The Colombian city of Medellín has experienced a rebirth in the last decade, moving away from its image as the violent home of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar and rebranding itself as a safe tourist destination and a business-friendly hub in the new Colombia.
Old habits, however, die hard.
Under the gleaming exteriors and praise about it being “the world’s most innovative city,” a seedy underbelly persists. Street gangs control neighborhoods and young women are sold into a life of prostitution. And in a city known for its beautiful women, Medellín’s burgeoning sex trade has drawn tourists from around the globe and earned the capital of the province of Antioquia the title of "the world’s biggest brothel.”
“You get Chinese, Brazilians, Europeans,” Daniella, a sex worker in Medellín told UK’s Channel 4 news. “Foreigners come from everywhere, all kinds of men.”
While prostitution in Colombia is legal, the age of consent is 18, and many of the girls working the streets of Medellín and other cities in Colombia are much younger … some only 11 years old. This has fueled a thriving underground economy in which Medellín’s feared La Oficina gang supplies young virgins to the men – for a high price.
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“This is an enterprise, this is a business,” two members of La Oficina, who asked to have their identities hidden, told Channel 4. “This is what happens in the street.”
The young girls are typically lured by gang members with promises of shopping sprees and quick money but quickly fall under the control of the gang. The girls’ families receive financial help if they cooperate – threats of violence if they don’t.
While the right to take the virginity of the young girls is often purchased by high-paying foreigners, many go to local drug capos, continuing to a tradition associated with Pablo Escobar, whose demand for teenage virgins was notorious.
A Colombian non-governmental organization named the Consulting Center on Urban Conflict, or C3 for short, recently issued a report on the problem. C3's director, Luis Pardo, told The Guardian in the U.K., “This has become part of the landscape, part of the cruel reality of the other Medellín – the one that is not visible, the one that does not appear in the media, that does not involve grand construction projects and fancy restaurants.”
He added, “In the comunas [urban slums], it is a lack of opportunity and poverty that reigns.”
The phenomenon is not just occurring in Medellín but across Colombia. In the capital city of Bogotá, a mother of 14 was accused last year of selling the virginity of her 12 underage daughters for about $200 per child.
Authorities claim Margarita Zapata Moreno, 45, also forced several of her daughters to prostitute themselves to financially well-off men in Bogotá.
Zapata denies the allegations and faces up to 25 years in prison, according to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. At least some of her daughters were under the age of 14 when they were first forced to have sex.
It's unnatural behavior that goes against the principles of being a mother, someone who is supposed to love and protect her children," Carlos Meléndez, Commander of the Police Force of Bogotá, told Univision.