By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When around 2,500 heavily armed police and soldiers recently raided a warren of crack dens in a notorious Bogota neighborhood to tackle drug trafficking, they also found two hundred children being used as sex slaves.
The surprise dawn raid in the Bronx neighborhood exposed child sex trafficking taking place just a few blocks from the presidential palace, police authorities said.
"From one dwelling with inhumane conditions we rescued around 200 children who were being sexually exploited," Julian Quintana, head of the attorney general's police investigative unit told reporters after the massive operation on May 28.
Of that figure, 136 children and are now being looked after by the state child welfare agency (IBCF), including 18 boys and girls under 12 years old, the authorities said.
The small Bronx neighborhood in downtown Bogota has long been known for its rubbish-strewn narrow streets filled with the stench of human excrement and lined with crack houses used by homeless drug addicts and squatters, mingling with arms dealers.
During the operation, police seized stashes of weapons, a drug processing laboratory, piles of cash, explosives and also arrested three gang leaders.
"We are not going to continue tolerating an independent republic of crime, where children are exploited," Enrique Penalosa, Bogota's mayor who spearheaded the operation, told reporters after the raid.
Claudia Quintero, head of the Anne Frank Corporation, a Colombian non-governmental organization that fights human trafficking, said she has seen children as young as 10 working as prostitutes in the Bronx's brothels and bars.
"We have heard testimonies from children that they are forced to take drugs and are then exploited sexually," Quintero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
"Several parents had to pay an extortion fee to the gangs to get their girls out of the brothels."
In the past two years, the NGO has rescued 15 girls and boys who had been forced into prostitution from three brothels in the Bronx after parents reported their children missing.
One teenage girl committed suicide after being rescued in 2015, she said.
Most of the child victims of sex trafficking come from poor families living in slum areas surrounding Bogota, some of whom had been displaced by Colombia's armed conflict, Quintero said.
"They are lured, coerced and some are transported to other brothels in other neighborhoods of the city. They are also forced to pack and sell drugs," she said.
The police estimate that criminal gangs make about $1.5 million a month, selling arms and controlling drug and human trafficking rackets in the Bronx neighborhood alone.
Authorities have tried to provide drug rehabilitation services and to dismantle drug gangs operating in the Bronx in the past, most recently three years ago, but without long-lasting effect and with mixed results.
Bogota's current mayor has pledged to clean up the troubled neighborhood once and for all and to provide better lighting and security cameras. Tonnes of rubbish and demolished crack houses are still being cleared from the area.
Nearly 1,600 people, many of them crack addicts, were removed during the raid and have been offered treatment, shelter and food, the mayor said.
"There's not a strategic intervention plan to stop this from happening again," Quintero said.
"Colombia isn't prepared to deal with the victims of human trafficking."
According to the 2015 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking, there was just one prosecutor in Bogota overseeing all cases of internal trafficking in the capital city.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Alex Whiting.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)