Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Secret Service scandal sheds light on sex tourism in Latin America

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

By Staff writer / April 17, 2012

US secret service agents walk around the Convention Center in Cartagena, Colombia, prior to the opening ceremony of the 6th Summit of the Americas at the Convention Center in Cartagena, Colombia, Saturday. Last Thursday, a dozen secret service agents sent to provide security for US President Barack Obama, were relieved from duty and replaced with other agency personnel after an incident of alleged misconduct.

Fernando Llano/AP

Enlarge

Mexico City

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.

Skip to next paragraph

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. 

Permissions

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!