Inside Cololmbia's fight against child trafficking for sex tourism | Documentary | SBS Dateline
SBS advises that the following program includes references to child sexual abuse and may distress some viewers. Sex tourism is a multibillion dollar global industry, and Colombia is one of its leading destinations. Here sex work is legal, but a number of foreigners are coming for illicit sex with minors. So I've just touched down in Medellin, which is Columbia's second largest city, and I'm actually about to meet my driver. By day, she works for journalists like myself, but by night she actually works as a pimp. Como estas? Como estas? Muy bien.
Mariana, which is not her real name, fixes sex parties for foreign visitors. What are the tourists looking for? What do they ask for? How much does a party like that cost? Marianna denies she's a pimp and sees herself as a tour operator. But under Colombian law, any sexual transaction facilitated by a third party is pimping.
Have you ever had any Australians? This is where it all takes place: Parque Lleras. A mix of high-end hotels, Airbnbs, brothels and nightclubs. Everywhere, sex is for sale. Accessing a girl is as easy as picking from catalogues that are shared across WhatsApp networks. And so how old is, say, this woman here? How likely is it that some of the girls working in this industry are under 18? Even though sex work is legal here, it's not if you're under 18.
But it's estimated around 12% of sex workers in the country are children. Right now the scene here is absolutely extraordinary, There are hundreds of partygoers and countless women looking to pick up clients. And this corner is where it's all happening. By 10 pm, Parque Lleras becomes an open-air brothel. Tourists and young women fill the square.
Why are you guys here? We have a special love for Colombia, okay? And what do you do while you're here? We party. We have a special home here in this club. I'm going to come here, They're going to have a table for me, drink. We're going to leave with as many girls as possible. Take it back to where we're staying. We're going to have a party. Lights, camera, action
If you're with us, it's a movie. Right. Many of the girls here tonight look to be underage. And while police patrol the streets, no one seems too concerned. There's a lot of police out.
We've seen a few ID checks, but beyond that, it's hard to imagine how this could be very effective. Later, I meet one sex worker who agrees to speak with me at a nearby hotel as long as we protect her identity, She tells me she started this work when she was just 15. She tells me it's common for pimps to hide a girl's age using fake IDs, and that some tourists pay more for a girl's virginity.
So how much did tourists pay for a virgin? In the north of Colombia lies the tropical beach town Cartagena. It's ranked among the most coveted cities in the world by travellers, but it's one of the most notorious areas for child sex trafficking in the country, and the perpetrators are hard to catch. Why is tackling human trafficking so difficult here in Cartagena? It's really hard to tackle it because they are extremely powerful. I think they have funded police and networks within the structure, so you never know who really is on your side or not, and that makes it really, really hard.
Anna Maria Gonzalez-Forero is Cartagena as secretary of interior. Tonight, she's trialing a new protocol for cracking down on traffickers. Who's the target of tonight's action and why? So we have identified at least seven different networks. They move girls sometimes from other parts of the country, some from other parts of the city.
And what we're going to target today is specifically brothels. Anna Maria is conducting raids on the city's brothels to check they hold the correct Department of Health paperwork. She's using a loophole to gain access and search for underage sex workers. But she's nervous, because not everyone supports her methods. People tend to be fearful a little bit when they're doing something new.
Leading the operation tonight is Captain Fatima Castro from the Federal Police. We've just raided the brothel. Some police are in here right now checking the IDs of the sex workers here in the building.
And then we've got another group of police over here who are checking the business documents. They had all the papers, but I don't know if you noticed, but the real form was blue. It was in special printed paper. And the form that we saw was on white paper. So I really don't know if they just got informed that we were coming, and somebody falsed it out.
I'm kind of used to those things happening. Police surprise two more brothels. Both also avoid being shut down. But at the final brothel of the night, it's a different story. The condition of this brothel is horrific.
The rooms where girls are working are covered in black mould. It's enough to force it to close. But the most important check is of sex worker IDs. Where any underage sex workers identified? No, and I think that is a result of the frequency of our operations. At first, it was just very open. So every time we went into a place like this, we would find a minor.
It's been like three or four months. We haven't found the minor in any brothels. I think they're hiding girls better. I don't think they have stopped exploiting girls. I just think that they're doing it more discreetly. The raids may not have uncovered any minors, but this footage was captured by police in April this year.
It shows police cracking a major trafficking ring with 15 targets, including traffickers, pimps and clients, who were mostly foreigners. They found a labyrinth with more than 50 rooms where a number of minors and women were being held and exploited. According to local NGOs, many of these transactions can take place here in the town square.
By night, clubs and bars are in full swing, and we see many tourists stopping to pick up girls. Many looked to be underage, with some transactions facilitated by two men. These men in red and white shirts. We're told many girls can be controlled by pimps and traffickers being sold and held against their will. And with sex for sale everywhere, impoverished children are easy targets for abuse. Wendy was just 16 years old when she was trafficked and sold to foreigners for sex.
From a rural area, she had never before stepped foot outside her town when a neighbour promised her work in one of Cartagena's restaurants. When she arrived, she was forced to live with her pimp who monitored her 24 hours a day. Under his control, Wendy says she was regularly drugged and threatened. At the hands of her pimp, Wendy says she endured extreme physical and verbal abuse.
It took eight years before Wendy managed to escape. Eight years of life lost. Tourists who have sex with children are breaking the law, but they take advantage of local situations, in which minors are made easily available for exploitation.
Poor economic conditions, favourable exchange rates for the tourists, and relative anonymity - are all key factors. On the doorstep of Cartagena's luxury beach resorts, Locals here live in extreme poverty. Shirley is the local community leader. Shirley says poverty makes kids more vulnerable. Tourists seem to offer money and opportunity.
Making matters worse is the fact the community lacks any knowledge of what sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are. This can mean the family is complicit or reluctant to intervene. It's this context that traffickers and foreigners exploit. Shirley shows me the house of one foreigner who was living here in the community. He's been arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. What is this, just next door? Is that a kindergarten? This is the man who was living in that house, a 79-year-old Italian national named Dario Lavoratori.
Currently in jail, he's accused of sexually abusing three girls aged just 11 years old. Veronica, not her real name, is the mum of one of the alleged victims. She's agreed to speak to me by phone to protect her identity. According to Veronica, in June last year, her daughter was introduced to Dario Lavoratori by a cousin who met Dario while attending school. She says they visited Dario's house on several occasions after he promised to teach them to speak Italian.
Then in November last year, her daughter's cousin and friend went missing for several hours. They were later allegedly found drugged and alone. It's alleged at least one of the girls was raped. This is incredibly shocking and upsetting to hear.
How did you feel when you heard this? How is your daughter doing now? At Cartagena's jail, 143 inmates are being held for sex crimes, including child sexual abuse and trafficking. Among them are foreigners from as far afield as Italy and Germany. 79-year-old Dario Lavoratori is being held here awaiting trial. Why do you think you're in here right now? Dario is a former fencing instructor who coached junior and national squads in Italy.
He says he first came to Cartagena to give fencing classes, and that he bought a house in the community only after he was invited to volunteer for a foundation. So why were you bringing gifts to the school? Is that normal behaviour, do you think? You say it's normal, but there are a lot of people that will be watching this that think that behaviour is suspect, indicating grooming of some sort. What do you say to that? Dario says, he knew one of the girls who he met through the school and does not deny that two girls visited him on several occasions at his home. We can't go into too many details about the allegations because Dario is awaiting trial. So were you attracted to the girls? Please, do explain that to me. Whilst offensive, this denial of attraction appears to be part of Dario's defence, along with claims he's impotent.
Why should we believe you and not these young girls? But why is a grown man more trustworthy than a child? The allegations against you are in many ways horrific. I mean, how do they make you feel? Now deemed a threat to society, Dario will be kept in prison until he faces trial. If found guilty, he could receive 30 years behind bars. But it's cold comfort for those in Cartagena as community.
The country's sex tourism boom shows no signs of waning. In its shadow, they leave with the constant threat of new predators. How does that make you feel? If you or someone you know needs support, contact one 800. Respect or Bravehearts on one 800 272831.