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Fighting sex trafficking in Colombia's tourist jewel

Colombia, September 14, 2010

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Night has fallen in Cartagena, Colombia, and children are for sale.

My colleagues and I have gathered on the second-floor balcony of the Quibra Canto salsa bar after a long day of visiting Mercy Corps programs. Slashes of orange and rose, remnants of a spectacular sunset, linger in the Caribbean sky. The air is filled with scents of honeysuckle and rum, and the sounds of cumbia, salsa and merengue are background for conversations in both English and Spanish.

Below and before us lies historic Pegasos Square, with its distinctive watchtower, now ringed in harsh artificial light. Tourists and wealthy Colombians stroll on smooth cobblestones laid by Spanish conquistadors, and students cluster in boisterous groups.

Among those gathered below us, however, one small person stands out. She looks to be 12, 14 at the most (my daughter is 14). She wears a very short, white skirt with white fishnet stockings, and she moves awkwardly in too-high black stiletto heels. Her tight white blouse reads 'LOVE' in big blue letters, but she will find none of that here.

With a programmed smile, she begins to walk slowly up, then down the sidewalk below the Quibra Canto.

Gary Burniske, country director for Colombia, watches her with me. He looks at his drink, then up at me. "That's who we're here to help," he says. "Her and many more like her."

Sex tourism is big business in Cartagena, and children are the gold standard.

Earlier that day, Burniske and his team took us deep into a slum called Zapatero, home to some of the most vulnerable and exploited children on the planet. Here, in a program called Espacios Para Crecer ('Spaces to Grow'), Mercy Corps works with local partners to eliminate the worst forms of child labor and exploitation. In a clean, walled, brightly painted compound, children find safe haven. Beyond that, they receive education, vocational training and counseling — and so do their parents.

"Many mothers and fathers think it's normal to keep their kids out of school to shuck oysters or sell fish," says Yira Cuado, one of the program's facilitators. "And they can do little to keep their kids safe from the sex traffickers. We offer workshops to persuade parents to keep their children in school, and strategies to keep their kids safe from sex gangs and pimps."

Burniske says that the program's focus is on prevention, on keeping children from ever being lured or forced into prostitution in the first place. For those already caught up in sex trafficking, however, program administrators rely on other kids to identify victims. These 'compassionate informants' are the first step in getting children off the streets.

"At that point we work to rescue the kids, to extract them from these situations," says Burniske. "Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The odds are often really stacked against us. But we have to keep trying."

Local partners are working with Cartagena police officers and the prosecutor's office to fight sex tourism on the demand side. There have been some victories on this front — for one, local hotels and resorts that once actually helped procure girls and boys for sex tourists now work actively with the police.

"We've made some progress," says Burniske. "But we've got a long, long way to go."

I look down from the balcony. The little girl is gone.