-old American visiting Medellin for an amateur football tournament, is not unaware of the prostitution that abounds just a few blocks from where he is staying.

“If that is the culture here, I respect it. But I try to mind my own business,” he said.

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