MEDELLÍN, Colombia — The path to the criminal underworld here meanders up dingy, unsteady steps through graffiti-covered alcoves and makeshift soccer fields to reach mountainside barrios.
From the hills overlooking the city, which sits in the Aburra Valley, gangs known as combos run their illicit businesses, and one of those, a tradition dating back to the days of Pablo Escobar and his infamous cocaine cartel, is the clandestine auction of virgins. The combos prey on vulnerable girls easily silenced by threats and small bribes. And in the world where these girls live, even a seemingly innocent conversation among BFFs can have sinister consequences.
Maria, a young sex-trafficking victim whose identity we are protecting, recalls what seemed at first ordinary gossip with a girl her age. “She told me she had a boyfriend and she asked me if I did, too. Then she asked me if I was a virgin,” said Maria. And so it began.
At the height of Escobar’s reign in the 1980s, young girls from poor neighborhoods in Medellín were often recruited for orgies at his estate, and they were lucky if they left alive. A group of Escobar’s cronies called Los Señuelos, meaning bait, were responsible for luring the young women to parties and then ensuring they did not cause trouble for the drug traffickers later. After one party, the police found the bodies of 24 young women, all under 19 years old, according to Colombia’s Semana Magazine.
The machista narco-culture that Escobar created made it seem almost normal to auction off young girls’ virginity. Last year in an intercepted call between members of a drug-trafficking paramilitary group from northwest Colombia called Los Urabeños, a young woman casually discusses her efforts to recruit “zero kilometers,” the codename for virgins who’ve got no miles on them. She even offers her 11-year-old sister’s virginity, but only for the group’s leader.
This traffic is no longer just about the cartels and gangs, however. It has expanded to cater to wealthy tourists, according to the Medellín-based nongovernmental organization, Consult Center for Urban Conflict (C3).
Although this city has gained international acclaim for its pacification and transformation since the Escobar days, in the city’s slums, known as comunas, Escobar remains an idolized figure. His influence can be seen in the combos’ lavish parties, exploitation of young women, and violent manner of controlling friends and enemies alike. So, while Medellín has become safer for average city-dwellers, who no longer fear random bombs or shootings, there is an ironic consequence:
“Medellín is a city that has progressed in recent years, but this attracts a lot of people with money,” said Oscar Chaparro, president of C3. “This has diversified the sex trade that has existed for a long time.”
Young girls in Medellín’s comunas from ages 10 to 15 are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, including Maria, who shared her testimony with C3 as part of a report detailing the systematic workings of the virgin auctions. The friend Maria trusted was in fact a recruiter for the combo who singled Maria out as a potential virgin to be trafficked.
Once such a girl has been selected for the auction, a member of the combo often approaches her parents with a proposal that they guard their daughter’s virginity until its time for the auction, for which the family will be rewarded with a generous sum: a few hundred dollars, often equivalent to their entire monthly income. If the family won’t cooperate or goes to the police, then threats begin. This proposition is, as the saying goes, an offer they can’t refuse.
NGOs that fight sexual exploitation in Medellín, including Convivamos, Corporación Primavera, and Red de Derechos Sexuales, confirm that selling girls as virgins is common within Medellín’s sex trafficking industry. Amigo Joven, another NGO, says it knows of at least one confirmed case in which the mother of the girl was complicit.
The personeria of Medellín, a government office that addresses human rights abuses, has relocated three families who feared for their lives after refusing to auction their daughters’ virginity.
“Mothers have said that they were displaced from the comunas of the city because criminal groups tried to auction off their daughters,” said Rodrigo Ardila, who heads the personeria office in Medellín. “They made generous financial offers if their daughters were virgins and had never had any sexual experience.”
One day, Maria noticed a drastic shift in her friend’s behavior while they were hanging out after school. It was the first sign that the day would take a dark turn. Two men arrived, one of whom Maria assumed was her friend’s boyfriend. The three began to whisper, asking if everything was ready as usual. That was when they abducted Maria.
“Keep quiet or your family will get hurt,” they told her as they covered her mouth and shoved her into a car. “I was lying down on the floor of the car crying. It was really scary,” said Maria.
Combos use the same threats and terror tactics as Escobar to maintain control of the comunas, and these sex trafficking networks evolve constantly to evade law enforcement, according to C3.
The auctions used to involve prospective clients reviewing virgins in a catalog while in Colombia. But as the networks became more sophisticated and technology advanced, the auctions moved online where anyone in the world could view from a computer.
After Maria’s first abduction, she was taken to a house where she was prepped for her photos. Maria sobbed while an older woman applied her makeup and complained that Maria was a crybaby. Her photos would be displayed for bidders on a temporary pin-protected website that allowed users to browse girls as young as 10 and offer a price.
A steady supply of customers find the auctions through referrals from other sex trafficking networks in Medellín, where prostitution is legal over the age of 18. After establishing trust, a customer may be granted access to a virgin auction, but it still costs a hefty fee.
This means almost every customer buys a young girl, according to Chaparro at C3, because a bidder who has already fronted thousands for an entrance fee is not likely to leave empty handed.
These tourists coming from the U.S., Mexico, or Japan often join the auctions as part of a sex tourism package. Once a client arrives in Medellín, the combo must transport the auctioned-off girls from the comuna to a set location, sometimes under the guise of a party invitation, and often with force.
The second time Maria’s abductors came for her, she knew why, but that didn’t make it any easier. They forced her in the car as she cried. She was then taken to a secret location and the same woman applied her makeup. This time it was not for a photo. Maria was forced to have sex with a much older man, her first sexual experience.
“I don’t know how many times I was raped,” she said. “I screamed but no one came.” Afterwards, she cried and fell asleep. She remembers feeling abnormally drowsy and wonders if she was drugged.
After the traumatic experience, young girls like Maria try to return to life as normal in the comuna. Without any further use for the girls, the combos usually don’t bother them. Others, like Maria’s friend, help the combos recruit in exchange for a commission. Victims’ fear and vulnerability keeps these networks hidden.
Maria shared her testimony with C3, but did not want to file a police report out of fear of retaliation. So, the combos continue to evade law enforcement. The secrecy of the networks also makes it difficult for girls like Maria to access basic health services and psychological care.
“Who can they tell? Who can they talk to?” said Chaparro. “If they want help, they need to file a police complaint, but who is going to do that? So they stay silent.”