By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Aug 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the human traffickers scoured Colombia's beauty salons to recruit women, the lure of earning up to $5,000 a week as models and sales assistants in China was so tempting that 150 women took up the offer.
But once in Hong Kong or Guangzhou, the Colombian women, aged 18 to 25, had their passports seized and were sold into forced prostitution.
Enslaved by their captors, the women were told they needed to pay off debts of $25,000 each, according to testimonies from 15 women collected by Colombian authorities.
"The women could only recover their freedom when they paid off an alleged debt of $25,000. That amount would increase because they were continuously fined," Colombia's attorney general's office said in a statement last week.
"Those (women) who got the money together and managed to escape were deported to Colombia."
Back home, the women spoke of the "degrading and inhuman" treatment they had suffered, many bearing serious physical injuries, prosecutors said.
Their testimonies led Colombian authorities to arrest eight Colombians last week on charges of human trafficking. Another woman was arrested at Madrid's Barajas airport on her way to China.
Police also said a travel agency in Bogota was suspected of providing the trafficking ring with visas and flight tickets to China for the women.
While most victims of trafficking in Latin America are trafficked within the region, the case cements China as the primary destination for Colombian women trafficked abroad, with many more women possibly at risk.
"What drew our attention is the size of the operation. We think this is a sign that the phenomenon could be much bigger than what we already know," said Carlos Perez, a project coordinator at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Colombia, which works on human trafficking.
"In a case of such magnitude it shows precisely that it's necessary to work a lot on prevention inside Colombia," Perez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Colombia's attorney general's office said it had stepped up efforts to prevent women falling into the hands of traffickers with the launch this month of a campaign to increase public awareness of the crime.
The campaign aims to ensure "women don't believe in the offers of easy money to be made abroad."
Women and girls trafficked into sexual exploitation is the most common form of trafficking in Colombia, with 160 cases reported to the authorities since 2014.
Among the people arrested four were women, part of a growing trend of using women as recruiters, who can more easily earn the trust of their potential victims, the UNODC says.
Worldwide, nearly two in every five people convicted for human trafficking cases in 2014 were women, UNODC figures show.
"The participation of women in recruitment is increasing more and more," Perez said, adding many of the women involved were often themselves victims of trafficking.
"Women who recruit in their native country know the dreams, hopes of other women, and also their problems, and as such they can make a much more attractive offer."
Perez said the trafficked victims should be offered the psychological and legal support they are entitled to by law.
But state prosecutors would face challenges ensuring convictions in a case involving so many victims.
"The attorney general's office needs to prepare well to get a case of this magnitude before the judges and end in a conviction," Perez said.
Seven suspected traffickers are in jail awaiting trial, and if convicted, they could face up to 23 years in prison.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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