Tattoos used to enslave children
A DISTURBING child prostitution ring in which more than 250 young women and girls were branded with tattoos by their "owners" has been busted in dramatic raids over the past week.
Colombian cops have now arrested 18 people - including Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello who is known as "Madame" - were charged with the sexual exploitation of more than 250 women and girls.
The glamorous alleged ringleader, who has been pictured showing off huge wads of cash and posing in a bikini on luxury yachts, is said to have run the sick operation along with several unnamed Israelis in the popular Colombian resort of Cartagena.
The Colombian attorney general's office alleges that the young girls and women were lured to the resort under the pretence of working as models there.
The unnamed ring of leaders allegedly raped and tattooed all their victims, aged between 14 and 17 years old. Ms Campos Puello allegedly found the girls who were living in poor neighbourhoods in Colombia and Venezuela.
Traffickers allegedly preyed on girls and women living in Cartagena's slums, promising them jobs and offering to arrange their passports and visas.
"When the victims arrived to the country where they hoped to work, they came across a very different reality," the Attorney-General's office said. "They were stripped of their documents, locked up and exploited sexually."
Once they were trapped, raped and branded, the girls were showcased in catalogues and forced to attend sick sex parties in hotels and on luxury yachts.
Colombian police allege Ms Campos Puello introduced the girls to the clients and, before each event, she would always select the best-suited girls from the ring's list.
Following the dramatic arrests over the weekend, Colombia's President-elect Ivan Duque has pledged to step up efforts to fight sex trafficking in Cartagena - which is massively popular with tourists.
Those arrested over the weekend include foreigners, hotel owners, policemen and a navy captain.
Charges include recruiting and selling girls aged 14 to 17 into the sex trade in Cartagena and abroad, and forcing them to have sex with locals and tourists.
Cartagena, on the country's Caribbean coast, attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists a year to visit its colonial-era ramparts and squares.
However, the three-day sting operation, which ended on Sunday, has also exposed rampant child sex abuse.
"We will not allow Cartagena to become a sexual tourism destination," Mr Duque tweeted on Monday, promising to "attack human trafficking and the exploitation of women in our cities and tourist destinations."
In separate tweets, Mr Duque, who takes over the presidency on August 7, said those found guilty should receive the maximum prison sentences possible - up to 40 years - to help prevent such "atrocious" crimes from recurring.
Over six months leading up to the bust, police and prosecutors collected evidence using hidden cameras in tourist areas, including hotels, squares and streets.
In a statement, the Attorney-General's office described the victims as "real slaves of the 21st century".
Prosecutors are also investigating the "abhorrent" case of a navy captain who, they alleged, had accepted the charges against him.
"There is abundant evidence that indicates that he located girls under the age of 14 on social networks, abused them, bought their silence, and ordered them to tattoo his name on parts of their bodies," the Attorney-General's office said.
- With wires