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Latin America & Caribbean

Migrants turn to prostitution to escape Venezuela's crisis

Brothels, bars, and dating sites in Colombia are full of Venezuelans who offer sexual services in exchange for hard currency. The state simply calls them irregular migrants, but their illegal status makes them vulnerable to abuse.
7 Dic 2016 – 01:38 PM EST
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SANTA MARTA – The first time Rocío had sex with a stranger, she was so scared that she cried from the bar to the room. It was a tough night, one she remembers as the time when she most regretted being poor and leaving first grade because her family was large and she had to work.

“Luckily, that man understood my anguish and didn't force me to do anything. He paid me even though we didn't have sex,” she said. “But then came a lot of nights when I had to do my job, and little by little I lost my revulsion. That man was Jorge, and he's now my friend.”

Rocío said she left her home in Venezuela because she could not buy food for her four daughters and herself. She emigrated to Colombia, hoping to find work as a hairdresser and send money to her family. But reality changed her plans. When she arrived in Maicao, a Colombian city in the La Guajira region closest to the border with Venezuela, she was offered a job as a waitress in a bar. After she started, Rocío added, she learned she would also have to wear skimpy clothes and work as a prostitute.

Her story is typical of many Venezuelan woman who migrate to Colombia looking to earn hard currency help relatives back home struggling to make a living with a drastically devalued national currency and tight monetary controls.

Nine months ago, Rocío started to work the streets in the historic center of Santa Marta, a tourist city on Colombia's Caribbean coast. She prefers to work alone because no one tells her what to do. She likes the freedom and does not want to feel captive, she said, like other Venezuelan women who are run by pimps who guarantee their housing, food and security. But the women lose the right to decide how much and how they want to work.

Rocío spoke softly and excused herself frequently. Her small hands had short fingernails, with no loud colors or appliques. Her eyes, with minimum makeup, were framed by fuchsia frames. Her dark hair, messy in purpose, won her the nickname of “la greñúa” – the hairy one – among the other prostitutes. She said that with a smile, because she likes to be known as a flirt.

She also takes care of her skin, eating a lot of fruit and vegetables and avoiding all alcohol. She smokes marijuana, she said, “to reduce the weight of the work.”

Providing for family

She was a hairdresser in Barquisimeto, Venezuela's fourth largest city. Cutting and tinting hair and straightening curls earned her barely enough to cover the basic necessities for her and her daughters. They had nothing left over, but they also missed nothing. That's the way it used to be.

Then Rocío's husband was killed when he was caught in the middle of a shootout. She had to provide for the daughters, 4, 6, 8 and 10 years old, by herself. She also had to help her brother, jailed for trying to hold up a bus, and her 60-year-old mother, who now takes care of the four girls. It was a heavy responsibility.

“I couldn't make ends meet any more, not even working seven days a week. One day I had no money to feed my daughters, and I went into a panic. I sold the air conditioner we had at home. As the buyer was taking it out, I decided I had to leave the country and look for a way to earn more money,” she said.

She walked fast, because every week she tries to send her family 600,000 Colombian pesos, or about $200 – the equivalent of three minimum monthly salaries in Venezuela.

Rocío charged clients 40,000 pesos ($12) for single encounters and up to 300,000 pesos for a full night's work. So she needed two all-nighters or eight single clients to round up just the money she sends to Venezuela. Her living costs are extra.

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“The all-nighters can be long. Everything depends on the client. Sometimes they don't let you sleep, and you have to please them. But others just want company, someone to listen to them and treat them nice, and I am good at that. That's why my colleagues love and protect me, because I don't look for problems with anyone and I respect the tariffs. No one has ever given me so much love as the Colombian women who work the streets with me,” Rocío added.

She didn't have more time for the interview. She walked back to her corner, across the street from the house where she lives. And she waited patiently for someone to pay for her body, the only thing she has to sell.

Although people who run the prostitution business in Santa Marta refused to talk about Venezuelan prostitutes, they were clearly visible.

At 4 pm one day at the Bananas brothel, there were no women, no clients, no music and no colored lights. Three men sat on red chairs, including the owner, who refused to give his name but said that no Venezuelan prostitutes worked there because most of them don't have Colombian working papers, and the penalty for hiring them is stiff – about 2 million pesos, or $700.

But two young women at the nearby Simón Bolívar Park, 22 and 26 years old, said they were from the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo and moved to Colombia one month ago to work as prostitutes because they could not find any work in their country. One, who called herself Andrea, said the owner of Bananas lied because many Venezuelans work there and other brothels like the Dubai, Reno Bar and Babilonia. She added that she had worked at Bananas, but did not want to go into details.

Colombian Web pages that offer sexual services are full of announcements from Venezuelan prostitutes, male and female. Their nationality is highlighted as something almost special.

Unwelcome competition

Prostitutes who have worked the streets of Santa Marta for years said they feel threatened by the new arrivals.

That's the case of a Colombian who asked to be identified as Claudia and said she had been working the streets of Santa Marta since she was 13 years old. She said she felt threatened by the presence of the foreigners in the neighborhood.

“I hope all those Venezuelan bitches leave. They have damaged the business. There's a lot of them and they charge too little. Some are so desperate they will go for 20,000 pesos ($7), and they pay for the room. The local women, we know that for less than 30,000 we're giving ourselves away. But they change those pesos into (Venezuelan) bolivares, and it feels like millions to them. In the end, we are the ones who suffer because we are paid and spend in pesos,” said Claudia.

The Colombian prostitutes didn't ask to use different names. They already changed the names from what appears on their birth certificates, because they want to protect their future and the families they left behind in Venezuela

Colombian immigration authorities said the number of Venezuelans fined or deported for staying in the country without documents or working without permits nearly tripled in recent years, from 1,581 in 2014 to 4,789 so far this year.

Óscar Calderón, coordinator of the Jesuit Services for Refugees in Colombia, said he's noticed a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans who arrive fleeing “the generalized violence” in their country and seeking a better life. But most of them lack work permits. “The first case recorded by our organization came in early 2013. Today we have an average of 20 cases per week in Cúcuta alone,” he said, referring to a city on the border with Venezuela.

That situation, Calderón added, forces the Venezuelans into the legal shadows and makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, violence, extortion and threats. “Getting a work permit is difficult for qualified workers and almost impossible for unqualified workers. That's why right now we're seeing a lot of Venezuelan migrants in the informal economy … Many wind up selling candy on buses, or in prostitution.”

The undocumented migrants have no access to health, education or social assistance programs. They can demand nothing, not even justice.

“Colombia has the duty to guarantee the human rights of everyone in its territory, regardless of their nationality, and specially those on the margins like sex workers,” said Érika Guevara, Americas director for Amnesty International. “And Venezuela is required to resolve its internal situation so that its citizens do not feel the need to emigrate.”

Rocío was not optimistic about her country's future. She has not returned since she left eight months ago, because she wants to save enough to buy some land in Colombia, build a house and bring her family. Her country continues to deteriorate and each week she has to send more and more money to fee her family. She said that it would take years before jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López is elected president and starts fixing the country.

“I don't want my daughters to follow my footsteps. That's why they have to study, so they can make money honestly and be happy. I don't want to be a bad example for them, or to be embarrassed about what I do, so I tell them that I work as a waitress in a pizzeria. I've kept up that white lie by paying a couple of pesos for photos of me dressed as a pizza waitress. I send them to my daughters, because the older ones ask a lot of questions,” she said with a sly smile.