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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.

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Poverty, displacement from rural areas, and increased demand for prostitution all play a role in the growth of sexual exploitation, says Humberto Rodriguez, the communication officer of Fundacion Renacer, a Colombia-based group that combats the sexual exploitation of youths in the country. Anywhere the tourism industry grows, he says, so does the opportunity for sexual tourism.

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'Not enough is being done'

Within sex tourism, the exploitation of children is the biggest concern.  According to the US State Department 2011 report on the trafficking of persons, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua all have significant child sex tourist industries. Colombia, it says, is also “a destination for foreign child sex tourists from the United States and Europe, particularly to coastal cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla.”

Countries around the globe have addressed the problem of human trafficking in general since the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted in 2000, but many say not enough is being done.

The US State Department assesses efforts around the globe to combat human trafficking. In 2010, 80 percent of countries in South America were placed on the Tier 2 list, which means they were not fully complying with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, while 60 percent of countries in Central America and the Caribbean were on the Tier 2 Watch List.

Cuba fell to the lowest level of cooperation, Tier 3. The State Department says that prostitution of children over 16 is legal in Cuba, leaving those over the legal age vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. Venezuela fell to Tier 3 in the 2011 report.

Colombia sits on the Tier 1 list, and while the case of the US Secret Service agents does not fall into Fundacion Renacer's work – as it did not involve children – Mr. Rodriguez says the case may not have generated so much attention in the past. “People are paying attention to it now,” says Rodriguez.

Through their work and an international certification program called The Code, which brings tourism operators into the fight to prevent the use of children in sex tourism, society in general is more aware of prostitution, he says.

Efforts like these are particularly important as countries become hosts to big events like the Summit of the Americas, or as crises occur.  An increased demand for prostitution increases human sex trafficking rings, says Cannoy-Smith. She and a co-author have researched the impact of UN peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, Haiti, and Sierra Leone on trafficking.

“When the UN intervenes in civil conflicts, the peacekeepers themselves have often been linked to running and patronizing trafficking rings,” Smith-Cannoy says. “Again, I think that poverty, desperation, the specter of large profits, and relaxed cultural attitudes make these dynamics possible.”

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