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Prostitutes in Colombia unite against child abuse

by Cesar Sabogal

CARTAGENA, June 27, 2011 (AFP) - Prostitutes have united in Colombia's port city and popular tourist destination, Cartagena, with the hopes of protecting children from an international network of pimps and sexual predators.

"I was a prostitute before I was even a woman. I began when I was 10-years-old and I have experienced things you cannot imagine. I know I cannot erase my past, but I can help stop other children from going through the same experience," said Damaris, who came together with four other prostitutes, ages 18 to 49, to speak to a group of taxi drivers.

The meeting was part of the campaign, "The Wall, it is me." The slogan refers to a famous wall that surrounds the historical town and is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The goal of the campaign is to encourage residents to protect children from pedophiles, particularly foreign pedophiles, and to engage the tourist industry in the fight against the international network of child prostitution.

According to the National Institute of Child Protection, as many as 35,000 children are forced into prostitution in this country of 46 million residents.

Among those, 2,000 are from Cartagena, where 70 percent of the city's 850,000 citizens live in poverty, a far cry from the era when the wealth of the colonies, conquistadors, pirates and slaves traveled through the Caribbean port.

Tourist guides however often rank the city as a luxurious destination.

"It's unfortunate, but here they allow tourists who come with money to do as they please," said Damaris, who still works in a brothel in the city.

"Therefore if they are looking for children to have relations with, do not give them information. Think of these children, and that like yours, they are worth more than any tip," she said to the taxi drivers.

But at least one driver at the meeting said that child prostitution has evolved and become harder to recognize.

Due to new technologies, it is less common to see small children waiting at a street corner where clients can come to them, said Luis Cespedes, a taxi driver who attended the meeting.

"Now, they make contact on the Internet. The tourist then asks to go to a hotel," where the child is waiting for him, he said while adding that pimps directly arrange their meetings through such networks.

Local police commander, General Ricardo Restrepo, also said that he believes methods have become more "sophisticated".

Child prostitution is sometimes organized by fake travel agencies on the Internet, with almost no intermediaries, said Freddys del Toro, from the international NGO Terres des Hommes, which defends children's rights.

The lawyer marked a recent victory with a 15-year prison sentence that was handed down last year in Colombia to a 72-year-old Italian man, Paolo Pravisani, who was charged in the death of a boy that he had abused. "It is the first sentencing of a foreigner," he said.

In 2010, authorities arrested British citizen Paul Anthony Brailsford, who had been in Cartagena since 2001 and at whose home nude photos of young girls were found.

In March, authorities also arrested a Spanish filmmaker, Pablo Lapiedra, accused of producing pornographic films with minors.

Some Colombians abuse children as well, but the network is more often populated by foreigners.

"Last year, we began operations with American authorities that lead to very good results. Now we are also cooperating with a Spanish organization. They have assumed the responsibility because they know that some of their citizens come to Cartagena for this," said the police commander.

Those who promote tourist activities in Colombia that involve the abuse of minors could face eight years in prison and the seizure of property where the activities occur, based on a law adopted in 2009.

 

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