Sex Tourism in Colombia – Government Crack Down on Exploitation and Violence in Medellin
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Medellin, Colombia

has always been one of the most popular places in Colombia for tourism. In recent years the city has seen a boom in tourism: foreign expats, retirees and digital nomads. It has also seen a steady rise of sex tourism, ‘sex pats’ and ‘ passport bros’; tourists who a just here for the party – sex, drugs, entertainment and a city with a rich nightlife.

This is creating a situation that is increasingly dangerous for sex workers and tourists alike.

But the mayor of Medellin,  Federico Gutierrez, has had enough.  He is cracking down on human trafficking in the neighborhoods of El Pablado and Provenza – popular hot spots for foreign tourists and sex workers.

He has made the bars and clubs close at 1 a.m., put a temporary ban on sex work in these neighborhoods and proposed shutting  down short term rental apartments and  Airbnbs all in  an effort to reduce the  the sexual exploitation of minors and the violence against foreign men.

Botero statue in Medellin’s Plaza Botero

Medellin a Tourist Magnet and the Rise of Sex Tourism

Medellin, infamous for drug lord Paolo Escobar, until recently was considered too violent  to visit. But since the 1990s Medellin disassociated itself from drugs and violence and underwent a grand transformation.  Since 2016, the city had been considered safe enough to see a large influx of tourists making Medellin the  jewel of Colombia and a must-see destination. But in the last few years this flood of tourists has also seen an increased rise in  sex tourism.

(*Colombia Travel Reporter does not condone, promote or encourage sex tourism)

Tourism, a welcomed and  growing industry in Colombia, currently represents 2% of the country’s GDP. It is a growing industry with just over 4 million visitors and most Colombians would like to see it grow much more.  

Tourist visas are for 90 days and are free and easy to obtain. Extended visas for permanent residency, retirement and digital nomads are a little more difficult but still easy to obtain for less than $1,000 in fees.

But in the last couple years Medellin has an increase in sex tourism. What used to be a underground activity has now become noticeable. Young and old, they arrive  from all over the world. Male tourists who come alone, or with friends, for a few days, to a week, just to party.

Last year Medellin saw 1.4 million foreign visitors – 40% of them  were from  the USA. Medellin is a coveted Colombia destination. It’s  the land of eternal spring,  always warm, affordable, just a 3 hour flight from Miami and in the same time zone.

Statistics are hard to come by but on the other side of the world, World Vision Australia estimates 250,00 sex tourists visit Asia each year and 25% of them come from the United States.

Sex tourists visit the cities with the most tourism in Colombia )Medellin, Cartagena and Bogota). They are lured by information and stories easily found on the  internet. Bloggers, internet influencers on YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok and Facebook praise of the women of Colombia who are considered to be some of the most beautiful women, not only  in Latin America, but the world.

They boast of their conquests and how a plain looking guy with money can ‘score women here who are 9s and 10s’.

They post videos and photos of  girls in night clubs.  Then pan to a view of their luxurious, short term apartments rentals,  hold for a nice shot of  their date and finish the video  with a skyline view and the night lights of  the  city shimmering in the valley below.

There are numerous online sites posting the addresses  and reviews of strip clubs, brothels and  masssage parlors in the various cities. Escort services ‘prepagos‘ advertise their services online complete with contact information, nude  pictures and rates.

Medellin has become the epicenter for  sex tourism in Colombia with more clubs, brothels and sex workers than anywhere else in the country.

Sexual adventures, like  so many other commodities, are being out-sourced to places with the best product, services and  lowest prices.

A  Day in the Life of a Sex Tourist

The men  troll the internet, often long before their arrival, weeding out the girls ‘just wasting their time’,   looking for ‘pros’ or  the girls looking for ‘hookups’,  or ‘a good time’.

Cut to the chase, it’s sex in exchange for money – affordable amounts for the foreign tourist but generous  for the local girls where hard-to-find  jobs often only pay $5 a day for a 10 hour shift with no benefits.

In  the afternoons, the men visit the city’s numerous brothels or ‘casas‘ where the waiting rooms are over crowded with foreign men of various ages awaiting  their personal ‘line up’ of girls before telling the ‘madam’ which one they picked. Shortly his pick returns, takes him by the hand and leads him upstairs to a private room with  a bed and shower. But these  casas are all  closed by 8 or 9 p.m. ‘Working girls’ have familes too.

In the evenings the men will arrange to meet the girls they have been chatting up online. They meet in the bars and restaurants in the touristy parts of town.

If an encounter  doesn’t work out they can  go talk to the well-dressed girls on the streets and in the parks in the more affluent red zones of Medellin.

The Girls of Medellin

There are hundreds of girls on the streets and in the parks of El Pablado and Provenza neighborhoods. All dressed up, walking alone or with a friend, they are trying to meet foreign men.

Many girls are out for  innocent diversion. They are just looking for someone to buy them a drink, pass some time, practice their English.  Or maybe they’re looking for love, or a boyfriend, a ‘sugar daddy’,  a way out of  Colombia with  dreams of  a  better life.

Most of these girls are not ‘pros’  or ‘working girls’ but just regular girls – students, maybe unemployed or underemployed just out on the town. They’ve heard a lot of stories too. Most of them are looking for  a way to pay some bills, rent, school tuition, or maybe someone buy them a new iphone or  a pair of sneakers at the mall. They are willing to spend a night or two a week  out on  the town, maybe  prostituting themselves, if they  feel like it. And why not, they say? Their friends are doing it and it’s no big deal,

But their economic vulnerabilities put them at risk of being recruited by gangs. They start out with ‘web cam modeling’ performing live streamed acts.   The gangs give them cash and there are plenty of drugs. The girls become addicted, fall in debt bondage, are further exploited, sex trafficked  and often sent to other countries to work.

Medellin Upscale Neighborhoods of Medellin on Lock Down

The police have been cordoning  off  the busiest and most trafficked parks and streets in the neighborhoods of El Poblado, Provenza and around Parque Lleras. Police women  stop groups of girls at the  barricades checking their i.d.s turning away minors, kids under 18.  If refused entry these underage girls will  hang around the streets outside the barricades smiling at the  passing men.

Inside of the barricades the  men will take their dates to one of the many night clubs where they often ‘make it rain’ throwing pesos into the air and onto the dance floor. They spend a lot of money on tableside bottle service and the women like that. They may not speak each others language but there’s google translator for the important stuff.

Then it’s back to the man’s place – a  hotel or Airbnb to continue to their party late into the night.

Or maybe late at night the men go to one of the city’s high end strip clubs where they can always ‘pull’ one of the dancers and take her to a  back room or a local ‘love motel’ for an hour.

Or they go home and book an escort, a ‘prepago‘  to  come visit them at their hotel room or apartment.

Prostitution is Legal in Colombia

Prostitution defined in  Colombia as sex work between consenting adults, is legal in the country.  In 12% of  the countries  in  the world, prostitution is legal.

In Colombia, while tolerated, it is not promoted. Mostly a hidden phenomenon, the brothels are located in non-descript buildings and it is usually rare, except in Medellin and a few of the other major cities, to  see ‘street walkers’.

Prostitution in the small towns is carried out in raucous bars blaring  music in the market areas.  Here girls converse and drink with the men who have come to town from the  farm for a day of heavy drinking.

The brothels or casas are usually licensed, and the girls must undergo  regular medical exams. And the houses are considered safe though it is said many are run by illegal gangs.

Many women in Colombia have been forced into the sex trade. And 15% of the sex workers are under 18.

Warning signs in a nightclub in Medellin: ‘ no to prostitution with minors

But while prostitution  is legal,  ‘pimping’ and ‘organized sex tourism’ is not and the Colombian government has been cracking down on the ‘pimp mafias’  and the exploitation of  women.

There is a penalty of 4-8 years in jail for facilitating prostitution. Having sex with a minor is punishable by 8 years in prison. And if the child is under 12 the penalty is 12 years of incarceration. Sex with minor  is not only illegal  but a serious moral infraction in Colombia. And while Colombia  jails are known to be far from pleasant, convicted pedophiles are

There are warning signs in all the airports and every hotel room letting everyone know that sex with minors, prostitutes and the use of drugs will in no way  be tolerated by the hotel administrators or local  law enforcement.

Sex Crimes on the Rise

Recently an American tourist, a mason worker from Arizona, was arrested in Medellin. He had coerced young girls, minors, into performing sexual acts while administering drugs to facilitate their abuse.  He had made over 60 trips to Colombia in a recent years to have sex with  minors in different apartments he had rented.  The average age of his victims were 14.

He was set free while awaiting his hearing and fled the country. In another incident a Canadian was recently arrested for sexually exploiting girls in his rented apartment in the city.  He also fled the  country before his arraignment. The stories  are many.

In March of 2024 a 50 year old Canadian murdered his 20 year old Colombian girlfriend in an apartment in Medellin. He had met her online.   She was a young mother. Her body was dismembered, put in a suitcase and put out on the street by the trash. This man also fled the country and there is evidence he is also back in Canada.

“These people should be behind bars and  not back in  their countries,” the Mayor of Medellin said.  “The identities of these men is  well known and they will not get away with it.”

Sex tourists in Colombia have the notion that they  are the sexual  predators but in reality it they are actually the prey.  

Death by Scopalamine

There were 32 foreign men killed in Medellin in 2023.  And another 12 foreign nationals have been killed so far in 2024. Most of them  died after being drugged with scopalamine during their encounters with strangers they met on dating apps.  Most of them  had been  given a lethal dose, probably by mistake,  and  too  much of the drug can be fatal causing respiratory failure.

Scopalamine, also called ‘Devil’s Breath’, is one of the scariest drugs in the world. It is derived from the flower of the morning glory family. It’s a plant found around Medellin  and throughout Colombia. In  early days it had been used as an anesthesia. But today it is commonly processed and mixed with sedatives to render people disoriented, unconscious, unable to move and vulnerable to robbery, stolen organs and rape.

This drug is widely used by girls who are working with gangs, common delinquents and organized crime. Most of them  troll the internet and find their clients on apps like Tinder. They arrange a date.

They girls met the men and waste no time trying to get the man to take them back  to their hotel rooms or apartments. The most naive of them offer little resistance. The girls wait for an unnoticeable moment to put the drug in their  drink or food. The men fall asleep and the girls get to work taking their money, credit cards, phones and valuables.

There have been many murders of foreign men in Medellin. The stories  are  too many to mention here but easily located. Some occurred during street robberies – usually when the victims resisted. But most of the murders involved a man who met a woman on line, was drugged with a fatal dose of scopalamine,  or stabbed, kidnapped, held for ransom then murdered and left in his hotel room, or left on the side of a street or thrown off a cliff.

As usually happens, the men will wake up the next day in a confused stupor. Often the thieves will leave behind one of the victim’s credit cards and his passport so upon awaking the next day, ashamed, they don’t  report the robbery to the police and catch the next flight home.

But many victims of these kind of robberies  never wake up. Or they are found days after being drugged rambling around the city lost, confused, incoherent and  penniless, their bank accounts have been drained. Their  photos appear on Facebook posts with somebody asking the question: ‘does anybody know this  man?’

There have been so many known incidents that there is a Facebook support group called ‘Colombia Scopolamine Victims and Alerts’.

This year the U.S. Embassy in Bogota issued a stern warning to U.S. citizens visiting Colombia  to avoid hook-ups on dating apps, especially Tinder and Grindr, to  keep an eye on  their drinks, never accept food or drinks from strangers and do not take women they casually meet back to their rooms.

Hotel Rules and the Venezuelan Problem

Nearly all the hotels in the city have receptionists 24 hours a day and cameras in the lobby, elevators and hallways. As a  protection for their clients and as required by law,  all hotel  guests must show an i.d. which is then registered by the hotel. This makes it difficult  for guests  to sneak a minor or unknown guest into their rooms. But many minors and girls with  criminal intentions  possess fake i.d.s.

Recently in El Poblado, in  a hotel where a man was caught by police with a minor, the hotel was closed down indefinitely for failing to conform to these lawful  standards.

A large percentage of the women who are being sex trafficked in Colombia’s sex trade are displaced Venezuelan immigrants. As of 2022 there were  2.9 million Venezuelan immigrants in Colombia. There are numerous Venezuelan gangs working in the Colombian sex  trade, exploiting the women and sending them  to drug and rob foreigners.

Medellin Cracks Down on the  Violence and Exploitation 

the Mayor of Medellin

But the mayor of Medellin, Federico Gutierrez, has had enough with the organized violence and sexual exploitation in his city. He has proposed banning or putting strict regulations on short term rentals and Airbnbs in the city as mounting evidence shows foreigners are using these accomodations to lure and sexually abuse vulnerable girls.

The crackdown on the short term rentals and Airbnb apartments could be a major blow to the affluent Colombians and foreigners who bought these apartments to rent out to tourists at high prices. Some of these short term, luxury apartments rent for as much as $10,000 a month.

But  the ban on short term rentals is just a part of a larger city crack down against human trafficking. The  mayor has also cut the hours the night clubs can remain open in the upscale touristy neighborhoods of El Poblado and Provenza to 1 a.m. They  had been staying open till 4 a.m.

And he has banned prostitution in and around the 4 parks of El Poblado and Provenza for the next 6 months. These decrees may eventually be extended to  include the nearby tourist areas of Calle 70 and the Laureles neighborhoods. But many people are already asking: if the mayor is  serious, why is the ban only for 6 months?

The mayors hard line stance on organized crime and sexual exploitation of women made the cover of Colombia’s leading news magazine with the title ‘Fico’s War’.

This is a war on the powerful pimp mafia, the world of drugs, sex and dollars where girls are just merchandise, he said.

“The entire area is controlled by various criminal structures…these are human trafficking networks.  We musts control and recover these areas….We have hit the bottom.  We are going to protect our daughters and teenagers.  It’s sad to see so many people come to Medellin and do whatever they want.”

Sex Tourism Hurts Tourism in the Long Run 

Sex tourism isn’t a type of  tourism any country, at least any country on the American continent, wants to promote or receive. Sex tourists usually  are not  interested in museums, culture tours, learning the language, eco-tourism or Colombia’s vast biodiversity.

Sex tourism can diminish the healthy growth of a more salubrious, recreational and cultural tourism.

Other tourists don’t want to be associated with sex tourism vis-a-vis its association with a certain destinations.

You’re going to Colombia?’ they ask. ‘The prostitutes or the drugs?’

Already many foreign tourists, expats and digital nomads, who had been  spending a lot of time in Medellin, are becoming intolerant of the hoards of pleasure seeking tourists and have started looking to other-less-well known cities to spend their time and money: Cali, Bucaramanga, Pereira, Ibague, Manizales, Santa Marta to name a few.

Gentrification and Gringos Go Home

Many long time tourists and foreign  residents in Medellin have also seen a growing backlash of  anti-foreign, anti-Venezuela and ‘anti-gringo’, sentiment growing among a small percentage of the city’s residents. Especially amongst the residents in and around the neighborhoods where the tourists all  seem to  flock.

The locals are blaming the short term renters for the  gentrification of their neighborhoods. They say the foreigners are overpaying  for apartment  rentals and local services rising prices for the local residents who ill-afford it.

Graffiti has been appearing around town saying “Stop the Gentrification” “Gringos Go Home” and ‘No to Sex Tourism”.

A statue in Medellin’s Paesa Park

The Moral Question

Sex tourism enables sex trafficking. It’s a fact.

Sex work  in any  form  is a violation of the women.   The women don’t want to have sex with the man.  They consent to being violated for the money.  It’s a transactional relationship. It’s dangerous  and puts both the tourists and sex workers at high risk.

In Medellin, sex work and sex tourism have  become a very dangerous business.

Is Medellin Safe?

These days the biggest question first time travelers pose when considering visiting  Medellin is: ‘Is it  Safe’?

The answer  they are given is – yes. The simplest way to avoid trouble is to stay away  from it.  In a city like Medellin if one goes looking for trouble it will most likely find you first.

Experienced travelers don’t go looking for  sex and drugs. Most of them are in their hotels by 9 p.m.

A little too tame? If out and about, be careful at night.  Keep your head on a swivel.  Be aware of your surroundings.

You should be fine.

Colombia is a big, beautiful country. Enjoy!

(*Colombia Travel Reporter does not condone, promote or encourage sex tourism)

See article: Travel Safety in Colombia

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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