By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia is failing in the fight against child sexual exploitation, officials admitted on Tuesday, pledging to rally more resources and work together to crack down on the crime.
The trafficking and sexual exploitation of children is particularly rife in tourist cities and illegal gold mining areas. Yet, a culture of silence and impunity mean that few cases are investigated or prosecuted, they said.
"The public prosecutor's general's office feels an enormous shame on many fronts on this matter," said Mario Gomez, a state prosecutor for violence against children, speaking at an anti-human trafficking conference in the city of Cali.
He added that a key challenge is to ensure that investigations into such crimes result in more and tougher convictions.
About 7,500 children have been reported to be victims of sexual exploitation, including child pornography, since 2013, according to Colombia's attorney general's office.
But the real figure is likely far higher, campaigners say.
The country's inspector general, Fernando Carrillo, said there is little reliable data on child sexual exploitation, partly because very few witnesses or victims come forward to report the crime, and because of social tolerance of the issue.
"I think that this is one of the worst problems that the country has," said Carrillo, who heads a judicial body that holds public servants to account.
"And up until now it hasn't been addressed in an earnest way with data and - above all - with a commitment at the national, provincial and municipal levels."
Most cases of sexual violence, including child sexual exploitation, go unpunished, according to Carlos Eduardo Valdes, head of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.
Conviction rates are low, because investigations rely too much on a victim coming forward to report the crime and to provide testimony and evidence, officials said.
"Impunity regarding the issue of sexual violence in Colombia exceeds 90 percent, and this is due to investigations being focused on the victim," Valdes said during a panel discussion.
Sex trafficking is rife in illegal gold mining areas on the impoverished Pacific coast and in northwest Antioquia province, as well as the Caribbean tourist city of Cartagena, according to provincial governors and experts.
Women and girls are bussed into mining areas for weekends to cater to the demand from miners and gangsters.
"Girls are being brought from other provinces to be sexually exploited and this is where the authorities have to intervene," said Jhoany Carlos Palacios, governor of the Pacific Choco province.
"We have to make this visible," he told the conference.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jared Ferrie. ((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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