The dark side of Medellín’s sex tourism: Child prostitutes and depraved men

Mayor Federico Gutiérrez banned prostitution in tourist areas after an American was caught with two young girls in a hotel room

Medellín prostitución
Young prostitutes in the neighborhood of San Diego, Medellín. Natalia Pedraza Bravo
Jules Ownby

Yenifer is standing with five other girls on a corner in the San Diego neighborhood, a 15-minute walk from Medellín and Mayor Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez’s office in City Hall. They all have tattoos, show a lot of skin, and look like teenagers. In fact, they’re all minors who have been forced into prostitution. Yenifer insists that’s her name, but it’s clearly a lie. She also claims to be 15 years old, which does seem true because she has the body and face of a child. She seems nervous and giggles a little, revealing blue braces on her teeth. She’s wearing a purple miniskirt and matching tube top that don’t cover the butterfly tattoo on her hip. Yenifer says she started at 9 p.m. and will be “working” until 4. a.m. It’s now 9.30 p.m. and raining. It’s going to be a long night.

Yenifer lowers her gaze and says she started doing this about two months ago “because of some problems.” Her friends almost look like regular teenagers, standing around and playing with their phones. Yenifer says she doesn’t have a pimp and services three or four clients a night, mostly Colombians. A half-hour with Yenifer costs about $26 dollars, the going rate in San Diego. She charges the occasional foreigners triple.

“What happens when they ask how old you are?”

“Depends on what they want.”

The girls’ corner is surrounded by parked trucks, shuttered workshops and dimly lit streets. They are among 50 or so sex workers in the neighborhood. About 10 are in their 20s, a few are between 30 and 40, and one seems to be over 50. However, most — over 30 girls — seem even younger than Yenifer. They are thin, petite and not fully developed. Last year, over 320 cases of child sexual exploitation were reported in Medellín by the Valientes Colombia NGO. Tonight in San Diego, there are at least 30 more cases that could be added to that list.

Una joven se acerca a los camiones a ofrecer sus servicios.
A young prostitute offers her services to a trucker. Natalia Pedraza Bravo

There are few people selling coffee nearby and some homeless people, but no police in sight. EL PAÍS circled the neighborhood in a taxi for about an hour and half and only saw one motorcycle with two cops pass by. They don’t stop and ask for IDs or talk to anyone. The police just don’t seem interested. “It happens every night. They just look at us and leave,” said Yenifer and her friends.

Rush hour hits San Diego around 11 p.m. As more cars pull up, the girls gradually disappear from the streets. We’re parked nearby taking in the scene when our taxi driver decides to make a confession. “I’ve been here twice with some Americans who picked up some really young girls, like 11 or 12 years old. I dropped them off at an Airbnb.”

The taxi driver’s story sounds much like the scandal that has roiled Medellín for over a week now. On March 28, a 36-year-old American named Timothy Alan Livingston was caught by the police with two underage girls in a hotel in the El Poblado neighborhood. Livingston was released two days later because he hadn’t been caught in the act, and immediately boarded a plane to Florida. A video circulating on social media shows the two girls handling money in the hotel elevator. On April 5, a Colombian judge issued an arrest warrant for Livingston and local prosecutors have asked the National Police to approach Interpol for an international arrest warrant.

The case sparked fury throughout Colombia, prompting Mayor Gutiérrez to take action. Nicknamed “The Sheriff,” the tough-on-crime mayor signed two decrees on April 1 banning “sexual services” in El Poblado, a popular tourist area. Although prostitution is legal in Colombia, Gutiérrez says human trafficking, drug trafficking and child exploitation is out of control in Parque Lleras, a gated area with nightclubs and restaurants catering to tourists. He also ordered all bars in Parque Lleras to close three hours earlier than usual for the next month.

Parque Lleras is one of Medellín's most popular tourist areas.
Parque Lleras is one of Medellín's most popular tourist areas. Natalia Pedraza Bravo

On the night the ban was announced, Alexa Gómez stood on 10th Street in El Poblado, a block from Parque Lleras. She’s in a skimpy black dress, surrounded by women dressed much the same. After less than five minutes of small talk, Alexa reveals her business: “I manage the girls, dear.”

The pimp

Alexa sits outside a bar in rainy El Poblado under a large yellow umbrella. Sipping a beer, she begins to open up. “You know how tough it is trying to sell your body? And how awful it is to be with guys you don’t even like?” Alexa has straight dark hair, piercing black eyes, thick lips, a slim body, and a tattoo on her right hand that says “Billion.”

Alexa Gómez parada en la calle diez, en El Poblado, a una cuadra del Parque Lleras.
Alexa, a local pimp and prostitute, on 10th Street in El Poblado, Medellín. Natalia Pedraza Bravo

Alexa has had a tough life. She was born in Manizales (western Colombia) and raised in Medellín’s Villa Hermosa neighborhood. It’s a working-class, downtown neighborhood, but not a slum. “I come from the dark side, from a humble family,” she said. Alexa manages a group of 40 prostitutes and services clients herself three times a week. To bear it all, she has to use drugs. Alexa says “tusi” — pink cocaine — works best for her. “It makes you happy, and everyone likes a smile,” she said. She also uses regular cocaine when she’s very tired. “My whole life, I’ve been on my own. My mom died when I was very young. I have four brothers, but I don’t talk to them. They’re involved in illegal stuff.”

“But you’re also a pimp.”

“Yeah, but I don’t like that word. I prefer being called a dealer.”

“What does being a dealer involve?”

“Well, I’ll tell you.”

Nine out of 10 clients are foreigners she meets in nightclubs, mainly in Parque Lleras. She approaches them and introduces herself. “I always start by building a rapport. I want it to be more than just business, you know?” Once they feel comfortable, she asks if they are looking for a girl. Alexa offers all her other prostitutes before offering herself. “If six of my girls are with guys, I make the same money as if I did it myself.” She claims to make around $4,000 a month, with her girls charging $120 an hour. The prostitute keeps $100 and Alexa keeps $20. For that price, they can have “oral and regular sex, but always with protection.” Once a client is hooked, the next step is to choose a girl, or several girls.

“How do they choose a girl?”

“I’ll show you.”

Alexa takes out her phone and opens a WhatsApp group called “Bichotas,” a tribute to Karol G, their favorite Colombian singer. “Who’s available tonight?” she asks the group. The girls reply almost instantly and at least six say “Me.” Alexa types “photos” and her phone quickly lights up with notifications. The girls send selfies, some very explicit. Alexa turns to me and starts asking questions.

“How do you like it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Physically, what do you like?”

“I don’t know...”

”What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I’ve never done this before.”

Alexa opens messages from a girl named María and shows me several photos of María in a bathroom, a pool hall and next to a swimming pool. “If you were a client, you could be with her tonight. But you have to do a couple of things first.”

Alexa explains that all clients need to provide their full name and the address of the hotel where they’re staying. They have to pay in advance, including transportation for the girl. Once that’s settled, Alexa picks up the girl and drops her off to meet the client. She calls an hour later and if they’re done, she picks up the girl. If not, Alexa gets payment from the client for more time.

This mostly online service is safer for both clients and sex workers, says Alexa. But other online services for Medellín’s tourists have run into trouble recently: several have died or disappeared from Airbnb rentals. Once mostly known as Pablo Escobar’s hometown and one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Medellín has become an appealing destination for international travelers. It’s now known for its innovation, beauty and festivities, which has had both positive and negative impacts, including sex tourism.

In January, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia issued a warning about using dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Grindr in Medellín after eight American men died there in two months under strange circumstances. While there was no evidence linking the cases, one common factor emerged: many had met their dates via dating apps. “Numerous U.S. citizens in Colombia have been drugged, robbed, and even killed by their Colombian dates,” said the embassy alert. Alexa claims her girls are law-abiding, honest and hardworking people who don’t do any of that. Several women have also been killed in Medellín by foreign men.

“What are your clients like?”

“Mostly drunk and shy. They come looking for things they can’t get at home.”

“Are most of them divorced?”

“Sweetie, most of them are married,” she laughs.

The client

In Parque Lleras, Alexa meets Bob, a potential client. Bob is 78 years old and looks like a gringo: white beard, short hair, a stained black T-shirt covering a big belly. His nose is runny from something he might have snorted.

“There’s no place in the world like this,” he said in English.

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, just look around.”

Bare, tattooed legs everywhere. About 200 women are sheltering from the rain under awnings in what very much looks like an open-air brothel. Girls in sheer tops and ultra-short skirts puff on cigarettes and snort “tusi” from lipstick holders. It’s a sea of bare skin through which a few foreigners slowly swim. They awkwardly try to talk to the girls in broken Spanish. “I like,” one blurts out, pointing at a woman’s rear end. Another guy holds hands with a girl, giving her lustful glances. They soon disappear together. Bob is watching the show with three Venezuelan women who say they’re not escorts but “companions.” They stroke his thigh, trying to talk him into another night — the second in six days. Bob resists, saying he likes variety.

Jóvenes platican mientras esperan ser abordadas por algún cliente en busca de servicios sexuales.
Young prostitutes chat together while they wait for clients. Natalia Pedraza Bravo

Bob says he has been traveling the world for years. Paying for sex is nothing new to him, and yet he says Parque Lleras is a special place. “There’s this rare level of freedom here. You can just do whatever you feel like.” It’s 11 p.m. on a Monday night. In two hours, prostitution will be banned in this area, but Bob is unfazed and says it’s good for tourists like him. “There’ll be better control over the girls and less risk of getting robbed. Plus, we can still get girls.” As Bob talks, a young Venezuelan in her twenties named Yuliet strokes his cheek. She says she’s been working as a “companion” for two years.

“What did you do before that?”

“Beg on the streets.”

For two hours, Bob sits with Yuliet and her two friends. They drink beer, smoke cigarettes and use Google Translate to communicate. A girl in a Chicago Bulls T-shirt at the next table strokes a bald guy’s head. He’s with two other men over 60 who don’t speak Spanish and certainly don’t talk to the media. “We’re on vacation. No questions, please, we just want to have a good time.” At 12.50 a.m. the police — here, there are police — arrive to clear everyone out with sirens wailing. There’s a mass exodus towards the 10th Street exit as the girls rush to catch a foreigner — they can’t afford to go a night without work. Yuliet sticks close to Bob, but he doesn’t want her. Bob points to two other girls and says “hotel” in English. No work for Yuliet tonight.

The ban

Two nights later, Parque Lleras looks very different. Sexual services are now banned there, but the area is filled with large yellow signs protesting the mayor’s decree. The signs say: “We don’t support the sexual exploitation of children. No to decree 0247 [the mayor’s ban]. 5,000 families are now jobless.” Local business owners support the sex workers and argue the decree will cost them a lot of money. Alexa tells us many of them are also “johns” (clients).

Local bars and businesses have joined a protest of the sex work ban by Medellín's mayor..
Local bars and businesses have joined a protest of the sex work ban by Medellín's mayor.. Natalia Pedraza Bravo

Despite the ban, about 70 women are still hanging around the park hoping to hook up with 20 or so foreigners. They exchange numbers, drink beer in bars, hold hands, and leave walking together. City officials and cops monitor the scene, stopping tourists to explain the new decree. But they just check the girls’ IDs at the entrance and let them go about their business.

“Excuse me, officer. Hasn’t prostitution been banned here since Monday?”

“Yeah, but we can’t prove they’re actually engaging in it.”

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