SAN JOSE — Their nightmare begins in Venezuela, where the economic crisis ravaging their country makes the young women and girls — some as young as 11 or 12 — particularly vulnerable. Colombian gangs and paramilitary groups take advantage to manipulate them, and then shuttle them across the border to the El Dorado international airport in Bogota, where they're boarded on planes to be trafficked as sex workers in a range of countries across Latin America.

This is the fate that has befallen tens of thousands of Venezuelans in recent years, according to an investigation carried out recently by the Mexican newspaper El Universal. A large number of the victims end up in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. In Mexico, traffickers pay between $700 and $950 to immigration officials at Mexico City's international airport to allow Venezuelan women into the country, the newspaper found.

The information gathered by El Universal coincides with a report published in March by two Venezuelan civil society organizations in conjunction with the British Embassy in Caracas. The study points to a vast web of criminal connections in Colombia that help support the trade — from drugs and weapons traffickers to corrupt policemen, soldiers, and border officials.

The Venezuelan study, co-written by attorneys Beatriz Borge and Lilian Aya, suggests that in the past two years, the number of trafficked women has skyrocketed, from just over 60,000 in 2016 to almost 200,000 this year. They fear the number could rise to 600,000 by 2020, representing nearly 2% of Venezuela's population.

Many indigenous women are forced into hard labor from a young age, and then coerced into the sex trade.

Traffickers target some of the poorest states in Venezuela and entice the women with promises of well-paying work, only to sell them into the sex trade in Colombian cities or to an ever increasing number of countries, including Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Peru, the authors found.

Among the most vulnerable in Venezuelan society, the situation is even worse. Many indigenous women are forced into hard labor from a young age, and then coerced into the sex trade, Borge and Aya revealed. Adolescents are often forcibly recruited by Colombian paramilitaries operating on Venezuelan territory.

The report also looked at the conditions of sex workers who willingly entered the trade, seeking a better life outside Venezuela only to find themselves exploited by traffickers. Some victims have gone on to become recruiters themselves, convincing other women to join them. But even they remain trapped, unable to return home and under the control of the traffickers.

"These gangs offer to pay for their ticket, clothes, food, and lodging, so the women never escape this vicious cycle and remain indebted," Borge told El Universal. "It's modern slavery."

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