ColombiaOne.comColombia newsChild Sexual Exploitation In Medellin: What Can Be Done to Mitigate It?

Child Sexual Exploitation In Medellin: What Can Be Done to Mitigate It?

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Medellin Child Sexual Exploitation
Child sexual exploitation in Medellin has been a social problem on the rise since 2012. Why does it happen and what can be done to mitigate it? Credit: Victor Cohen/ColombiaOne

In 2024 over 320 cases of child sexual exploitation were reported in Medellin by Valientes, a Colombian NGO. Recent cases like Timothy Alan Livingston’s have caused nationwide outrage and have focussed the country’s attention on Medellin. This case had a deep political impact on the city. Medellin mayor, Federico Gutirrez signed two decrees on April 11, 2024, banning sexual services in El Poblado, one of the city’s main tourist districts. He also recognized that in Parque Lleras, another exclusive zone in the city dominated by nightclubs and restaurants, child exploitation is out of control. 

What are the causes behind child sexual exploitation in Medellin?

Mutante, an independent Colombian journalism outlet, has expanded on this. They came to two major conclusions. First, Medellin is a segregated and deeply unequal city. According to reports by the Administrative Planning Department of Medellin’s Mayor’s office, 10 out of the 14 comunas (districts) live in severe poverty. These impoverished districts have been designated as “capture districts” in which children who live in poverty are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 

Many parents and children living in impoverished conditions see illegal sex work as an “opportunity” to escape them. This can be further contextualized when hunger is also factored into the macabre equation. According to Mutante, in 2023 28% of the citizens of Medellin claimed that in their households they could not access three meals a day. 

However, the second major conclusion that they arrived at has more to do with how these deprived conditions create a window of opportunity for exploitation to skyrocket. Gentrification has also been a major subject of controversy in the city. This is a process that has been sparked by the “Airbnb Wave” in which landlords have preferred to put their properties on this short-term platform, and have consequently displaced families from their homes. 

Airbnb and child sexual exploitation in Medellin

For many citizens in Medellin, rent has become unaffordable. It is very difficult, if not impossible to compete with an inflow of U.S. dollars every other week. The increase in the offer of this service has also increased the number of tourists coming in. The best example of this is the Comuna 14, also known as “El Poblado”. There are around 5.5 thousand Airbnb properties listed in this southern district in the city. It is also where many of the cases of exploitation have been reported. 

There, tourists spend 52.2% more on average than in any other district in the city. The evidence thus suggests that children and teenagers are being taken from “capture districts” to the city’s most exclusive areas, where there are more of these Airbnb properties. Social conditions could not have been “better” for this crime and exploitation epidemic to flourish. 

What can be done to help reduce the vulnerability of these populations in Medellin and in Colombia? 

So far, Medellin mayor Federico Gutierrez has announced measures such as not allowing underage children to be at Parque Lleras at night. The Mayor has come under fire because critics believe he is choosing to focus on limiting the victim’s freedoms rather than addressing the criminals who exploit them. 

In the only plenary to discuss child sexual exploitation since Gutierrez came into office, councilman Jose Luis Marin claimed that these measures are meant to impress the media rather than be effective. 

Effective measures to fight this complex phenomenon must be implemented urgently. One of the main methods of fighting child sexual exploitation promoted by UNICEF is strengthening the child protection systems. In the Colombian case, this would mean giving the ICBF (Colombian Institute of Family Welfare), more tools to reduce violence against children. This particular strategy involves creating laws, policies, and regulations, and increasing communication channels. UNICEF recommends focussing on social welfare, education, health, and security. 

This must be accompanied by free courses to measure how robust the children’s protection infrastructure actually is. The organization also mentions legal assistance and reintegration programs for victims. Service delivery is also crucial in this context. Inside a city like Medellin, it is not hard for people to access these infrastructures. However, Colombia has a considerable rural population that can also be vulnerable to these crimes. This is why investment in infrastructure is also needed to fight this phenomenon. 

International Cooperation

International cooperation is key to fighting child sexual exploitation. Two major mechanisms have proven to be successful, the first one being the cooperation between INTERPOL and UNICEF. These two international entities have signed cooperative agreements to support national governments around the world to prevent and address both online and physical child sexual exploitation. This includes establishing special units focused on finding predators, a challenge taken up by INTERPOL in its handling of the Livingston case. Governments have also been encouraged to participate more in this cooperation. 

The other mechanism is the We Protect Global Alliance. The agency was created in 2014 in the UK, and even though it primarily focuses on online exploitation, 98 countries have already signed up to it. This is an example of how technology can help find potential criminals before they commit crimes, and could potentially be used as a significant tool to prevent child sexual exploitation. 

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