A web of procurers in Cartagena that police say was made up of a marine captain who forcefully tattooed his name on underage victims and a madam who lured in girls as young as 14 with promises of exotic work was recently broken up, according to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office.
In a joint operation with officials from the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Colombian authorities captured 18 people tied with a prostitution ring that involved 250 victims, some of whom prosecutors said were minors.
Among those arrested was Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello, alias “Madame,” who prosecutors called “the biggest pimp in Cartagena” and who they said acted as a recruiter and point person for underage prostitutes. She would come to young girls with the promise of working in exotic locations like on the Caribbean islands and offer to process work visas for free. When the girls got to their locations, they soon realized they had been recruited as sex workers and were not free to leave. In addition, Campos sent the girls to “sex parties” throughout the world, authorities said.
Investigators said they found tourist operations and hotels known for catering to sex tourism to commonly have girls between the ages of 14 to 17 available as sex workers.
“They were recruited by procuring networks that defined their routines and hours, and obligated them to offer sexual services in exchange for money,” the statement from prosecutors read. “They were true 21st century slaves.”
In Colombia, as with most Latin American countries, procuring is illegal while prostitution remains legalized and regulated. It is also illegal to knowingly purchase the services of a sex worker under the age of 18.
Campos has a criminal record that includes trafficking heroin and overstaying a visa in the United States, Colombian prosecutors noted. She denied all new charges during a Monday hearing, according to Miami’s El Heraldo.
Inicia proceso de extinción de dominio de inmuebles vinculados a actividades de proxenetismo y explotación sexual de niñas en #Cartagena. #CTI y @PoliciaColombia ocupan 2 hostales en centro histórico, Hotel Casa Bejamin en El Laguito y otro establecimiento en Bocagrande pic.twitter.com/ihY7Xa1VSh
— Fiscalía Colombia (@FiscaliaCol) 31 July 2018
As seen in the above video clip police have taken dominion over a pair of hotels – Hotel Casa Benjamin and El Laguito – in Cartagena’s Old Town, as well as a third hotel in Bocagrande where some of the numerous raids took place. Overall, there were 13 raids and constant monitoring of five hotels during the investigation, police said.
Another notable arrest came when police detained Romero Pabón, a marine infantry captain with Colombia’s Armed Forces. “There is abundant conclusive material against him that shows he located girls under 14 years old on social media, abused them, and bought their silence and ordered that they tattooed his name on certain parts of their bodies,” prosecutors said of Pabón.
He pled guilty to five charges on Saturday and will face a sentence of up to 91 years in prison for the range of crimes that include engaging the prostitution of minors and using communication methods to facilitate the sexual exploitation of minors.
Colombian authorities said they received a number of formal complaints about local hotels and businesses in Cartagena that advertised underage girls to foreigners, mainly Israelis. Two Israeli citizens, who prosecutors charged with conspiracy to commit a crime, were among the arrested. A third Israeli, Assi Mosh, has a warrant out for his arrest through Interpol.
The aforementioned Casa Benjamin was a known headquarters for Campos among others, and prosecutors said the raid there yielded extensive evidence against the defendants.
A version of this article first appeared in Colombia Focus.