BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Authorities in Colombia said Thursday they have rescued more than 40 Venezuelan women from a "21st century sex slavery" ring in which migrants were held captive and forced into prostitution.
The network captured women in the border city of Cucuta and transported them to the capital, where their documents were confiscated and they were forced into sex work for 20 days to pay off the price of their transport, officials said.
Chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez said the women were only allowed 15 minutes of freedom each day and fined if they returned late. The network's leaders contracted a purported doctor to perform abortions on women who became pregnant, he added.
"It's absolutely despicable," Martinez said.
Rights advocates have expressed concern that human trafficking is becoming more prevalent as migration from Venezuela swells. Local authorities say many Venezuelan women fleeing their country's economic and humanitarian crisis are being found in sex work, often in a desperate bid to help their struggling families.
According to the United Nations, over 3 million Venezuelans have migrated in recent years, and Colombia has received more of them than any other nation. Many arrive with little more than a suitcase of belongings.
Martinez said the women could have been rescued sooner, but an agent from Colombia's immigration agency tipped the network off to the raid. He did not name the agent, but vowed that he would be brought to justice within 24 hours.
Bogota Security Secretary Jairo Garcia said about half of the women were rescued in Bogota while the other half were still in Cucuta. He said many of the women were lured into the network with promises of food and money.
Garcia said they were promised that "Everything is going to be OK ... And when they arrived to Bogota, their IDs were taken and they were locked up."
He said the women were being treated as victims and being given food and humanitarian aid. The rescue was part of a larger operation in which 144 people were detained, at least one on charges of human trafficking.