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Secret Service scandal sheds light on sex tourism in Latin America

Type in "sex tourism" and "Brazil" in Google, and the first site that comes up is not a news report or academic study, but advice on going rates and how to hire prostitutes.

But ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, officials are starting to clamp down on the country's image as a haven for sex tourism. Brazil's Tourism Ministry recently said it identified more than 2,000 sites advertising the South American giant's sex industry, many of them hosted in the US. To counter the reputation, the tourism ministry has stepped up efforts to advertise Brazil's natural beauties like beaches and the Amazon, instead of bodies for sale. And they have circulated information reminding visitors that sexual exploitation of minors is a crime. 

Brazil's preventive efforts seem more crucial than ever after the scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, during the Sixth Summit of the Americas last weekend. Some 11 US Secret Service agents were sent home for allegedly hiring prostitutes in the steamy colonial city, also a major destination for sex tourism. 

“Large events create an obvious clientele and traffickers recognize an opportunity to make money,” says Heather Smith-Cannoy, who teaches international relations at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

“I think that in many places around the world there is a 'boys will be boys' attitude about the patronizing of prostitutes," Ms. Smith-Cannoy says. But when considering the combination of large profits for traffickers, and pimps or hustlers, and a relaxed cultural attitude about visiting prostitutes "we can begin to understand both the supply and the demand side of this industry,” says Smith-Cannoy.

The trafficking–tourism link

Sex “tourism" is nothing new. By some accounts it dates back to the 15th century, with Columbus's arrival to the Americas. As the middle class grew in industrialized nations, and the opportunities to travel with it, the formal industry was developed. 

Prostitution is tolerated to varying degrees in Latin America, but it is the human trafficking associated with sex tourism, especially that of minors, that alarms officials most. (The case of Cartagena did not involve minors.)

According to the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW-LAC), 500,000 women and girls from Latin America and the Caribbean are sexually exploited each year.

Not all prostitution involves sex trafficking, a multibillion dollar industry, but the nongovernmental organization World Vision estimates that up to a quarter of women in prostitution have been trafficked.  At the same time, the majority of human trafficking victims — 79 percent — are brought into the sex trade, according to the United Nations. Countries in Asia, notably Thailand, have long been at the center of the problem, but Latin America is starting to play a larger role.

“While most trafficking victims still appear to originate from South and Southeast Asia or the former Soviet Union, human trafficking is also a growing problem in Latin America,” writes Clare Ribando Seelke in a 2012 Congressional Research Service report.

Poverty, displacement from rural areas, and increased demand for prostitution all play a role in the growth of sexual exploitation, says Humberto Rodriguez, the communication officer of Fundacion Renacer, a Colombia-based group that combats the sexual exploitation of youths in the country. Anywhere the tourism industry grows, he says, so does the opportunity for sexual tourism.

'Not enough is being done'

Within sex tourism, the exploitation of children is the biggest concern.  According to the US State Department 2011 report on the trafficking of persons, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua all have significant child sex tourist industries. Colombia, it says, is also “a destination for foreign child sex tourists from the United States and Europe, particularly to coastal cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla.”

Countries around the globe have addressed the problem of human trafficking in general since the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted in 2000, but many say not enough is being done.

The US State Department assesses efforts around the globe to combat human trafficking. In 2010, 80 percent of countries in South America were placed on the Tier 2 list, which means they were not fully complying with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, while 60 percent of countries in Central America and the Caribbean were on the Tier 2 Watch List.

Cuba fell to the lowest level of cooperation, Tier 3. The State Department says that prostitution of children over 16 is legal in Cuba, leaving those over the legal age vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. Venezuela fell to Tier 3 in the 2011 report.

Colombia sits on the Tier 1 list, and while the case of the US Secret Service agents does not fall into Fundacion Renacer's work — as it did not involve children — Mr. Rodriguez says the case may not have generated so much attention in the past. “People are paying attention to it now,” says Rodriguez.

Through their work and an international certification program called The Code, which brings tourism operators into the fight to prevent the use of children in sex tourism, society in general is more aware of prostitution, he says.

Efforts like these are particularly important as countries become hosts to big events like the Summit of the Americas, or as crises occur.  An increased demand for prostitution increases human sex trafficking rings, says Cannoy-Smith. She and a co-author have researched the impact of UN peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, Haiti, and Sierra Leone on trafficking.

“When the UN intervenes in civil conflicts, the peacekeepers themselves have often been linked to running and patronizing trafficking rings,” Smith-Cannoy says. “Again, I think that poverty, desperation, the specter of large profits, and relaxed cultural attitudes make these dynamics possible.”

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