Venezuelan women in Colombia caught between stigma and corruption

Amidst a severe economic crisis and mass migration, many Venezuelan women in Colombia endure precarious living conditions and minimal financial gains in the sex industry. The government’s negligence perpetuates their exploitation, requiring a coordinated effort to provide dignified alternatives and protection.

“Oh, you are Venezuelan. Our clients love Venezuelan girls”, Andres, a 64-year-old man, who works as a tourism agent, tells me one afternoon as he approaches me in a fresh juice street-shop in the city of Cartagena in December 2022.

“December, January, and February are the perfect months to work here,” he continues, as he tries to persuade me to become a sex worker in this city of over one million people.

Everyone around seems to know him. The street vendors around us know what he is up to. “I have thirty years of experience working in the tourism industry,” Andres says. His job consists of offering touristic packages to mainly foreigners longing for beach days in the Caribbean. More than working as a tourist agent, he uses tourism as the mechanism to offer girls in the sex tourism industry. This includes sex exploitation of Venezuelan women migrants and underage girls.

“If you take the risk, we can connect you with the right people to help you work here.” Andres mentions the possibility of getting an underage girl to work as a prostitute in Cartagena. “I don’t do that a lot. No underage girls. But only if you take the responsibility."

Audio in Spanish: “When tourists arrive here, they ask for companions. I am always asked for girls to accompany diplomats, business men, people with a lot of money,” says Andres, a 64 year old man who offers tourism packages in Cartagena.

A busy square is seen from above in the twilight
Monumento Torre del Reloj in Cartagena.

According to RedTraSex, Network of Sex Workers in Latin America and The Caribbean, there are over 4,500 Venezuelan sex workers in Colombia working mainly in Bogotá, Medellin, Cartagena and Santa Marta, the last two being hotspots for sex tourism. In Bogotá alone, 75% of known victims of sextortion, the crime of abusing power to sexually exploit those dependent on that power, were Venezuelans between 2016 and 2018, according to the most recent report available, although NGOs are afraid this number increased, especially during the pandemic.

“When I arrived in Colombia, people told me that sex work was a great job and a good way to make money very quickly”, says Roxibel, a Venezuelan young woman, who arrived in Santa Marta in 2018. She tells me how she was recruited while working as a street vendor with her three young children after a year trying to survive in the city.

 “I did it to provide for my kids. But that life doesn’t give pleasure. I cried every day during that month I worked as a prostitute,” Roxibel comments.

Venezuelan economic and migration crisis: women and girls bear the brunt

The crisis in Venezuela has resulted in the displacement of more than seven million people. Thousands of them are women who are attracted to neighboring countries with promises of lucrative employment and residency permits. However, due to their vulnerable situation, they are at a significantly higher risk of being trafficked into forced prostitution. Almost 70% of Venezuelan women living in Venezuela do not have a stable job in 2022, according to the Living Conditions Survey (Encovi).

“If you don’t have the legal status, you are more vulnerable to corruption,” Dr. Ortrun Merkle explains. “An official can always say: if you don’t pay me or don’t give me sex, then I’m going to report you to the authorities or I’m going to deport you,” says Dr. Merkle, whose research focuses on gender and corruption. “When financial resources are depleted, the only thing you have left is your body to pay to cross the border or get something else,” he adds.

This is especially visible at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, where violent groups and organized crime networks could abuse at least 25.000 migrants crossing every day, according to a report by Crisis Group in 2022. Also, according to the most recent report available, there were at least 295,000 undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia in February 2022.

“Venezuela's economy and your family encourage you to do those things. Venezuela is in crisis. It is not easy to survive here”, says Roxibel. You have to do what you have to do when you have a sick family member… Life in Colombia is not easy and that is why there are many people who are inclined towards sex work.”

A group of people, mainly women, walk over a bridge with their belongings in suitcases and backpacks.
Entrance to Colombia in Cucuta.

When Roxibel talks about the economic crisis in Venezuela, she refers to a country with one of the highest inflation rates in the world: 234% in 2022. A country where the minimum wage for workers in the public sector is about $6 per month, but a kilogram of chicken filets costs about $4.50 or a liter of  milk $2.30. Also, according to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) by Transparency International, Venezuela ranked 14 on a scale from 0 to 100, where 100 is very clean and 0 is highly corrupt.

However, moving to Colombia did not change Roxibel’s economic situation. In fact, many of the Venezuelans living in Colombia experience poor living conditions and the precarity is even worse for those trying to make a living out of sex work, especially in the capital city of Bogotá where most of the Venezuelans in Colombia live. 

About 6.10 million of the Venezuelan’s migrants and refugees are in Latin America, according to the R4V platform, the Regional Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, jointly led by UNHCR and IOM. Colombia is the country that has received the most Venezuelans: as of February 2022, according to Migración Colombia, the figure had reached close to 2.48 million. About 20% of the Venezuelans living in Colombia are concentrated in Bogota, that adds to more than 500,000 Venezuelans in a city of around seven million people.

Escaping the economic crisis to find themselves exploited

People walking over the border from Venezeula to Colombia on a sunny day.
Venezuelans at the San Antonio del Tachira-Cucuta border between Venezuela and Colombia in December 2022.

Although offering sex services could be perceived as an easy way to make money, the organized crime networks behind this industry and the lack of a legal framework make it hard for the actual sex workers to make a living. In fact, 80% of sex workers in Bogotá affirm to have started in the industry for the need to make a living. However, only 6% of the total consider sex work profitable.

According to a March 2023 report by the Women Secretary in Bogotá, 71% of sex workers had difficulties to cover basic needs and about 60% of them would not eat lunch because they did not have money to cover their meals.

"I don't reveal my Venezuelan identity to clients because they use it as an opportunity to exploit me."

Unfortunately, in Marisol’s experience, being Venezuelan translates to a lower perceived value to foreign clients due to the ongoing economic crisis in her home country. There has also been a smear campaign against Venezuelan women, saying that they bring HIV, Juan Carlos Celis Gonzales, Director of the NGO Procrear comments. 

As Roxibel also explains based on her experience, many of the Venezuelan women working at bars or clubs in Santa Marta or Cartagena are exploited multiple times, to the point of not making any money after engaging in sex work.

Typically, employers provide a place to live and food, but there is no clear salary structure in place. Women may attempt to earn tips from clients or generate income by selling alcohol to customers, in the most honest scenarios. There have also been cases where sex workers have participated in kidnapping clients to rob their belongings, ask for a recompense or steal their credit cards, says Roxibel. 

Consequently, many prefer to work independently, seeking out clients in public spaces such as main squares. In Bogotá, about 40% of the sex workers offer their services in the streets compared to about 60% who work at established places. However, this strategy can also be fraught with danger and not much in the way of earnings. 

“If you want to work as a prostitute here -says Andres- call me. Do not do like those girls who stand in the middle of the square waiting to catch a client. They are devaluing themselves,” he continues. 

In that sense, many women are caught between exploiting their bodies independently in public squares for $5 to $10 per sexual encounter; or, on the other hand, putting themselves at the service of pimps, bars and clubs owners that receive the most profit from the sexual exploitation of women, even when this is illegal. 

A government negligence: Enablers of exploitation

“Prostitution, that’s the oldest profession in the world and the favorite profession of Venezuelan women here,” says an officer of the security patrol. We are in the center of Cúcuta, a city bordering Venezuela known for being the first stop into prostitution for many Venezuelan women migrants. “They arrive here, learn the profession and then they go to Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena or even to other countries,” continued another officer while looking at his phone. 

Although some of these Colombian officials consider prostitution the “favorite profession” of Venezuelan women arriving in Colombia, stats and a short walk around different cities in the country reveal a different reality. The truth is that many  women and girls who wander the main streets of major cities and are exploited did not choose this profession, much less be victims of human trafficking networks. Almost 90% of the women victims of human trafficking in South America are sexually exploited and the majority of them come from Venezuela, according to Trafficking in Persons Report 2022 by the US government. 

For Juan Carlos Celiz Gonzales, Director of Procrear Foundation, the phenomenon of sexual exploitation of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia has other layers, such as extreme poverty, housing problems, violence, organized crime and drug use. As he explains, popular sectors such as Los Martire, Santa Fe and Kennedy are the sectors where most cases of prostitution and sexual exploitation are found in Bogotá. These are precisely the same sectors where most Venezuelan migrants live. 

"When migrants just arrive at the bus terminal in Bogotá and have nowhere to go. Where do they go? They go to Santa Fe, for example. Because everyone knows that they can get cheap housing there. But what if you don't even have the means to pay for housing? That's where the exploitation of the migrant begins."

“It is a place of transit for all migrants”, explains Juan Carlos, whose organization supporting many of these people is located in the same neighborhood of Santa Fe in the city of Bogotá.

“The scenarios of sexual exploitation of girls, prostitution and sex work are on the rise. I can say, without fear of being wrong: this phenomenon exists in all the localities of Bogotá. Whether the local authorities or this administration does not want to see it is different,” says Juan Carlos. 

Although, as Juan Carlos acknowledges, there has been an improvement when it comes to offering some guarantees of sexual health and sexual and reproductive rights for sex workers, there is still a lot of work to be done to address the underlying phenomenon that keeps so many women exploited. 

“There is no strategy to prevent these girls from being exploited, decrease the risks and penalize pimps and those who take advantage of these vulnerable women. By only offering some sexual and reproductive health guarantees, the government becomes enablers of the phenomenon,” he affirms. 

Legal or not legal: Exploited by law

Prostitution is not illegal in Colombia and sex work is very common in major cities with areas known as “tolerance zones”, where these services are commonly traded. However, it is not regulated as an official occupation, which leaves sex workers rights in limbo. Additionally, pimping or recruiting is illegal. Nevertheless, it is the way most women get into prostitution. Almost 70% of sex workers in Bogotá said to have a friend who was their first contact before becoming a prostitute. 

There is a confusion on the use of the terms that impacts those working or being exploited by  the industry. “Why if it is legal, women need to depend on a procurer or the person who exploits her?” the director of Procrear rhetorically asks, as he explains that there is a legal vacuum to explain the conditions of prostitution and sex work in Colombia that enables the exploitation of women and girls in the country. 

Another example Juan Carlos brings up is the age of consent. The age of consent in the country is 14 years old. This has been used to exploit underage girls, because men can be freed of charges if the 14 years old girl affirms consent. But how can a 14 year old victim of human trafficking declare otherwise?

“If it were legalized, it would meet other conditions. It is not. It is an activity that is exploited, and there are clear victims, which are the women who are forced to engage in it.”

A despair cycle vs lack of coordination

“The system itself traps you”, Marisol says. “We get into debt, drugs, alcohol, human trafficking networks… the whole prostitution system traps us so that you cannot get out”, she adds.

The situation is complex and it has many layers. “It is a very uncomfortable topic. People don’t like to talk about these experiences. So, getting data is quite difficult because there is a lot of stigma and shame attached to this kind of corruption”, explains Dr. Ortrun Merkle from the United Nations University Merit about the challenges to fight sex exploitation. 

Another one of the main challenges in Colombia is the lack of coordination between government and NGOs and other institutions. “Each level of government looks at a part of its responsibility, but does not look at it in an articulated way. We don’t have a chain of processes that can guarantee we are solving this issue.”, Juan Carlos says. 

“It is not a matter of only offering condoms or basic help, it is a matter of carrying out processes so that this exercise can be engaged in a dignified manner. With healthy conditions and that at least they do not have to rely on spaces that are violated by other actors,” Juan Carlos concludes.

**Name changed for security reasons

This article was part of the IACC (International Anti-Corruption Conference)  Fellowship and received support from Transparency International.

About the author

Gabriela Ramirez is a Venezuelan storyteller researching the intersections of journalism, innovation, and product strategy. She cover migration, gender and environmental issues. 

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