BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Trapped and held captive in basements and bars across Colombia, growing numbers of Venezuelan women are falling prey to sex trafficking rings as mass migration from Venezuela to neighboring Colombia shows no signs of abating, campaigners and prosecutors said.
Destitute migrants fleeing Venezuela’s economic collapse and medicine shortages are being targeted by human traffickers at Colombia’s border areas and across the country.
More than two million Venezuelans have fled their homeland since 2015, with most seeking better lives in neighboring Colombia, and across the region, in one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history, according to the United Nations.
Migrants needing jobs to send money back to those left behind in Venezuela or to feed and take care of themselves and their families in Colombia have become targets for traffickers, rights groups say.
“Trafficking networks are adapting and taking advantage of the migration flows into Colombia, including vulnerable and poor Venezuelan women,” said Cristina Rosero, senior attorney in Bogota at Women’s Link Worldwide.
Recent raids on brothels and bars by Colombian authorities have put the problem in the spotlight.
In the past four months, Colombian authorities have rescued at least 80 Venezuelan women and teenage girls trafficked into forced prostitution, police figures show.
In the most recent raids last week involving dozens of bars in downtown Bogota, about 40 Venezuelan women who were victims of sexual exploitation were rescued, police said.
Traffickers had lured women in the Colombian border city of Cucuta - reached by crossing a bridge from Venezuela - with false promises of decent jobs in the capital.
Once in Bogota, their documents were seized and women were forced into sex work in rooms with padlocked doors and windows, working for 20 days for free to pay off the cost of their transport, Colombia’s chief prosecutor, Nestor Martinez, said.
Women were only allowed to leave their rooms for 15 minutes a day and fined up to $30 if they returned late, Martinez said.
This month’s raid follows another police operation in October in homes in the northern city of Barranquilla where about 20 Venezuelan women were being forced to have sex in front of a webcam that was streamed online, prosecutors said.
In another raid in August, in Colombia’s Caribbean city of Cartagena, authorities found 23 Venezuelan women forced into prostitution, working in dingy basements.
“There are many more cases of sex trafficking that remain hidden,” Rosero said.
She urged the Colombian authorities to ensure trafficking victims receive support.
“We’re concerned that women who have been rescued aren’t getting access to the health care and psychological support they have the right to get,” Rosero said.
Venezuelan migrant women are also selling sex to survive on Colombia’s streets, which heightens their risk of being trafficked into forced prostitution, campaigners say.
Colombia is being used as a hub by sex traffickers to transport Venezuelan women to other countries across Latin America, including Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama, where police have found migrant women working in bars and spas, campaigners say.
Beyond Latin America, Venezuelan women have been trafficked into sexual exploitation in Europe, in particular Spain, where police figures show more than 200 victims have been rescued so far this year.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org