Secret Service Scandal Sheds Light on Sex Tourism in Latin America

By Llana, Sara Miller | The Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Secret Service Scandal Sheds Light on Sex Tourism in Latin America


Llana, Sara Miller, The Christian Science Monitor


Large events like the Summit of the Americas and upcoming Olympic games in Brazil can drive up the demand for prostitution and sex trafficking.

Type in "sex tourism" and "Brazil" in Google, and the first site that comes up is not a news report or academic study, but advice on going rates and how to hire prostitutes.

But ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, officials are starting to clamp down on the country's image as a haven for sex tourism. Brazil's Tourism Ministry recently said it identified more than 2,000 sites advertising the South American giant's sex industry, many of them hosted in the US. To counter the reputation, the tourism ministry has stepped up efforts to advertise Brazil's natural beauties like beaches and the Amazon, instead of bodies for sale. And they have circulated information reminding visitors that sexual exploitation of minors is a crime.

Brazil's preventive efforts seem more crucial than ever after the scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, during the Sixth Summit of the Americas last weekend. Some 11 US Secret Service agents were sent home for allegedly hiring prostitutes in the steamy colonial city, also a major destination for sex tourism.

"Large events create an obvious clientele and traffickers recognize an opportunity to make money," says Heather Smith-Cannoy, who teaches international relations at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

"I think that in many places around the world there is a 'boys will be boys' attitude about the patronizing of prostitutes," Ms. Smith-Cannoy says. But when considering the combination of large profits for traffickers, and pimps or hustlers, and a relaxed cultural attitude about visiting prostitutes "we can begin to understand both the supply and the demand side of this industry," says Smith-Cannoy.

The trafficking-tourism link

Sex "tourism" is nothing new. By some accounts it dates back to the 15th century, with Columbus's arrival to the Americas. As the middle class grew in industrialized nations, and the opportunities to travel with it, the formal industry was developed.

Prostitution is tolerated to varying degrees in Latin America, but it is the human trafficking associated with sex tourism, especially that of minors, that alarms officials most. (The case of Cartagena did not involve minors.)

According to the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW-LAC), 500,000 women and girls from Latin America and the Caribbean are sexually exploited each year.

Not all prostitution involves sex trafficking, a multibillion dollar industry, but the nongovernmental organization World Vision estimates that up to a quarter of women in prostitution have been trafficked. At the same time, the majority of human trafficking victims - 79 percent - are brought into the sex trade, according to the United Nations. Countries in Asia, notably Thailand, have long been at the center of the problem, but Latin America is starting to play a larger role.

"While most trafficking victims still appear to originate from South and Southeast Asia or the former Soviet Union, human trafficking is also a growing problem in Latin America," writes Clare Ribando Seelke in a 2012 Congressional Research Service report.

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