Over the past year, Venezuela has been facing a devastating humanitarian crisis. The country’s economy is in shambles and many citizens have fled to neighboring countries like Brazil and Colombia due to increasing government instability. As they experience their first taste of freedom, migrants are falling prey to sex traffickers who promise them work but instead sell them into slavery and prostitution rings that operate across Latin America

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It’s the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, or selling people for the purpose of exploitation. This includes forced labor or sexual slavery. Human trafficking can take place in many different forms and contexts.

Venezuelan Migrants Fall Prey to Sex Traffickers After Fleeing Their Collapsing Country

QUITO, ECUADRIAN REPUBLICAN REPUBLICAN Patricia, a Venezuelan migrant who had sold fish from a market stand at home, was locked inside what turned out to be a brothel on her first day at what she believed would be a job sweeping floors.

She was held captive for two months, receiving food and new underwear via a small window in her chamber throughout the day. A slew of males showed up late at night, she said, seeking sex. When she insisted on using a condom, one of her clients stabbed her in the left arm.

Patricia, a 36-year-old mother of two, said of her escape from a Colombian brothel and journey to Ecuador, “I never believed anything like this would happen to me.” The Wall Street Journal decided to solely use her first name in the article.


A brothel in Ecuador is not distant from where sex-trafficking gangs recruit women during illicit border crossings with Colombia.


In Quito, Ecuador, a waitress works in a bordello where Venezuelan migrant women work as sex workers.

While sex trafficking is a worldwide issue, human-rights experts believe it has grown particularly prevalent among migrants fleeing Venezuela’s regime and economic crises in recent years. Government authorities and rights organizations in the Andean area claim that human traffickers take advantage of the almost six million people leaving Venezuela—the world’s second-largest ongoing refugee crisis, behind Syria—by forcing some into sexual bonds with false employment promises.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with traffickers recruiting women along clandestine trails that Venezuelans have used for much of the past two years due to the closure of national borders, according to Coralia Sáenz of the International Organization for Migration’s Quito office, which tracks regional trafficking of women.


Thousands of Venezuelan refugees were forced to travel along illicit paths utilized by sex-trafficking gangs since the Rumichaca Bridge, the primary border crossing between Colombia and Ecuador, was closed for most of the outbreak.

Sex trafficking and the prostitution it fuels are hidden in plain sight. It is nearly never reported by Venezuelan migrants. They are sometimes too humiliated or afraid of retaliation from trafficking gangs or deportation because they lack legal status, according to Daniel Palacios, Colombia’s interior minister. Colombia is home to more Venezuelan migrants than any other nation, with two million.

He claimed Colombian officials were looking into 60 instances of sex traffickers using Venezuelan migrants in the first nine months of 2021. In 2017, there were just five documented instances.

Mr. Palacios said, “The crime is substantially underreported.” “You witness an exponential spike in instances as the situation in Venezuela worsens,” he noted.

Patricia, like many other Venezuelan refugees, departed her homeland because of starvation, hyperinflation, and unemployment brought on by an 80 percent economic decline over seven years.


A motorist drives a Venezuelan migrant couple and a Colombian through a backroad used by migrants trying to enter Ecuador.


Cars transporting migrants routinely travel between Colombia and Ecuador on back routes.

Last December, she was selling coffee on the streets of Bogotá when a lady approached her and offered her a position at a restaurant. Patricia’s children stayed with relatives in Bogotá while the lady purchased her a bus ticket and took her to Cali in southwest Colombia. Patricia said that while inside a pub that also functions as a bordello, two hefty guys dragged her to a back room and shut the door.

“I started shouting, but they replied, ‘Don’t you know why you were brought here?’” she recounted after resettling in Quito with the support of Hummingbird Wings, an organization that assists victims of sexual slavery.

The group’s spokesperson, Mara Elena Guamán, claimed the pandemic’s deprivation made many women more inclined to accept phony job and marriage offers posted on social media platforms by human traffickers.


To go from Colombia to Ecuador, Venezuelan refugees use perilous back roads where sex-trafficking gangs recruit.

Ms. Guamán said, “They identify your weak area.” “They will provide a scholarship if your desire is to study. They’ll offer you employment if you need it. They’ll fetch you clothing if you need them. Victims are never aware that they are being recruited.”

In Barranquilla, Colombia, the proprietor of an internet pornography firm disguised up as a priest and attracted Venezuelans to his home, claiming it was a migrant refuge. Later, police stated they discovered 30 Venezuelans who said they were forced to do sexual activities in front of cameras.

Seven Venezuelan women were rescued by Colombian police in March after they were offered work as bar waiters in an agricultural community near the Venezuelan border. They were hungry when they came, but were fed well and given makeovers, according to Edwin Méndez, a Colombian police officer who examined the matter. The migrants were then informed that they owed over $1,000 in lodging, board, and transportation and that they would have to settle their bills by selling their bodies.

Mr. Méndez described the case, which resulted in eight arrests, as follows: “If there were complaints from customers, the ladies would be penalized, which would put them even deeper in debt.” “They were handled as if they were animals.”

Earlier this year, the Renacer Foundation, which works to prevent sexual exploitation of kids, discovered that “48 of the 50 prostitutes we saw were Venezuelans” in the Colombian border town of Maico, according to Viviana Blanco, a psychologist for the organization. “There are no Colombian prostitutes in certain places because they’ve all been displaced by Venezuelans,” she said.

It’s difficult to say how many people are victims of sex trafficking, according to Ms. Blanco. She claims that some migrants wind up selling their bodies for food or merely to spend the night inside while they are living on the streets.

“It’s known as survival sex,” she said.

Neighboring About 500,000 Venezuelans have relocated to Ecuador, drawn by the country’s comparatively stable, dollar-based economy. However, some people resort to prostitution when they are in financial difficulty.


In Quito, Ecuador, a 22-year-old Venezuelan migrant works in a brothel.

“I don’t want to do this,” said a 22-year-old Venezuelan lady who fled her homeland and landed in Quito early this year. After she was unable to earn a reasonable life performing regular job in Colombia, a Venezuelan acquaintance who worked as a sex worker in Ecuador assisted her in getting into that line of employment. “The other females here go in on customers and dance for them and sit on top of them,” she said as she took a break at a bordello where she receives $15 each customer. But it does not appeal to me. “All I want to do is go home,” she says, referring to Colombia, where she has family.

Most sex trafficking rings that abuse Venezuelans are small gangs made up of only a few individuals, rather than sophisticated global criminal organizations, according to Col. José Restrepo, assistant head of Colombia’s investigative police department. The victims’ traffickers are sometimes friends or even family.

Roxana Guevara, an 18-year-old Venezuelan migrant, told how a relative encouraged her to relocate to Lumbaqui, a town in northern Ecuador’s forests, around three years ago. Ms. Guevara was aware that her cousin was a sex worker, but claimed that she had agreed to pay the adolescent, who was 15 at the time, to babysit her children.

However, Ms. Guevara’s cousin started encouraging her to work as a sex worker at Lumbaqui’s principal bordello, claiming that customers would pay more for sex with a kid. Ms. Guevara said that her cousin offered her a drink that made her pass out one night. She awoke nude and alone in a hotel room the following morning.

Ms. Guevara revealed in the Hummingbird Wings office in Quito, “My relative had sold me for a lot of money.” “I’d been raped,” she said.


Roxana Guevara, a Venezuelan migrant who began working in a bordello at the age of 15, now sells clothing and cosmetics online. She makes a fun stance during a visit to Hummingbird Wings, a Quito, Ecuador-based organization that assisted her in readjusting to regular life.

After her cousin threatened to throw her out of the home if she refused, she started working at the bordello. Despite the fact that a police station was just a few streets away, Ms. Guevara said that the brothel proprietors threatened to murder her if she sought assistance. Last year, her mother finally flew to Ecuador to save her.

According to Humberto Ramrez, a lawyer who gives legal assistance to Venezuelan migrants in Ecuador, on the few instances that victims report the crime, local authorities often discount their horrifying testimonies due to prejudice towards foreigners. Because securing convictions for sex trafficking may be difficult, prosecutors often charge individuals with additional crimes such as rape or abduction. As a result, the crime is less noticeable.

“Instead of labeling someone a sex trafficking victim, a prosecution would claim she was raped 54 times,” Mr. Ramrez said.


Teenage human sex trafficking victims, the most of them are Ecuadorians, play at the Hummingbird Wings refuge in Quito, Ecuador, where they currently reside.

Migrants are typically on the move, according to Verónica Rosero, an Ecuadorian public prosecutor, and even those who condemn sex trafficking seldom stay to testify in lengthy, drawn-out court processes. She claims that the majority of people are just pleased to have fled.

Patricia, the Venezuelan who was locked in the Cali bordello, is one of the survivors. She was afraid that the individuals who kept her prisoner would come for her if she reported the crime.

Patricia, who has since been reunited with her two children, said how she feared she would be held as a sex slave for years. She suddenly remembered a movie in which the heroine earns the confidence of her captors and escapes from a brothel.

Patricia became inspired and struck up a conversation with the bordello manager, who agreed to let her do errands. She raced away on one of the trips.

“I fled pretty fast because I feared they were going to chase me down,” she said. “I ran and ran and ran,” she said.


Patricia, a Venezuelan migrant who escaped bondage in a Colombian bordello, now lives with her children in Quito, Ecuador.

—This article was co-written by Johanna Alarcón.

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