Prostituted girls on the streets of Medellín, Colombia. The crime-pocked streets of that cocaine-infested city are not the only places in that land where children are sexually exploited and enslaved, as El Tiempo’s sub-editor, Jineth Bedoya Lima, reports:
Mireya’s life has been so rough, violent and bitter that at 13, she already feels 40. A night of “bad business” left her with a scar that outlines her right eyebrow, runs down her cheek, and ends near her mouth. “I had 72 stitches, but I worked on the scar with mortician’s paste, and it doesn’t look so bad,” she says, looking at herself in a tiny piece of glass that she uses for a mirror.
Her days are full of glue, which she sniffs to forget the hunger and the abuses of the clients, or the long work days with drunken miners and assailants in the clandestine camps in the lowlands of Atrato, between Murindó (Antioquia) and Carmen del Darién (Chocó).
In these ancestral lands copper and gold aren’t the only things being exploited. There are bodies which have not even reached their maturity, which are also being used by human trafficking networks, forced prostitution, and sexual exploitation. But that’s not all. El Tiempo has also documented how, in mining regions throughout Colombia, criminal groups are doing a parallel trade which does not limit itself to extortion or deforestation.
Behind the mining titles which have generated so much controversy in the last year, behind illegal mining and armed groups taking advantage to maintain a source of financing, there is a crime which no one has attacked and which, for those regions, is practically part of the landscape. Officials assured us that wherever there are masses of men, there is prostitution, and since it is the oldest profession in the world, there is no cause for alarm.
But the truth is that dozens of girls, none of them over 16, have been enslaved sexually and are now part of a statistic that no one has clearly counted. There is no plan on the part of the state to save them from exploitation.
Mireya began travelling by bus every Wednesday from a corner in the neighborhood of Cuba, in Pereira, when she was 11 years old. Her mother, who is in jail for selling bazuco [cocaine paste] and marijuana in a “stewpot” in the centre of the city, sold her to a man who was recruiting “workers”. That was in March of 2011. “I don’t know how much money Mona [Mireya’s mother] got, but she packed a t-shirt for me, some underwear, a pair of shorts, and she gave me a thousand pesos to tide me over along the way.” That day Mireya began her journey, from the hands of the man who bought her, into horror and abuse.
Her story just flows, as if she were telling what had happened on a bad day and remains paradoxically imbued with a profound innocence. Her youth helps her to rise above the assaults she suffers, because she believes that this is the life she “must” live. The girl only nods her head when asked if she knows that she has rights and that the law is supposed to protect her.
After several days’ journey, in March 2011, Mireya was brought together with 11 other minor girls. She remembers that “one of them had just turned nine years old and still talked baby talk”; the five who were virgins were separated from the group and on Saturday night, were brought to four miners. “They were more or less old. First they made us drink aguardiente [hard liquor, similar to whisky], and later…it all began.” No tears. This girl’s words are only laden with desperation.
One could say that Mireya is a survivor of what is happening in one sector of Careperro. This mountain is home to one of the largest gold deposits, and experts say that it is the entryway to a gigantic vein of copper that crosses the Andes, all the way from Chile.
There are now 16 legal mining titles in the zone, which span territories of black and indigenous communities, most of them in the hands of a US-based company, where there is a relative degree of control. However, around the illegal mines, which have no legal title, there are camps on the weekends which play host to young girls and teens who are offered in mobile brothels.
“In the towns where the mines are, near the municipal offices, the brothels are outside the towns, in houses, and it’s easy to control them, but in the mines which are in the middle of the mountains, you can get away with anything,” said an army official of the zone.
And one of the bottlenecks of the problem is which responsibility each authority bears. “We’re not competent to deal with minors. That’s the responsibility of the police,” said the soldier. Meanwhile, the police say that the mines are in rural areas difficult to access, which are the jurisdiction of the army. So the prostitution networks can operate widely, without problems, and with an often permissive attitude from the civil authorities.
But this is not only a problem in the border regions of Chocó and Antioquia. In Córdoba, in the area of Nudo de Paramillo and in Ayapel, there are also centres of sexual exploitation. And in the northeastern zone and the valley of Cauca, near the gold mines, there is another critical point.
The final point is in Guainía, where the extraction of coltan has also unleashed a wave of prostitution, which is not new but which in recent months has affected several indigenous communities, because their girls have ended up being exploited.
The paradoxical thing about this illicit growth is that no functionary wants to talk about it publicly, “because there are no documented cases”, but when one turns off the recording device, they acknowledge the problem and even tell stories of what goes on in their zones.
How do these networks of sexual exploitation and forced prostitution function near the mines? A source from Army Intelligence has been documenting for several months how from Cartagena, Pereira, Medellín, Armenia and Cali, there are “hooking offices” moving minors and prostitutes up to 26 years of age.
The most alarming thing is that these criminal networks have built encampments near the mines, to “offer entertainment services to the workers”. They tell this to the girls to justify the abuses.
“The information is fragmented because the interviews we’ve managed to do have taken place in security centres, and we have to admit it: at the moment we take into custody a demobilized guerrilla, a prisoner or an informant, the first priority is to ask about illegal groups, drug or weapons trafficking. But rarely or never do we pay attention to women’s issues,” admits an investigator.
His frankness makes clear that there is no plan to confront the problem.
From the testimonies of several young girls and teenagers, El Tiempo has reconstructed the routes the exploiters take for “supplying” the demands of hundreds of miners who, according to the police, spend all their weekly earnings on liquor and prostitutes, many of them underage.
One route is the one between Cartagena and Antioquia. The intermediate point where the girls are collected is in Turbaco; there, generally, a bus takes the “express route” to Caucasia, and from there, they travel in public vehicles to Nechí, El Bagre, and Zaragoza.
“Last November 8 we had a situation at a checkpoint with several minor girls. They were heading for El Bagre (near Cauca), in a minibus. When we asked them why they were there, they claimed they were just passing through; later they said they had signed on as waitresses on a finca [large estate], but we already knew what was going on. We turned them over to the police, and they, in turn, to the ICBF. That’s all we know,” said a soldier. Even now he doesn’t know what happened to the girls.
Another infamous route for girls runs from Cartagena to Córdoba. Some get off at Ayapel; others, in the city of Montería and from there, to Valencia and Nudo de Paramillo. The modus operandi is the same: a bus or minibus, a fake story, and in the end, a camp or a house for abuse.
From Medellín there is another route, which carries girls to Chocó, or northeastern Antioquia, to Segovia and the Cauca valley, and from Medellín and Pereira to the edges of Antioquia and Chocó.
The authorities are also investigating what is happening to indigenous girls in the coltan-mining zone of Guainía, as well as the likely sale of minors, by their parents, in the emerald-mining area of Boyacá. But the drama of these girls is not only in the camps where they are enslaved and abused.
The chain of horror begins in the same streets where they are recruited. In the centre of Medellín, for example, the “Convivir” (extortion gangs) get paid a percentage of the girls’ earnings for letting them stand on a street corner. The girls are offered security in case a client doesn’t pay, and if they make trouble while under the influence of glue fumes, they are beaten and kicked out of the block. But these delinquents, who claim to maintain control of the streets, are the same contacted by the heads of the networks who seek “merchandise” to traffick into the mining areas.
“Without a doubt, most of the trade in the mines is controlled by the Urabeños. They buy girls in Cartagena or Medellín. Their own mothers offer them, and they make money off them,” says one of the investigators documenting cases. And in Antioquia, there is a name which everyone knows and remembers painfully: Jhon Jairo Restrepo, alias “Marcos”, formerly of the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front of the ELN guerrillas. Now he is the chief of the Urabeños in the northeast, and one of the victimizers of girls and women.
But civil authorities claim not to know anything about him. At least, so says the mayor of Segovia, Jhony Alexis Castrillón, who would only say that “in this town there is no prostitution, because the women are very hot and don’t need to be paid.”
The same saddening response comes from various other entities of the state: “There is no sexual exploitation here,” said a functionary of the Centre for Attention to Victims of Sexual Violence (CAIVAS), to the police in Medellín.
And the case of “Marcos” in Antioquia repeats itself in Chocó with three men who each have four aliases, and who have taken it upon themselves to provide the “services” of minor girls in the camps less than three kilometres from the mines.
“They picked me up in Pereira, they took me on a bus to Chocó, all the way out into the jungle. I was there for two months in the camp. Four other girls travelled with me, but I never saw them again, I don’t know what happened to them…” says a 15-year-old girl, who was just 14 in the middle of 2012, when she was taken to the Atrato valley.
“Mile”, which she says is her street name, keeps looking around her as she speaks. Her sadness is evident as she tells what those eight weeks were like. “The guy who picked me up in Bolívar Square told me I would have food and a bed, and that I’d be paid at the end of the month. And I did have that, but at the end of the first two weeks, Leo (as she calls the man) passed me a hundred thousand pesos and told me that was the payment.
The next month, the same thing happened. “Mile” decided to take a risk and asked one of the miners, who was heading to Pereira, to take her along, and that she wouldn’t charge him anything for going to bed. He agreed. “The bus stopped before arriving in Pereira, the guy was asleep, and I stayed behind, I didn’t go back…”
She decided not to return to her city for fear that Leo would come back to kill her, and now she is on the streets of Medellín. Her body bears the marks of clients, thieves and drunks, who forced her at knifepoint to comply with any number of aberrant requests.
“Lots of things happen in the mines. In many parts of the country lots of things happen, but here the authorities and everyone say that we’re the whores…I, for example, feel like I’m not a person anymore…this happened to me and there’s nothing I can do.”
I cried while I was translating this, much as I did during the last chapter of The Table Dancer’s Tale, which is also full of stories of girls prostituted by their own parents. Many of them are well under legal age, too. The difference between Mexico and Colombia is that the Mexican girls tend to work out of established houses, bars and nightclubs, which are more or less controlled environments, within the reach of local police; the Colombians are subjected to truly horrific conditions, in jungle encampments near the mines, which are in remote mountain locations and thus so much harder to escape. The police and the army both turn a blind eye, and only rarely intercept a “shipment” of human “merchandise” bound for the mining camps. How hard do the authorities need to be hit over the head to realize that this is a pervasive problem? Or are girls just so disposable in Colombia that literally anything goes, and that it’s “normal” for their own mothers to sell them to mafiosi? Do they rationalize the situation the way one brothel keeper in the stories of Gabriel García Márquez did, by writing over the doors of the establishment that the girls worked there because “they are hungry”? How many more girls are going to be exploited before someone makes the necessary political and economic changes that will make prostitution unprofitable for the traffickers who enslaved them?