A popular Colombian beauty queen was arrested this past weekend for her alleged role in a child prostitution ring aimed at foreign sex tourists.
The United States Immigration and Customs (ICE) led a joint operation, Cristal II, in cooperation with the Colombia’s Navy and Coast Guard to arrest 22-year old Kelly Johana Suárez Martínez Moyam and four others during a party attended by 25 minors, among others, on Colombia’s Caribbean Islas de Rosario islands. An additional three were arrested in Armenia and four in Medellín for their involvement, according to ICE.
The arrests took place in a scenic archipelago with white sand beaches just a short boat ride from Cartagena, the country’s fifth largest city. Undercover agents posed as foreign sex tourists to break up the child prostitution ring purportedly run by the former Colombian beauty pageant contestant—Kelly Johana took part in the Miss Cartagena contest in 2013—turned professional model.
Kelly Johana’s legal representation claims she attended the party as a guest and has absolutely no involvement in this child prostitution ring, according to weekly Colombian magazine Semana.
Kelly Johana is not the typical ringleader for a child prostitution ring, but her credentials and her reputation in her home of Obrero, a poor neighborhood in the South of Cartagena, make her an effective recruiter of young girls and boys.
Obrero is just miles from the droves of cruise ship tourists wandering through Cartagena’s famed old town, which is surrounded by coral stone forts and walls previously used to prevent pirates from looting the city as much as 500 years ago. As both a former contestant and current student studying social work at the Colegio Mayor de Bolívar, she is known as a trusted leader within her impoverished community.
Since participating in the pageant she has become a professional model and appeared in the music video for “La Luz” alongside Juanes, a 20-time Latin Grammy award winning Colombian musician who has sold over 15 million albums worldwide. She is accused of using her celebrity to recruit socially disadvantaged minors with the potential to become professional models. According to the ICE, she even attempted to sell one 11 year-old child’s virginity to a foreigner for up $1,000 at the party last weekend.
Kelly Johana is accused of taking advantage of her reputation to recruit young girls and boys from her neighborhood and others nearby to join Stage Models Caribe, model agency she runs in partnership with Samuel David Olava Martínez.
Sex tourism is a thriving industry in Colombia, with sex tourists from around the world traveling to Colombian cities like Cartagena and Medellín for sexual trysts. Just last year, U.S. Secret Service staff was caught in a prostitution scandal during President Obama’s trip to Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas.
Their business model is not uncommon considering the circumstances for many living in Cartagena, a city in Bolivar department (the Colombian equivalent of a state) where it is estimated that 500,000 of the 2.2 million citizens live in poverty.
According to the international NGO SOS Children’s Village Cartagena, “roughly 1,500 children are involved in child prostitution in Cartagena.” For an inside view at the ways some criminals lure Colombian children into prostitution, look no further than the live footage of the Colombian gang La Oficina de Envigado recruiting young children in Guillermo Galdos’s documentary for Britain’s Channel 4. According to Galdo, “It’s a shocking new criminal world thriving in Medellin—with criminals formerly of the drugs trade now trading in women.”
Does Kelly Johana have a valid excuse for attending the party with over 60 youth between the ages of 13 and 20?
According to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, 18 year-old Olava Martínez sent Facebook invitations to promote the party. It is unknown how exactly he is affiliated with her agency, which is based in the affluent Miami Beach-esque Bocagrande neighborhood. The minors at the party were reportedly drawn to the island with the promise of an opportunity to appear in films.
Last night, October 14th, Kelly Johana appeared in court with the four of the accused: Olava Martínez, Juan Manuel Oquendo Sierra, Eduardo Ortega Issa and Horacio Revollo Pacheco. The five are being charged for “los delitos de inducción a la prostitución agravado en menor de 14 años y proxenetismo con menor de edad” or “human trafficking of minors, pimping and pandering,” according to the ICE. As of last night Kelly Johana has been confined to a” cell in a women’s prison called San Diego, located in the Bolívar department.
As Kelly Johana sits in prison awaiting trial she will have plenty of time to reflect on the statement she made during the 2013 pageant at the Institute for Culture and Heritage Cartagena (IPCC). At the time she told the audience, “Me preocupa el tema de los jóvenes en riesgo de mi comunidad y planeo trabajar en campañas puntuales de sensibilización,”which roughly translates to “I care about at risk youth in my community and I plan to work on campaigns to raise awareness.”
These words take on a dark layer of irony given the charges facing her.