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.”
When I first heard about the tragic case of Cyntoia Brown, sentenced in 2006 to 51 years for killing a man who was paying to use her for sex when she was 16-years-old, I immediately thought of Emma Humphreys. In 1985, Emma also killed a man in very similar circumstances.
Both girls killed as a result of severe provocation and mental ill health, caused by the extreme abuse they had endured in prostitution.
Brown shot Johnny Allen in 2004. On the night she killed him, Allen picked up Cyntoia and took her to his home. Brown said in her statement she thought he was reaching for a gun during sex, so she shot him with a handgun and fled with his money.
The defence claimed Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life and was afraid of coming back to her pimp, “Cut Throat”, who used to beat and terrorise her, with no money. The prosecution said she was a greedy opportunist. Cyntoia was convicted of murder.
Like Cyntoia, Emma had grown up with appalling abuse, and was pimped into prostitution as a runaway child. Having met Trevor Armitage on the streets of Nottingham, Emma – who had been prostituted on the streets aged 13 – moved in with him, desperate for a home.
Armitage began beating, raping and pimping Emma, and her life was sheer hell. She killed him after he threatened her with a “gang-bang”. Like Cyntoia, she was just 16 years old, and yet was convicted a few months later of his murder. The jury failed to understand how child abuse and neglect is a training ground for prostitution, and how pimps and other predators target girls such as Emma.
Following a relentless three-year campaign to overturn Emma’s conviction, she finally walked free in July 1995. Emma had served a decade in prison for the “crime” of defending herself. But the lifetime of abuse, and her decade in prison took its toll on her mental and physical health, and Emma died three years later.
Cyntoia had been in prison for over a decade when campaigners brought her case to the public’s attention, and soon the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown trended on Twitter. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, and even Snoop Dogg, himself a former pimp, called for her release.
Cyontia says that “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” Emma said much the same when she was released. What Emma needed, and what all the girls caught up in prostitution need from us is to call it what it is – child abuse.
We need to challenge those that claim that when the Cyntoias and Emmas of this world reach 18 they are merely exercising a “choice”. One pro-prostitution organisation recently referred to Cyntoia as “a survival sex worker” as opposed to a victim of sexual exploitation, and called for changes to attitudes so that such young women can hang on to their “agency”.
A child in the sex trade has no “agency”. She is a victim of sexual abuse and violence. Girls such as Cyntoia and Emma usually never come to our attention. They often take their own lives, die from HIV, are murdered by pimps and punters, or end up in prison. We owe them a duty of care, and that begins by calling prostitution what it is: one of the worst forms of sexual exploitation and brutality on the planet.
I cannot believe the Observer/Guardian is still calling commercially raped women and girls ‘sex workers’
Dear Observer and Guardian Editors,
I am incredibly disappointed to have to contact you, yet again, to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial rape of women and girls (https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/06/living-hell-of-bangladesh-brothels-sex-trafficking).
It is entirely wrong to refer to commercial sexual abuse as ‘work’, especially the commercial rape of children. No child can legally consent to ‘sex work’ in any part of the world, including in countries that take a decriminalisation/legalisation approach to prostitution, and being sexually abused is not ‘work’ by any meaningful measure.
By the Guardian’s own guidelines (http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-c), ‘child pornography’ should be referred to as child abuse images, therefore a recording of a ‘child sex worker’ doing ‘sex work’ would be an image of abuse, but the creation of that abuse image would be only ‘work’.
Calling the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children ‘sex work’ stops it being seen as a sex abuse issue, and reduces it to a mere labour issue. It also helps to make invisible the men actually doing the abuse, and the demand for women and child victims.
It is particularly galling to see this in an article intended to highlight the criminal abuses occurring within Bangladesh’s legalised sex industry, an article that is otherwise very valuable. You need to decide, as an organisation, whether you are reporting on avoidable flaws within a legitimate industry, or on the globalised traffic in women and girls for commercial sexual abuse.
I look forward (in vain) to hearing back from you,
The article is published today (Saturday), but seems to be an Observer article, so I am emailing the editors of both. Humanity United, who ‘supported’ the article, does not seem to have a publicly available email address, but they are on twitter: @HumanityUnited
After five years in the brothel, Labonni stopped dreaming of being rescued. Ever since she had been sold to a madam at 13 years old, customers had promised to help her escape. None had followed through. Over time, their faces began to blur together, so she couldn’t remember exactly who had visited before, or how many men had come by that day. There’s usually one every hour, starting from 9am.
“Sometimes I wake up and I don’t understand why I’m not dead yet,” she says.
Now 19, Labonni says she’s resigned to life – and death – in Mymensingh, a brothel village in the centre of Bangladesh. Here, between 700 and 1,000 women and girls are working in the sex trade – many of them against their will.
Girls as young as 12 sleep five to a room; their beds only cordoned off by torn cotton curtains. Music blares from heavyset sound systems and homemade liquor is poured from plastic bottles to numb the pain. Men swagger shirtless down the alleys looking for girls. Ten minutes of sex will cost them TK400 (about £3.66) – but it’s money that mainly lands in the pockets of those running the brothel.
Like the majority of girls in Mymensingh, Labonni was trafficked into sex work. On the run at 13 years old, she left her six-month-old daughter behind to flee the abusive husband she had been made to marry the year before, in a ceremony that took place on the same day she started her period. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she remembers. “I thought maybe I could find work in a garment factory.”
A woman saw her looking tearful in Dhaka railway station, and offered her food and a place to sleep for the night. Two days later, Labonni was sold by her to the brothel for about £180 and forbidden to leave.
Overnight, she became a chukri, or bonded sex worker – imprisoned within the brothel until she repaid hundreds of pounds in fabricated debts. “The madam who bought me said that I had to pay her back,” Labonni says in a flat voice. “She’d bribed the police to say I was 18 [the legal age for a registered sex worker] and told me I owed her more than £914. Then she confiscated my phone and locked me in my bedroom. She said that she’d hurt me if I tried to run away.” After two or three months, Labonni gave up trying to escape. “They always find you,” she adds.
A quick breakdown of the figures involved shows how girls like Labonni are a vital part of a hugely profitable business model for brothel owners in Bangladesh. For the past six years, since being trapped in the brothel, she has worked continually to pay off her phantom debt. Yet over those six years she has earned upwards of £46,500 for madams who enjoy lives of considerable luxury.
Until last year everything Labonni earned went to her madam. All she was given back was a £37 as a monthly allowance for food, clothes and toiletries. Labonni has now paid her original £914 “debt” back 50 times over.
Last year she was finally told she had paid off her debt, but she has yet to move on. Her mental strength is worn down by years of abuse. “I feel worthless,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t even know I’m her mum.” Even with her “debt” gone, she’s still obliged to pay half of her weekly earnings – approximately £78 – to the madams in exchange for electricity and a place to stay.
One of her regular customers, Mohammed Muktal Ali, is 30 years old. A married bus driver from the nearby town, he has been visiting Labonni every day for four and a half years, since she was 14. “All the girls here are helpless,” he says. “You can’t sell a boy to a brothel, but you can sell a girl because she has monetary value.” He doesn’t feel guilty for paying for sex with a trafficked teenager. “I am in love with Labonni. I’m 70% sure that one day I will rescue her.” Labonni doesn’t look up. “I don’t believe anything the men say to me any more,” she says later. “They all lie.”
Four floors down from Labonni’s bedroom, Farada, 33, says the number of trafficked girls has increased since she arrived at the brothel in 1999. She knows, she says, because she buys them. After 12 years entrapped in sexual slavery herself, she was given a girl as a gift by a customer eight years ago, moving from exploited to exploiter overnight. When the girl escaped, she bought a second, called Moni, for £137. “I paid £27 on cigarettes for the police, and they sorted all the paperwork,” she says, referring to the government-mandated certificates that state every sex worker is at least 18 and consents to engaging in prostitution. “Now the police charge more. It’s at least £450, which is very expensive, so the girls have to pay me back.” The younger the girl, the higher the bribe required by law enforcement, she adds.
These days, she makes about £187 every week from two girls, but says a third of that goes to local gang members who control the brothel.
The money being made in this single brothel is an indicator of the vast profits generated by the global trade in women and girls. Sex trafficking is an enormously lucrative business.
Academic Siddharth Kara advises the United Nations and the US government on slavery and has shown through his own research that sex trafficking is disproportionately lucrative compared with other forms of slavery. He estimates that sex trafficking creates half of the total profits generated globally by modern slavery, despite only accounting for 5% of all trafficking victims worldwide.
He told the Observer: “The return on investment for sex trafficking is around 1,000% compared with much lower returns in exploitation for construction, agriculture or mining. The immense profitability of sex trafficking is … driven by the minimal expense associated with acquiring victims and the fact that the victim can be sold up to 20 times a day, generating tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in profit per victim.”
Prostitution was legalised in Bangladesh in 2000, after the year-long detention of 100 sex workers by police sparked protests calling for the women’s freedom and equal rights. The women’s release heralded a new legal framework, but few protections.
Instead, the business of sexual exploitation has thrived in a country where women are oppressed in many ways. Across the country, one in five girls is married before her 15th birthday and only a quarter finish secondary education. Choice is a luxury few women here can afford.
While prostitution is legal, trafficking and forced labour are not. But poor enforcement of legislation in a country where women are easy prey means traffickers act with impunity. The Bangladesh government estimates that 100,000 women and girls are working in the country’s sex industry and one study reports that less than 10% of those had entered prostitution voluntarily. This investigation found hundreds of girls who spoke of being sold by strangers, family members or husbands without their consent.
In April the Dhaka Tribune reported that the conviction rate for people arrested in connection with trafficking is less than half a percent. While more than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with human trafficking since 2013, only 25 were convicted. Last year only eight traffickers were convicted in Bangladesh.
While many girls sell sex from their homes or the street, more than 5,000 women and girls are split between 11 huge brothels countrywide. Some dating back hundreds of years, each brothel is registered with the government and monitored by the local police. Here, a triumvirate of powerful institutions – government, police and religion – watch over and approve the rape, enslavement and abuse of hundreds of thousands of prepubescent girls.
“The Bangladeshi police know everything that takes place in the brothels,” says Azharul Islam, programme manager of Rights Jessore, a local non-governmental organisation working to rehabilitate trafficked children working in the sex trade and return them to their families. “The brothel owners are involved in gangs, and our political leaders and law enforcement are involved in those gangs, too.” Corrupt government officials profit by accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for turning a blind eye to the abuse.
As part of this investigation, more than 20 underage girls in four of the brothels showed us their police-stamped certificates stating they were over 18. One girl admitted she was still 13. “Law enforcement here is a local mafia,” says Mahmudul Kabir, Bangladesh country director for the Netherlands-based NGO Terre des Hommes. “And it runs through the entire chain of power.”
The steady stream of women and children being trafficked into Bangladesh’s sex industry means that the girls are disposable to those making money out of them. The numbers killing themselves has reached a point where at least two brothels in central Bangladesh – Kandapara, on the on the outskirts of Tangail, and Daulatdia, on the banks of the Padma river – have had to built private graveyards to cope with the dead.
“There’s about one death a month,” says Shilpi, 57, who was sold to Daulatdia brothel in 1977. “It never used to be this many.” These days she conducts the funerals: washing each body before leading a team of 12 brothel guards through the thicket of weeds that shrouds the burial grounds; finally reciting a short prayer over the grave. She doesn’t know how many girls are buried there. She lost count after 100. “For a while, we tied a stone around their necks and threw the bodies in the pond,” Shilpi adds. “But sometimes they floated to the surface, so we had to find land.”
In Mymensingh, there’s no such graveyard – but not from lack of need. Instead, bodies are carried out to the countryside at nightfall; buried in unmarked graves by torchlight.
Public graveyards aren’t an option: the stigma that surrounds sex workers in Bangladesh forbids their burial in municipal ground. “Here we are shameful, bad women,” says Shilpi. “If a girl kills herself, people say it’s good riddance – it’s just a quicker way for them to get to hell.”.
Labonni has also tried to kill herself several times. “I’ll probably try again one day,” she says, sitting on the floor of the concrete cell that passes as a bedroom: her customers’ phone numbers are scratched into the wall. Meanwhile, she cuts herself daily.
Such deep-rooted mental health problems are endemic among Bangladesh’s bonded brothel workers, and make it harder for them to move on even when their “debts” are paid. Though there is little mental health support for the women, there is evidence that when it’s provided, it helps. One organisation working to rescue and rehabilitate underage trafficking victims is the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association. “When they first arrive at the home, they’re scared,” says BNWLA psychologist Sadia Sharmin Urmi. It takes consistent counselling to help them move forward, but within three months, she sees progress. “They know they are safe. That means a lot.”
For Labonni, the idea of ever getting help feels unlikely. “All my life, people tell me to have sex so that they can make money from it,” she says. “How much do I have to earn to be free of this life?”
For Labonni, escape now takes the form of daily video calls with her daughter, who is living with her elder sister in Dhaka. “I can’t raise her here and that hurts me, but I know she’s happy,” she says. “One day, when she’s old enough, I would like her to know I’m her real mum.”
The findings of a US-wide survey, outlined in a report, ‘Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand’ might help the general population appreciate why prostitution is not a victimless crime, and how the sex trade is driven by the demand and not the supply side.
Demand Abolition, a US-based group that campaigns against the sex trade, commissioned a survey about johns and their behavior, interviewing 8,201 adult men across the US. As ‘quality control’, a number of women who were previously involved in prostitution (sex trade survivors) were asked to give their views on the research and to help come up with recommendations for change.
How common is paying for sex in the US? Despite the creeping normalization of prostitution, which, in popular sanitized parlance is commonly referred to as ‘sex work’, the majority of men choose not to pay for sex.
Demand Abolition found that on average, men who buy sex spend a minimum of $100 per sex act, which goes towards an estimated $5.7 billion profit from prostitution. Buyers use illicit massage businesses, the street and online to buy sex. High frequency’, or entrenched, regular buyers drive the market and typically earn $100,000 or more annually. Regular buyers are more likely to be younger.
I have heard a variety of justifications by johns that tally with the findings of the research. Many convince themselves that the women enjoy it; that if they don’t have sex they will spontaneously combust; and that they are merely looking for a little ‘variety’.
So, why do men pay for sex? According to the research, motivation is varied, but the increasing normalization and sanitization of the sex trade, such as the propaganda promoted by pimps and other profiteers that would have us believe that buying sex is the same as paying for a beer and a burger, removes the stigma from the men, and provide a clear conscience.
In Berlin recently, home of the mega-brothel, I came across a sign advertising a ‘beer, blood sausage, and as many girls as you can manage’ as a lunchtime deal for €60. Prostituted women are marketed alongside food and booze, and in turn, become nothing but a consumable item in the mind of the john.
Some even see themselves as saviors. ‘At least (now I have paid her for sex) she can feed her kids and buy them shoes,’ one john, who openly admitted paying for sex with a street prostitute that ‘looked in a bad way’, told me. Another said, ‘If women could give full satisfaction to husbands and boyfriends, then men wouldn’t go to prostitutes.’
‘If I wasn’t able to have sex with a prostitute and was frustrated, I might have to go out and attack a real woman.’ The ‘real’ woman that this sex buyer was referring to was a woman who wasn’t prostituted. I have heard the same thing said by sex buyers, by women in prostitution, pimps and by members of the public.
Prostitution is dangerous business. A review of homicides of women in street prostitution found that they were 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than other women. And the johns are the main perpetrators of homicide and other violent crimes towards prostituted women – in 2017, between 57-100 percent of homicides of prostituted women in the United States were committed by sex buyers.
Research by Dr Melissa Farley, a psychologist and academic based in San Francisco, found that the attitudes and behaviors of regular johns are similar to those that are common among sexually aggressive men. ‘College-aged men who used women in prostitution reported having committed more sexually coercive behaviors than men who had not used women in prostitution,’ says Farley.
Marian Hatcher is a sex trade survivor based in Chicago. Hatcher is employed as a victim advocate by the anti-trafficking division of Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and was one of the peer reviewers asked to provide feedback on the research findings. For Hatcher, finding what would deter the johns is key.
‘Better understand who buyers are and what leads to (and helps put a stop to) buying behavior,’ says Hatcher, ‘and we can work towards ending demand. End the demand and there will be no impetus for traffickers and pimps to supply the women.’
The key recommendation of the report is to shift the limited resource law enforcement has from seller to buyer. Funding programs to support state and local agencies to address demand. Fund survivor exit services and law enforcement demand reduction operations from fines collected from buyers. Increase fines and penalties for repeat offenders.
Targeted education, healthcare and media effort to combat the normalizing of sex buying. Establish zero tolerance employer policies prohibiting sex buying under any circumstances, including activities on company time or with company resources that are related to sex buying. Targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications to change behavior.
During my travels researching my book on the global sex trade, I encountered vibrant “sex workers’ rights” movements in the global south, namely East and South Africa, India, South Korea and Cambodia.
I was told by a number of activists that the abolitionist position was “white feminism” and that such feminists, including black, Asian, and indigenous sex trade survivors, were imposing colonialist views of “sex work” on people of colour in the sex trade.
In response to criticism about Amnesty International adopting a policy of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “All want to end poverty, but in meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” Roth had plenty of support for this statement, but lots of dissent. One of the many replies from human rights activists was by sex trade survivor Rachel Moran, who asked: “Roth, wouldn’t you say, if a person cannot afford to feed themself, the appropriate thing to put in their mouth is food, not your cock?”
Ruchira Gupta is founder of Apne Aap, an NGO dedicated to preventing intergenerational prostitution in India which supports more than 20,000 vulnerable girls and women.
According to Gupta, India is being used as a site for neoliberal pro-prostitution politics to be tried and tested because the women in prostitution in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi are disenfranchised and voiceless.
In March 2015, at the beginning of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session, Gupta was “warned off” by a senior UN official while on her way to accept a major prize for her work. She was told that “trafficking” was fine to mention, but that prostitution was not, because it would offend those that consider “sex work” to be labour. But Gupta refused to capitulate, because she has seen for a number of years how the pro-prostitution lobby has distorted the reality about the sex trade in her country.
“In India, the term ‘sex worker’ was literally invented in front of our eyes,” says Gupta. “There was no poor woman or girl [in India] who thought that ‘sex’ and ‘work’ should go together. The pimps and brothel keepers who were on salaries began to call themselves ‘sex workers’ and they became members of their own union, along with the customers.”
During a research trip to Cambodia, I had arranged to meet a group of women through the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). The NGO, based in Phnom Penh, says it represents 6,500 Cambodian “sex workers” who are campaigning for decriminalisation of the sex trade.
A board member of the WNU decided to attend my meeting with the women. During the two hours we were together, she talked for and over the women, looking frustrated and irritated when I directed my questions to them and not her.
The women were desperate to tell their stories of the daily violence and abuse they endure from punters. All told me how much they hated selling sex for a living. I asked the women about the benefits of being in the Union, and was answered not by the women, but by the WNU member. She spoke solidly for five minutes, ignoring any interruption from the women themselves. “If they are beaten by the police, they are given legal training on their rights; if they are arrested, the WNU will provide food during the time they cannot work; and if one of the women dies, they will help to buy the coffin,” she explained. Knowing their rights “empowered them”, I was told.
The women did not appear to be empowered. Some had become pregnant by buyers and were caring for the babies. Three were HIV positive. All of the women had been raped on multiple occasions. Each told me they could get out of prostitution if only they had $200 to buy formal identification papers, because this was the only way to secure legitimate employment in the service industry or a factory. None of the women were familiar with the international campaign to de-criminalise the sex trade, and all said that they wanted out.
None of the women, the translator told me, used the term “sex work” to describe what they do, or “sex worker” to describe who they are. One of WNU’s aims is “to challenge the rhetoric around sex work, particularly that concerned with the anti-trafficking movement and the ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers”. All of the women asked me where they could get help to escape the sex trade. In the meantime, WNU board members and paid staff travel the region, speaking at “sex workers’ rights” conferences, distorting the voices of the exploited women.
This NGO seemed to consider the concept of “sex workers’ rights” to be above and beyond the importance of the lives of the women themselves. I asked the board member if they were planning on raising money to help the women out of prostitution. She told me: “No”.
Until his dramatic fall from grace, Jürgen Rudloff was the self-proclaimed “brothel king” of Germany. Owner of a chain of clubs he boasted was the “the largest marketplace for sex in Europe”, he was every inch the well-dressed entrepreneur, a regular face on reality TV and chat shows.
Rudloff is now serving a five-year sentence for aiding and abetting trafficking. His trial laid bare the misery and abuse of women working as prostitutes at his club who, according to court documents, were treated like animals and beaten if they didn’t make enough money. His imprisonment has dismantled the idea of Germany’s “clean prostitution” industry and raised troubling questions about what lies behind the legalised, booming sex trade.
Prostitution – legalised in Germany in 2002 – is worth an annual €15bn (£13.4bn), and more than a million men visit prostitutes every day. The change in the law led to a rise in “super brothels”, attracting tourists from countries where such establishments are illegal.
Rudloff’s empire – a chain of Paradise brothels – was founded on the idea that sex could be sold as a health service for men, on an almost industrial scale.
The jewel in the crown was the Stuttgart Paradise, opened in 2008 at a cost of more than €6m.
The five-storey club is billed as a “male wellness centre”, where customers pay €69 to cover entry, a meal, drinks and a Turkish bath. Sex costs an additional €50 for half an hour. Men wear bathrobes and shower shoes; women are naked aside from high heels.
Women who work at the club also pay the €69 entry fee, a daily tax of €25 plus the cost of a dormitory bed if they spend the night.
The Paradise business model is the same as the hundreds of other “sauna clubs” across Germany – brothel owners provide the premises, and the women are self-employed. Yet Rudloff’s high-volume, low-cost model only works if the supply of women is enough to satisfy demand and bring enough customers through the doors.
According to court documents, this became a problem for Paradise almost immediately. There weren’t enough women to fill the clubs. So Rudloff’s friends in the industry offered to help him out.
In 2008, as Rudloff was growing his business, investigators in Augsburg, Bavaria – a hundred miles from Stuttgart – received a tip-off that gangs from the city were trafficking women from eastern Europe, and sending them to work in Paradise. (While prostitution is legal in Germany, pimping and sex trafficking are not.) There was still no clear connection to Rudloff at this point. Then in 2013, a trafficking investigation into a brothel in Augsburg uncovered further links with Paradise.
At 6pm on 30 November 2014, in a mammoth operation involving 1,000 police officers and 70 locations, Rudloff’s four clubs in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Saarbrücken and the Austrian city of Graz were searched simultaneously. The private and business premises of the brothel managers, as well as investors’ cars and apartments, were combed through, and files, financial records, computers and phones confiscated.
The evidence was sufficient to convict several pimps who had trafficked women into Paradise. Rudloff himself was finally arrested in September 2017.
In a trial lasting almost a year, testimony from the jailed pimps revealed that trafficking was crucial to the success of Rudloff’s business.
Among the witnesses at his trial was Ibrahim “I”, a former member of the Hell’s Angels and a close friend of Rudloff’s. Ibrahim admitted forcing women into prostitution at Paradise, setting them a daily target of €500 a day and beating them if they didn’t bring enough money home. He would hit them on the head, rather than the body, he explained, so that no one would see the bruises. He also tattooed his name on to women’s bodies and ordered women to undergo breast enlargement surgery.
One woman who worked at Paradise told the court she had seen young women weeping after their first night working there. Another said that she had seen gang members treat women “like animals”.
Peter Holzwarth, the chief prosecutor at the trial, argued that the owner and management at the clubs were guilty of Organisationsdelikt – aiding and abetting an organisation involved in criminality. “He knew – in the cases brought to court – that the women working at his club were being exploited by pimps,” says Holzwarth. “And he knew the women were trafficked, or rather, he thought that they might be and [still let them work], and that is sufficient for a conviction.”
The court agreed. Sentencing Rudloff in late February this year, the judge remarked: “A clean brothel of this size is hard to imagine.” He said he hoped the convictions would serve as a warning to the sex industry.
Three months on, questions are being asked about the scale of the criminality that could be lurking within Germany’s legalised brothels.
Augsburg’s chief police inspector, Helmut Sporer, says that the huge growth of the sex industry post-legalisation has fuelled a rising demand for women. German authorities have no data on the number of women who work in the domestic sex trade, but conservative estimates suggest 400,000. According to Sporer, more than 90% of these women come from south-east Europe and Africa, and half are under 21.
“The majority don’t conform to the profile of the self-employed sex worker. They speak no German – or only very basic German. They have a limited education and they are travelling abroad for the first time. Many don’t even know which city they are in,” says Sporer, who says that all these factors make it likely that many are not working voluntarily in prostitution.
It’s not just migrants at risk of exploitation. Sandra Norak, 29, has never worked at Paradise, but spent six years working in brothels across Germany after meeting a man on the internet while she was still at school.
Norak’s boyfriend threatened her with violence, forcing her to work at a brothel where she had to sleep with up to 500 clients a month. She kept none of the money for herself. Now an activist for changes to Germany’s prostitution laws, Norak claims her exploitation was replicated for the majority of the women she met, most of whom were pushed into the trade by pimps or traffickers.
It was not until 2014 that she was able to get herself out of the sex trade and complete high school.
The experience, she says, is a “kind of destruction of your identity”. “[Some of the women] could have got away from the guy exploiting them but didn’t have the strength or the belief to find their way back to a respectable life.”
The Paradise case has shaken the industry, says lawyer Frank Theumer, who has known Jürgen Rudloff for 30 years, and defended him at his trial. “The big brothel owners, whether in Augsburg, Hamburg or Berlin, have become more careful.” According to Theumer, what happened to Rudloff could happen to anyone working in the industry.
On a sunny morning in Madrid, two young women duck down a side street, into a residential block and up to an apartment front door. Then they start knocking. Marcella and Maria spend a lot of time banging on doors and yelling through letterboxes all over the city. Most of the time, these doors never open. When they do, the two women could find themselves in trouble. Their job on the frontline of Spain’s fight against sex trafficking is a dangerous one; both have been assaulted and threatened. Yet they keep on knocking, because they have been on the other side of those doors, forced to sell their bodies for a handful of euros, dozens of times a day, seven days a week.
To say that prostitution is big business in Spain would be a gross understatement. The country has become known as the brothel of Europe, after a 2011 United Nations report cited Spain as the third biggest capital of prostitution in the world, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish Socialist party, which two weeks ago won another term in government, has promised to make it illegal to pay for sex, prostitution has boomed since it was decriminalised here in 1995. Recent estimates put revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.
Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion. In the UK, thousands of women are thought to be trapped in sexual servitude, but the scale of the problem in Spain is staggering. Until 2010, the law didn’t even recognise human trafficking as a crime. Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party – such as a pimp – who is profiting from them. Between 2012-2016, security forces in Spain rescued 5,695 people from slavery but acknowledge that thousands more remain under the control of criminals.
Since it passed its first anti-trafficking laws in 2010, the government has been scrambling to get on top of this crisis, spending millions of euros on an emergency plan to target the individuals and gangs operating with impunity. In 2015, it went further and created formal alliances between security forces, prosecutors, judges and NGOs, to rescue victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Survivors such as Maria and Marcella now find themselves playing a crucial part in bringing the battle to the criminals who once sold and exploited them. But can Spain’s new alliance of defenders really turn the tide against the traffickers?
I meet Maria and Marcella, both in their mid-20s, in the offices of Apramp, an organisation set up to protect, reintegrate and assist women in prostitution. Apramp helped them escape their traffickers, and they are now among its outreach workers. Their day job is to identify potential trafficking victims and try to offer them a way out. They find women they think might need help on the streets, in hostess clubs, and in some of the 400 residences they say are operating as informal brothels in Madrid.
Both shrug off the suggestion that they are brave. “When I’m wearing the Apramp vest at those apartments or on the streets, I don’t feel scared,” Marcella says. “We know from our own experience they’re doing much worse things to the girls and women inside. So it only makes us more determined.”
The two poised and eloquent young women, dressed like students in jeans and trainers, have lived through terrible things. Maria, petite and softly spoken, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, was brought to Spain from Romania by someone she trusted: she thought she was going on holiday with her new boyfriend. Instead, he drove her over the border using their EU residency cards and within 24 hours she was on the streets.
“It just happens so fast,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe how much you can be broken in such a short time. The shock and the trauma makes you go into survival mode. You don’t have time to realise what has happened to you.” She spent eight months being prostituted on street corners, in brothels and in strange apartments. “You’re alive but you’re not really existing,” she says. “Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way.”
She was told by her pimp that she would have to pay off a debt of €20,000 before she could go home. “With Romanian women, the traffickers threaten to kill your mother or your sister or your children if you don’t pay off your debt,” she says. “People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you just run away or go to the police?’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just stop a random person on the street and ask for help, because someone you love could get killed. The police in Romania are often corrupt. You think, why should it be different here?”
The promise of freedom in return for paying off the debt almost always turns out to be a lie. Maria says that, throughout her time under the control of the traffickers, she was hit with hundreds of tiny charges: she’d have to pay for clothes, rent for the corner she worked, for condoms and sanitary towels. If she didn’t bring back enough money, she wouldn’t eat or she’d be beaten.
“Debt is invisible,” Maria says. “It’s not a physical chain but it works the same way.” She says some traffickers force women to get breast implants and even though the operation costs around €3,000, tell them they have to pay back €10,000. Marcella nods in agreement. She was trafficked from her native Brazil after applying to do a master’s in Spain, a university course that turned out to be bogus. She was forced into prostitution immediately after she was collected from the airport. “If Apramp hadn’t found me, I think I’d be dead by now,” she says.
The fact that she not only survived but is now able to help others in the same situation has been an essential part of her recovery. “The mafia take you and destroy your whole identity. Even now, you’re recovering but you can never forget your past,” she says. “Doing this work really helps.”
Between them, Maria and Marcella have helped dozens of women and girls escape their traffickers. It’s a process that takes months, sometimes years. Afterwards, Apramp finds the women somewhere safe to live, offers counselling and legal support, and helps them find work. “We have to show them that their lives are worth living again,” Marcella says.
Rocío Mora, Apramp’s co-founder and director, sweeps into the room and embraces Maria and Marcella, who are about to start their afternoon shift. “The only ones who really understand what we are facing are the survivors,” she says. Tall and immaculately groomed, Mora is one of Spain’s best-known anti-trafficking advocates; her rage at what she sees happening on the streets is raw and visceral. What Spain is facing, she says, is a huge violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls; anyone labouring under the impression that the majority of women working in prostitution in Spain are doing so by choice is deluding themselves. “The sex industry profits from the sale of women who are being controlled and exploited through debt, violence or psychological manipulation,” she says. “Our mobile unit has contact with 280 women a day and almost 100% are victims of exploitation and trafficking.”
There are many reasons why Spain has become a hotspot, but for Mora, the biggest single factor is cultural. Spain’s sex trafficking epidemic is, she says, just the most extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitudes to women and sex. “There is huge demand for prostitution here. It’s become so normalised that it’s just seen like any other leisure activity.”
One survey in 2008 found that 78% of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society. And demand is huge: another survey, conducted in 2006, found that nearly 40% of Spanish men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their life. Mora has recently seen a radical change in the kind of men buying sex. Before, it was largely older men sneaking away from their families. Now, both the women on the streets and the sex buyers themselves are getting younger. “The social stigma isn’t the same as it was when I started out,” she says. “We have a generation of young men growing up believing they have the right to do anything to a woman’s body if they have paid for it, and they don’t have to worry about the consequences.”
As a young girl, Mora watched her mother (also called Rocío) start Apramp from their kitchen table. At 18, Mora was studying by day and driving a mobile health unit through Madrid’s red-light district by night.
“When my mother started this work, it was mainly getting health services to Spanish women who were engaged in prostitution to feed their families or a drug addiction,” she says. Two decades ago, criminal gangs started to take hold. “And it really was a radical change. There was suddenly a lot of violence and coercion – men on the streets watching the women and taking their money.”
Now, she says, most women in prostitution in Spain are foreigners: Apramp works with women of 53 different nationalities. “And the gangs are more sophisticated and more ruthless. They no longer need men on the street, because they are controlling the women through debt, fear and psychological control. This is what makes it much harder to fight, because many don’t see that they have a way out.”
On Calle Montera, one of Madrid’s busiest shopping streets, eastern European or South American women stand alone or in small groups. Maria and Marcella point out that many of the women they help don’t look like trafficking victims: it is easy for people to walk past them and not realise. Maria says many are also acting as human signposts, indicating that there are houses filled with other women nearby. When we get back to our car that evening, flyers have been stuck under our windscreen wipers offering a two-for-one deal on women for the special price of €30.
A short walk from Calle Montera is the HQ of the Centre of Intelligence and Risk Analysis, run by Spain’s national police. José Nieto is its chief inspector and Spain’s leading anti-trafficking law enforcement officer. As with Mora, anti-trafficking work has become Nieto’s vocation. He has spent more than 20 years trying to develop an effective police response to a human rights catastrophe that, until 2010, wasn’t even included in Spain’s criminal code.
“When I started in 1997, I was part of the brigade that believed all prostitutes did this work because they wanted to,” he says. “But it’s like an illness: at first you feel that something is wrong but you haven’t got a diagnosis. But as soon as you put a name to it, everything changes. You see it for what it really is.”
He explains the myriad reasons why Spain has become such a magnet for sex trafficking networks; “a perfect storm”, he calls it. “First, we are fighting a crime that is socially acceptable, because prostitution is accepted and embraced by many people here.” Second there is geography: “We are at the centre of all major migratory routes. The main victims we are seeing trafficked and forced into prostitution are Romanian, West African and South American. You can cross from Romania to Spain with an ID card. Africa is just 15km from us. We have a historic and a linguistic connection to South America.”
As in many countries, a prosecution is almost impossible without a victim willing to disclose their situation and testify against their exploiters. “There is great fear among victims that if they tell the police, they will be sent back to their countries with their debts unpaid,” Nieto says. “It makes policing very difficult; if the women don’t ask for help, there is a limit to what you can do. Here in Spain, prostitution itself isn’t illegal, running a brothel isn’t illegal, so you have to prove that what is going on is more than meets the eye.”
Human rights workers at Amnesty International are braced for scores of redundancies after the management admitted to a hole in its budget of up to £17m to the end of 2020.
Up to 70 jobs will go in voluntary and compulsory layoffs amid a slump in donations and a multi-million pound increase in spending on fundraising, the Guardian has learned. Staff have been told the organisation will be reshaped in line with the vision of recently appointed secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, who wants to increase Amnesty’s work on climate change and economic rights. There are concerns that cuts will marginalise in depth research on totemic Amnesty causes such as the death penalty, torture and the arms trade.
Next week Naidoo is due to unveil a new strategic direction, which he has previously indicated requires treating issues like climate change as core components of the human rights struggle. Sources said it appears he wants to increase the focus on campaigning, rather than traditional research-led human rights investigations.
One insider said the 58-year old global organisation was in the grip of “an existential crisis”. The union resolution described it as “a perfect storm of challenges”.
The job losses follow a damning report into the charity’s culture in February, commissioned after the suicides last year of two staff members, Gaëtan Mootoo and Rosalind McGregor. It detailed a “toxic” working environment and widespread bullying.
It warned: “As organisational rifts and evidence of nepotism and hypocrisy become public knowledge they will be used by government and other opponents of Amnesty’s work to undercut or dismiss Amnesty’s advocacy around the world, fundamentally jeopardising the organisation’s mission.”
According to a resolution from unionised staff in response to the threat of cuts “much of the anxiety experienced by staff in recent years has been generated precisely by the kind of mismanagement of finances and unfair treatment of staff that once again we see displayed in measures now proposed by the senior leadership team”.
The memo shows the charity was on course for a £7m shortfall on its spending of £20m and that travel budgets have already been cut and a hiring freeze extended. The shortfall includes £2.5m spent on fundraising that it could not afford. Income from Amnesty branches around the world was £4.5m less than forecast.
I would be very interested to know how much of Amnesty’s fall in income is a result of its move to support the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry (including pimps and brothel keepers). That move seems to fall under the category of ‘economic rights’ and signalled a fundamental change in direction for the organisation, away from clear human rights violations such as torture and illegal detention, into more complicated political/social areas that it had no expertise in. The shift in focus from research to campaigning risks turning it into a PETA-like organisation, existing purely to get attention/donations and to keep itself in existence. While it is very true that the environment is fundamentally tied in with human welfare, many charities already exist to champion that cause, it looks like opportunism.
A pornography festival in London this weekend has been forced to relocate after protests.
Faced with the prospect of a picket, organisers of the London porn film festival, which describes itself as “celebrating queer, feminist, radical and experimental porn”, pulled screenings from the Horse Hospital, an arts venue in Bloomsbury. The three-day event will instead be held at a new location disclosed only to ticket holders.
Multiple complaints about the festival were made to Camden council. Local authorities have the power to permit screenings of uncertificated films.
Despite the festival’s progressive intentions, feminist organisations branded it demeaning. Janice Williams, chair of the activist group Object, said the films on show promoted “degradation and oppression”. Rude Jude, one of the festival’s organisers, disagreed. “This is the next step on from the moral panic and the rightwing conservative groups that protested this kind of thing before … Britain likes to think of itself as a place tolerant of queer people, but when queer people assert ourselves, we’re attacked.”
The festival programme includes screenings titled Soft Tender Tuff Bois, described as a “love letter to all genderqueer and transmasculine people”, and The Kinks Are All Right, which takes the theme of “seductive humiliation”.
Rude Jude said the festival was staged as a response to 2014 legislation that extended pornography laws to films streamed over the internet: “It banned so many queer acts. It banned the depiction of female ejaculation, caning, breast play, flogging. These things are part of queer sexuality. The festival was formed as a protest.”
The coordinators of a separate pressure group, Women Against Pornography, said: “Feminist pornography is an oxymoron … feminism is not about individualistic wishes or desires, it is about liberating all women from the oppression of males. This can never be achieved by being tied up in a bed or by telling women that torture will make them free.” Women Against Pornography cited “security reasons” for not wanting to reveal their names.
In a letter to Camden council, Williams singled out a festival strand titled Sex Work Is Work, the online description for which included the hashtag #necrophilia. Williams claimed the festival was to show extreme pornographic images and pornography that is “likely to result in serious injury” to the performers. The hashtag has since been removed from the festival site.
In a series of Twitter posts, the festival claimed transphobia underlay the attack on the event. Women Against Pornography refute the accusation: “In the letters we sent there was no mention of transgenderism. However, if transgenderism is apparently so closely linked with pornography then that’s not a very good advert for it. As radical feminists we are gender critical, although this didn’t form part of our criticism of the festival.”
The Horse Hospital, which does not receive public money, is known for its grassroots art programming and has hosted the festival since its inception. “We’re in a difficult position here. We’re always up against it with somebody,” said director Roger Burton.