By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and girls in South America are more likely to become victims of sex trafficking inside their own or neighbouring countries than to be trafficked across continents, officials said on Tuesday, urging cooperation among regional governments.
The sexual exploitation of women and girls remains the most common form of human trafficking in South America, and most victims identified in the past two years came from within their own country or region, according to latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"The trend nowadays is that there's an increase in trafficking within the region of South America, to neighbouring countries, especially with those that we share land crossings," said Gilberto Zuleta, project coordinator for the UNODC in Colombia.
"Countries in the region have to coordinate efforts to strengthen their capacity to identify victims and prosecute," he told reporters in Bogota.
In Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela, local criminal networks running sex-trafficking rings are increasingly targeting destitute Venezuelan women and girl migrants fleeing their homeland, according to state prosecutor Mario Gomez.
"Sex slavery can't be the only way to survive for these people," Gomez said.
"The number of (victims) is very big in places where there is a lot of sex tourism and at the border. However, there's no census that allows us to determine the number of people involved."
Over the past year, local authorities have found dozens of Venezuelan women forced into prostitution living in "inhumane conditions," often in basements in Colombia's tourist cities, with little food and their documents seized, Gomez said.
So far about three million Venezuelans have fled economic collapse and food and medicine shortages in their homeland.
The mass exodus of people is likely to continue after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for another 6-year term last week amid global criticism that his leadership is illegitimate due to a last year's disputed election.
"This continued migration of Venezuelan women and teenagers, we have to confront it by giving opportunities," Gomez said.
Venezuelan women were also being lured into sexual exploitation in Colombia by their friends, often those already forced to work as recruiters and prostitutes by criminal gangs.
"It's the Venezuelans themselves who are roping in other women," Gomez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Gomez said he was also concerned about Colombian and Venezuelan women being lured by false promises of earning big salaries abroad - only to be trafficked into forced prostitution in nearby Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago.
Adriana Herrera, a children's rights expert at Colombia's inspector general's office, said growing numbers of teenage girls from Colombia and Venezuela were working as prostitutes along motorways in parts of the country.
"Truck drivers pay for and sexually abuse underage girls along the highways," said Herrera, who called on truck driver associations to help combat the problem. "We know it's a practice that goes on and we're working on it."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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