Three girls were able to escape a Bogota-based sex trafficking group that is alleged to be holding 20 more minors captive for sexual exploitation, local authorities said Monday. Three suspects have been apprehended.
The authorities were notified of the organization after three of the captive girls escaped and reported their captivity.
As a result of the girls' reports, three raids were conducted in the city center. Police did not find any more victims but did find narcotics and adulterated alcohol. During the operations, three alleged members of the human trafficking organization were arrested.
According to newspaper El Tiempo, the three girls were originally from the southwestern Valle del Cauca state, but had been moved to the capital city to be exploited.
UNICEF officials have reported that Bogota is one of Colombia's biggest hotspots for sex tourism, including the exploitation of children. The international organization also noted that other big cities like Cartagena, Medellin, and Barranquilla also have high rates of child sexual exploitation.
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There are three kinds of work for a foreign journalist in Beijing: state media, such as China Daily; international bureaus, which are sparsely staffed and tough to crack; and freelancing. With no desire to reenter the state media and no job offers in international media, I reluctantly resumed my career as a freelancer.
The staff of Asia Weekly continued to go into the office after the magazine folded, a way to provide us newly unemployed a semblance of routine. One of the magazine’s editors was Tom Mackenzie. Tom was the same age as me, from the United Kingdom, Jude Law– handsome and with a good reporter’s instinct. We had met through friends on my first weekend in Beijing, a year and a half earlier. Tom had arrived in the city in early 2006 and, like me, had put in his time in state media before joining Asia Weekly. Tom and I got along well and had become good friends over the summer.
Only minutes after Jasper told us he was closing the magazine, as the staff absorbed the news in silence, Tom popped his head over his computer and called my name from across the office.
"Mitch," he said. "Trip?"
I didn’t know what he had in mind—or how I would pay for it— but I didn't care. I was in. We decided we would report a few stories while on the road, but which stories, and where, we had no idea. After a few brainstorming sessions, we were still without a plan.
Tom and I realized this trip would have to be more than just an adventure. We were both in our late twenties and not where we wanted to be in our careers. Tom wanted to be in broadcasting; I wanted to be writing features for international publications. We both knew that to take our careers to the next level we needed to establish names for ourselves, and we felt like we were running out of time. Whatever stories we were going to report, they needed to be good.
A week after he shuttered the magazine, Jasper took the Asia Weekly editors for lunch. He apologized for what had happened and said he was confident we could all make it as freelancers if we resold our stories in different markets.
"Don't look for stories that all the foreign press is doing," he told us. "Make sure to repackage the stories and sell them three, four times. And remember, sex sells.”
Sex sells . . . Back at the office after lunch, Tom and I thought about sexy stories we could sell. And then it came to me: Maggie’s—the nightclub frequented by lonely expat businessmen, certain China Daily foreign experts, and Mongolian prostitutes.
Maggie's, which had recently reopened after being shut down throughout the Olympics, had never brought me anywhere near sexual temptation. The few times I’d gone there left me feeling depressed and guilty, but ever since the night of Potter’s birthday party, I had been curious about the club and the Mongolian women who frequented it. I had never spoken with any of the Maggie’s girls about anything substantial, but I wanted to know their stories. Why, with so many available Chinese women, so many poor Chinese women, were the working girls who populated Maggie’s, the Den, and other hookup bars in Beijing frequented by expats Mongolian? How did they end up in China? What brought them? Maggie’s had been closed during the Olympics, and rumors had surfaced about several murdered Maggie’s regulars, all Mongolian prostitutes. It was a story waiting to be written.
Tom and I did some research online. We found the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report and read that trafficking was a growing problem, with between 3,000 and 5,000 Mongolian women and girls lured or forced into prostitution in foreign countries each year. Many were recruited by deceit, often by friends and relatives, and the vast majority ended up in China. Many came to the bars and karaoke rooms of Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities; others ended up farther south, in the saunas and casinos of Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia.
We found a story posted online by a nongovernmental organization about human trafficking in a city on the Chinese side of the Mongolian border, called Erlian. Neither of us had heard of it. We learned that Erlian was known for dinosaur bones discovered in a dried salt lake in 2006, and that it was the city in which the trans-Mongolian train—en route to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and Moscow—stopped to switch gauges.
According to the story, Erlian, a thriving oil town, was also a major human trafficking hub, the first stop before victims traveled farther inland, and the last stop for human trafficking victims, who, fearing discrimination at home, had no other place to go after being trapped in brothels abroad. The article told of streets in Erlian lined with brothels and of abused trafficked women who lived and worked in tiny, filthy apartments.
Tom and I searched the Internet for any similar articles written in the mainstream press. We found nothing. This was a great story, we thought, and we started plotting our strategy to report it. We drew up a list of potential contacts and threw out a few possible dates for a trip to Erlian, where we would, somehow, get into the brothels and find trafficking victims.
Tom and I contacted several NGOs to find out more. They confirmed the problem and filled in some of the blanks. Most of the victims were uneducated and desperate for a way out of poverty. Some were already prostitutes but had been misled about pay and conditions; others were enticed by advertisements in local newspapers promising overseas scholarships or vague offers of employment. Recruiters usually had contacts in destination countries—often women who had once been trafficked themselves.
As soon as the women reached their destination countries, NGO workers told us, they were routinely abused, physically and mentally. Many were beaten, forced to take drugs, raped, and repeatedly sold. Trafficked women often found themselves in a system of “trapped bondage,” in which employers demanded repayment for travel and other costs. The debts could be crippling. Some girls ran away, but most, lacking money, travel documents, and help of any kind, were forced to stay for several years.
Some women who found their way back to Mongolia continued to suffer. Many needed counseling for depression and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. They were shunned by their families. With no work experience and few options, some returned to what they knew, becoming traffickers themselves or returning to prostitution in cities like Erlian.
Our plans continued to move forward. Tom contacted a friend of his named Esso, a former Mongolian journalist who lived in Beijing, where she was raising her two teenage sons. She would come along as our translator.
We got in touch with a photographer, Jim Wasserman. Jim was a forty-six-year-old from Philadelphia who had worked for news outlets around the world. He’d been freelancing in Beijing for three years. We decided to meet at a bar in the Holiday Inn in Lido, a place known as a hangout for Mongolian prostitutes. Over beers, we told Jim about our idea—travel to Erlian and later south to Macau to write a story we hoped to publish in a major American outlet. He was up for it.
In an attempt to get a head start on our reporting, we tried talking to some of the Mongolian girls who had gathered in the bar. They were happy to chat, but not about their stories.
"This could be tough," Tom said.
In truth, I wondered if we would be able to get the story at all. We didn't know what we would discover in Erlian, and I was skeptical that we would even find trafficking victims, let alone get them to talk to us. But jobless and broke, I figured we had nothing to lose.
"Don't worry," I lied, taking a sip of my pint. “We’ll figure it out."
The night bus from Beijing to Erlian smelled of feet and body odor and cigarette smoke. Passengers sprayed cans of air freshener to mask the cocktail of odors, but to no avail. It was after midnight and outside it was cold and black.
There were about fifty other passengers on board, most of whom were speaking Mongolian. They carried with them large red, white, and blue plastic sacks wrapped in masking tape and packed with cheap goods bought from Beijing markets to sell back home, across the border.
Everybody was crammed into rows of bunks. I couldn't sleep. Lying at awkward angles trying to squeeze my stretched frame into the tiny bed, I tried to read a book to the glow of a pocket flashlight held between my teeth.
We arrived in Erlian at 5 a.m. in the dark and cold, still in China but barely. A cabbie took us to a hotel. When the night attendant showed us a room, cockroaches scurried under the beds. I had stayed in hostels with cockroaches and worse in my travels, but after the long and sleepless bus ride, I needed something more comfortable. We all did. The second hotel the driver showed us was passable, with clean rooms and hot showers. Beside the beds in our rooms was a sex kit with condoms and various pleasure enhancing ointments-the first sign of Erlian's sex trade.
After a few hours of sleep, we set off for the city’s market. Within minutes, we were approached by two gnarled old Inner Mongolian women with black teeth who asked if we were looking for girls. It was before noon. We told them no but asked where we would find them. On the north side of town, they told us, on Golden Bridge Street.
We continued walking through the city. In Erlian’s center square was a statue of a naked woman with flowing hair holding a globe extended in a palm, the paint chipped and yellowing. It's the kind of kitsch you expect to find in China's forgotten cities, but this one stood apart from the statues of Mao and other heroes of Chinese history. We asked locals what it was supposed to symbolize. The beauty of Mongolian women, they told us.
Around the corner from the square was the town market, a heaving place where dozens of Jeeps were parked, loaded with goods, drivers standing nearby, smoking, waiting to make one of the many daily trips across the Mongolian border. We hired a taxi driver to take us around town for the day, a thirty-three-year-old ethnic Mongolian named Havar. We asked him questions and he answered in Mongolian, via Esso. Yes, there are Mongolian girls here, he said, "many, many girls." Havar said the girls cost about 300 yuan-fifty-five dollars-for the night, but the price drops significantly depending on the their age and “experience.”
We asked Havar to take us to the brothels. He pulled up outside a police station around the corner from the red-light district, Golden Bridge Street. A large arch marked the street's entrance. We decided that the four of us together would attract too much attention, so Esso and I would go in first to see if we could talk to anybody, and Tom and Jim would go in later.
It was a bright afternoon and Golden Bridge Street was showing signs of life. In glass-fronted rooms, women of varying ages were curled up on couches, yawning and watching television. Some swept floors and cleaned windows lined with dolls and stuffed animals; others walked over to a grocery store down the street to buy cigarettes and bottles of green tea. Every few minutes, a taxi pulled through the tall archway at the mouth of the street, next door to the police station, to drop off a girl who had worked through the night.
I was nervous walking down the street, very aware of my own presence. We had not seen any Westerners in town, and there I was, tall and obvious, walking down a street lined with brothels in the middle of the day. I felt as though everybody was watching me, but when I looked around at the women in the windows, and the groups of men in leather jackets smoking and talking, I noticed that nobody was paying attention at all.
Esso, young-looking in her late thirties with long, straight black hair, stopped in front of a room where several girls lounged on stained couches.
"Do you want to talk to them?"
I hesitated. "I don't know. Do you think they’ll talk?" "Come on." She grabbed my arm and swung open the front door.
The room was littered with ashes and cigarette butts. A puppy played with a chunk of chipped drywall on the floor and drank from a bowl of curdled milk. Sitting under a poster of a half-naked American blond, three young women smoked Esse Light cigarettes on two small couches.
The girls inside barely looked up when we walked in. It seemed as if they had just gotten out of bed, hair disheveled and wearing baggy sweaters and sweatpants. Esso told them we were journalists working on a story and that we wanted to ask them a few questions.
One of the women-chubby, with heavy makeup, green nail polish, and dyed auburn hair-shrugged. "Okay," she said.
Her name was Alimaa. She was twenty-three. She told us she worked late the night before and was exhausted today. Two years earlier, in Ulaanbaatar, she and a friend were recruited by two men to work at a karaoke bar in Beijing. When she arrived in the Chinese capital, her recruiters told her she had to work as a prostitute. They made it clear she didn't have a choice.
"They took us to different rooms in a hotel and showed us Chinese girls who had been raped," she said as Esso translated and I wrote in my notebook. "They said, 'Take a look, this is what will happen if you don't do this.' "
I took notes furiously, trying to capture all the details. This is exactly what we needed for our story, and we were getting it in the first interview. There is a certain numbness a journalist gets when reporting a story like this. You're transcribing horrors into your notebook, but not really processing it; it's like a surgeon desensitized to blood. I could hear Alimaa's story, but I couldn't feel it. Later, I would feel terrible for her and others like her, but for now I was focused on one thing: getting the story.
Sri Lanka, 2012
It has been a little more than a year since I wrote this shocking story about the horrible acts against Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka that took place during the end years of the country's nearly three-decade long civil war between the separatist Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.
Sri Lanka's actions are back in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council and UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, says Sri Lanka has broken its promise to improve human rights in the island nation.
Pillay has also issued a stern warning to the Sri Lankan Government not to repeat last year’s intimidation and threats against human rights defenders at next week’s UN Human Rights Council meeting to examine Sri Lanka’s progress on human rights and post-war reconciliation with Tamils.
This article, in spite of being almost a year old, is one of our top viewed and commented upon stories month after month consistently in 2013. As hard as it is to take in, this fact means a great deal.
Exposing atrocities vividly online is one of the most powerful, underutilized options we Human Rights journalists have at our disposal. We make sure that the memories of Sri Lanka's war crimes follows their officials around like a bad smell.
Here is the article from March 2013:
I have written several articles examining the terrible crimes against innocent women and girls that occurred during the Sri Lanka civil war and the ensuing Genocide that enveloped the Tamil population in the island country's northern region.
The conflict wiped out most of the resistance force, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - aka 'Tamil Tigers'), and tens of thousands of innocent defenseless civilians who were directly targeted.
Along with the carnage came a barrage of sex crimes against Tamil women and girls that defy real description.
The shocking images are bloody and horrible and yet very important, as Sri Lanka stands accused of war crimes and is the subject of a resolution calling for several measures of atonement and clarity, not that anything could ever ever be enough.
Humiliation, torture, children murdered in obscene ways, military leaders with white flags gunned down while they surrendered, white van disappearances that strike horror into the heart Tamil people.
The images attest to human cruelty that is simply beyond the imagination of western people whose governments when united, most of all, have a chance of forcing change on nations like this that by policy, practice deadly, mass murder against their own citizens.
Sri Lanka's actions against its own people stand as a textbook example of state terrorism. There was nothing rational or reasonable or justifiable about directing people into safe zones and then bombing them, or killing old men and old women, chasing families down, one atrocity after another.
They are all photos of war crimes that took place in 2009, the photos have been authenticated, there are different versions of the photos and video, the SLA did a good job documenting their deeds.
At the bottom of this article is a quote from a man claiming to be a former Sri Lanka soldier; that confirms in my opinion, our worst suspicions, that it was even worse than we can imagine.
The country is now at once a destination, origin and transit country for sex slaves — part of a 1-million-strong slave force that exists in Russia. Zhenya, a young Russian woman, was lucky: A client took pity on her and took her away from the brothel.
Before that, there was her life on the streets with Gypsy beggars since she was 12, and another kind man who took her to the movies, bought her clothes — and then sold her to a prostitution ring.
Zhenya is safe now, but thousands of other sex slaves in Russia are still waiting for a good samaritan to come along and save them — which is their best hope, since the government and society in general prefer to look the other way, anti-trafficking activists say.
While Russia may be more notorious for its homegrown cheap sex labor, these days inbound sexual traffic in fact far exceeds the exports, thanks to Russia's previously stable economy, which ensures a steady demand for prostitutes, experts said.
The country is now at once a destination, origin and transit country for sex slaves — part of a 1-million-strong slave force that exists in Russia, according to a recent report released ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Dec. 2.
But the government and the legislature both ignore the problem for fear that it would damage Russia's reputation, even though sex trafficking exists everywhere, said activist Boris Panteleyev.
"Admitting the existence of slavery, in the eyes of officials, would harm our prestige," said Panteleyev, head of the Man & Law NGO and a former prosecutor who has been combatting human trafficking since the 1990s.
As a result, sex slaves in Russia struggle even if freed, and have to rely on NGOs, clerics or police generosity in the absence of state rehab and protection programs.
"Russian criminal legislation is insufficient, and existing laws say nothing about help for victims," said Yelena Timofeyeva of the SafeHouse charity.
A Million Slaves
Russia ranked as the country with the sixth-biggest slave population in the world — 1 million people — in a fresh annual report by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation released last week.
The report put the total number of slaves among 167 countries of the world at 35 million. India was the runaway leader with 14 million slaves, while Mauritania had the highest percentage of slave population (4 percent).
The report did not differentiate between types of forced labor, but said the sex industry was among the main employers of Russian slaves.
The U.S. Department of State downgraded Russia to Tier 3, the lowest in the ranking, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report in 2013.
Despite stereotypes, even well-educated, world-savvy people can become victims of sex trafficking, Timofeyeva said.
"Ninety-nine percent of people we work with say, 'I never expected it to happen to me,'" she said.
"Many school graduates have high salary expectations, and that makes them easy victims," Timofeyeva said.
But the poor are the main risk group, and a third of women who grew up in Russian female orphanages become involved in sexual labor within a year of starting adult life, experts say.
Outright abductions are rare: Victims are usually duped into traveling in the hope of a new job, and instead find themselves in a brothel, where they are abused in order to break their will.
Supply and Demand
Only drug dealing is more profitable than sex trafficking as far as illegal activities go, Timofeyeva said.
Statistics are scarce, but data from Russia's Interior Ministry obtained by The Moscow Times contained about 900 cases of human trafficking, exploitation and involvement in prostitution over the first nine months of 2013.
Only one in nine such crimes ever comes to light, criminologists estimate, which indicates that at least 8,000 people are currently in sexual slavery in Russia. The figure is likely larger by an order of magnitude, given that most such cases involve more than one victim.
Experts named Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic states — all post-Soviet regions — as the main suppliers of sex slaves to Russia.
A new rising trend is also seeing ethnic diasporas in Russia import women from their native countries, including Vietnam, China, the Central Asian republics and African nations, to work in their brothels.
One of the most popular websites for Moscow prostitutes, IntimCity.nl, which gives visitors the option of browsing women by nationality, was predictably dominated by Russians (2,300 women), but the "black women" category was the second most populous group with 236 entries. Three Asian categories ranked a combined third with 164 offers. It is impossible to tell from such websites how many, if any, of the women on offer are victims of the slave trade.
The head of the Interior Ministry's anti-trafficking department, Alexei Arkhipov, said in October that the number of Russian prostitutes sold into sexual slavery outside the country has decreased over the past six years because of visa problems and the economic downturn in receiving countries.
But the Walk Free report said that Russia is a hub for trafficking and exploitation in Eurasia.
Most victims are female, but Timofeyeva said certain spots in St. Petersburg were populated exclusively by involuntary young male hustlers.
The anti-trafficking department of the Interior Ministry, after initially providing a comment for The Moscow Times, later backtracked, withdrawing the comment for unspecified reasons.
But a law enforcement officer familiar with the situation told The Moscow Times on condition of anonymity that sex laborers make on average $150-$250 per client, which could put monthly revenues from a brothel with two dozen sex slaves at anywhere in the $600,000 to $2.5 million range.
There are, however, expenses to consider as well: It costs about $300,000 in bribes a month per prostitution ring to ensure that local authorities look the other way, and groups that do not work the streets spend up to 40 percent of their budget on advertisement, the officer said.
The Invisible Slaves,/b>
Despite the apparent size of the industry, there is not a single state-sponsored shelter for freed sex slaves in Russia.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has a shelter in St. Petersburg and co-runs another outside Moscow together with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Both shelters house all kinds of migrants in need of rehab, from illegal laborers to sex trafficking victims, said Pawel Szalus, IOM's coordinator in Moscow.
The two have a combined capacity of some two dozen people — which, Szalus admitted, was only enough for "the tip of the iceberg."
Government organizations are doing what they can, but no special programs or organizations exist to aid and provide rehabilitation to trafficking victims, he said.
Several Russian legislators used to help out in the crusade against sex trafficking, but none are presently active in the field. The most famous one was State Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina, who has gone on to become a conservative media star by spearheading legislative crusades against gays and U.S. adopters of Russian children.
Awareness of the issue also remains virtually nonexistent. The state does little in the field, though in 2012 the Interior Ministry published a brochure on the matter.
"Sexploitation runs strong in Russian society," Timofeyeva said. "We always tend to blame the victim."
Russia got the worst possible mark, "C," in taking measures against human trafficking in the Walk Free report, which said government activity in the field was "sporadic" and hampered by corruption.
The country scored acceptably on punishing traffickers, with 52 points out of 100, but support for victims was only rated at a dismal 33 points.
Charities are working to fill the void, such as Timofeyeva's SafeHouse, which hold seminars in schools, time and money permitting, and provides art therapy under the JewelGirls program.
But they only reach a fraction of potential victims, and are impeded by the general governmental crackdown on independent NGOs.
JewelGirls' plan to open a hotline and shelter for trafficking victims in Russia was foiled in 2012 because of the expulsion from Russia of USAID, which was going to foot the bill for the project.
NGO workers and police say the situation is still better than a decade ago, or in the 1990s, when Russian girls were trafficked across borders sealed between panels in the cargo area of trailer trucks.
And maybe the victims will yet prod the state into the right direction. At least, that is the plan for Angelina, another victim, who asked for her real name to be withheld to protect her identity.
Angelina, then a college student majoring in accountancy, was duped into working at a telephone sex company that she believed to be no more than a call center.
After a while, her handlers convinced her to work as an escort: "no sex involved." Soon she woke up in a locked apartment, having been drugged, where she was forced into starring in porn viewed by webcam, and drugged some more.
Angelina was freed in a police raid. She moved to a different city, and her abusers were jailed. She graduated from an engineering college and found a job in that field.
"But I dream of working in the police to help girls like me," Angelina said.