THE BLOG

Child Prostitution Booming in Peruvian Amazon

The air stank of open sewers and blaring salsa music drowned the noise of passing motorcycles leaving clouds of dust behind.

I was in one of the many miserable tent villages dotting Guacamayo, a massive illegal goldmining site in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.

Thousands of miners live here in shacks covered in blue plastic sheets. I had arrived in this vast desert in the middle of the jungle, so large it is visible from space, on the back of a motorcycle speeding through the trees along a narrow manmade path from the main road. The driver warned me not to be seen taking pictures since miners would beat me up.

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Save the Children's Peru director, Teresa Carpio, visited this area a few weeks ago and denounced the fact that over a thousand underage girls are being used as sexual slaves here and other illegal mining camps in the south-eastern Peruvian state of Madre de Dios which are thriving due to high gold prices.

They are lured into this area by the promise of jobs in shops or as domestic helpers, but end up being forced to work as prostitutes in local bars.

The Peruvian government reacted by launching a major raid in September rescuing 300 women including 10 minors, the youngest of whom was 13 years old. It is one of the largest police operations against illegal children prostitution rings in Peru, but much more needs to be done.

I saw some of these girls during my visit. It was scorching hot and humid and as I sat down on a wooden bench to have a drink, a couple of clearly underage teenage girls walked towards me smiling, but quickly turned around when a young man burst out gesturing angrily with his hands.

They had come out from a nearby row of brothels with names like FBI and Noche Azul (Blue Night) with suggestive pictures of naked women painted across the outside walls. One even had an image of Tom, the cat from the children cartoon series Tom and Jerry next to a palm tree, inviting visitors to come in and get away from the heat and dust.

Most of the girls arrive with no money at all and miners warn brothel owners about any girl trying to escape, so, with no authority or police around to complain to, they are trapped.

Not so for Teresa, a 14-year-old I met who had escaped a couple of days earlier from the brothel she had been taken to. She had arrived in Guaca­mayo under the impression that she was going to work in a restaurant, and she refused to become a prostitute.

'I was brought to the jungle,' she said. 'I had no money, nothing, at most 70 cents. They took me to this bar, a brothel; it was horrible. It had tables, chairs, lights, a pole in the middle with loudspeakers, and a room on the side where girls slept. After a few days, when everyone was asleep I ran and ran until I found a man who took me away.'

She was speaking from a refuge, the only one of its type in the area belonging to a local NGO called Asociacion Huarayo. Save the Children will support this organisation under a new three-year project that will include organising workshops with local community, politicians and school teachers to raise awareness over this issue in rural areas of Cuzco where many girls are targeted.

The actual refuge is a simple wooden building on a side street in the chaotic town of Mazuko, the main entry point into the Madre de Dios region. It was late in the evening and Teresa was waiting impatiently for her parents to arrive from Lima to pick her up.

'I was lost, I didn't know where I was,' she continued. 'At night everything is dark, there are no lampposts or anything. The policeman told me that it was a miracle that I had escaped because no one can usually; they rape you and throw you in the jungle.'

Teresa had explained to the owner (ironically, a woman brought to this region as a girl years ago) that she was underage, but the owner replied that even younger girls worked in the other brothels and that police never came. 'She told me that if I tried to leave, her husband would kill me. He had a gun; I saw it.'