Glamorous and flamboyant, Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello often posted snaps to her Instagram followers of racy days spent surrounded by beautiful young women in some of Colombia’s most exclusive spots.
Behind the façade, prosecutors say, lay a dark secret: last year the brash 48-year-old woman was arrested and accused of being the country’s biggest pimp. She is now in jail and on trial accused of making a fortune by catering to the dark desires of those visiting the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, after her arrest last year along with 17 others in a huge police sting known as Operation Vesta.
Prosecutors allege that Ms Campos Puello, nicknamed “La Madame”, forced young women to work in her international sex-trafficking ring and provided them to clients such as celebrities, policemen and politicians.
While Ms Campos Puello vehemently denies the accusations, her trial has highlighted Colombia’s insidious problem with sex tourism.
During the Eighties and Nineties Colombia was a no-go zone for travellers as a war involving left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries turned it into a near-failed state. But tourism has been booming since a peace deal in 2016 ended half a century of conflict, and Cartagena is the country’s biggest tourist trap. The beaches and colonial architecture of the Unesco World Heritage site attract millions of visitors each year.
But anyone wandering around the city’s old town will come across females, many very young, offering their services. Prostitution in Colombia is legal but it is alleged that Ms Campos Puello coerced women, often from poor backgrounds, into the trade and trafficked them overseas. Others caught in Operation Vesta were alleged to have trafficked children.
Despite admitting to having an escort agency, Ms Campos Puello claims that those involved chose to be so and were always older than 18. Mario Gómez Jiménez, the chief prosecutor, said that Ms Campos Puello had close to 400 women in the network.
“Never, never have there been minors involved,” Ms Campos Puello told local media in an interview from prison.
She has been kept in jail since her arrest last year. She has since been accused of continuing to run her agency and also threatening a journalist via her social media accounts.
Last year Néstor Humberto Martínez, Colombia’s former chief prosecutor, described the victims in the case as “true 21st-century sex slaves”.
The US-aided Operation Vesta led to 17 other people being arrested, including three Israelis who “had built a network of human trafficking, sex tourism and child exploitation that plagued Colombia for over a decade”. One navy official who has been jailed tattooed his initials on the bodies of the underage girls he raped. About 250 victims have been identified.
Mr Gómez said he hoped Operation Vesta would “open the eyes of the state, the government and society”.
Most of Cartagena is poor and the sex trade is seen as an easy way out of poverty for many young women.
“It’s very difficult to believe just one case will radically change the country. But emblematic cases such as this one give us hope,” Mr Gómez said. “We hope it could give some direction and help with the next step with many of the women who are involved in this trade. If the government could help, financially, those trapped in this trade and provide better opportunities, such as funds to set up small businesses, that would be a turning point.”