Cover image retrieved from Publimetro. 4-minute read.
In July 2018, Colombian authorities launched a sex trafficking sting with the codename “Operation Vesta.”
The girls, many of whom came from impoverished backgrounds, were allegedly brought to the resort under the guise of becoming models. Upon their arrival, however, they were stripped of their passports and possessions and forced into sexual slavery. Some were even branded with tattoos by their traffickers, while others were forced to attend sex parties at high-profile hotels and yachts.
Of the 18 people who were arrested for running the child prostitution ring, high-profile Colombian Instagram model Liliana del Carmen Campos Puello was among them.
Prosecutors say Campos Puello headquartered the ring and used her social media status to promise over 400 girls fame and fortune. She reportedly recruited the girls to service glamorous clients, including celebrities, politicians, and even senior law enforcement officials.
Campos Puello, who is currently being held in a detention center awaiting trial, has denied all charges against her claiming, “Never, never have there been minor involved.” (Selling sex is legal in Colombia for those over 18).
The sad truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether there were minors involved or not, Campos Puello used social media to sex traffic human beings. And this phenomenon, using social media for trafficking purposes, is becoming increasingly common.
Let’s check out the facts.
Social media is often used for trafficking
Just take it from our friend Riley, whose 17-year-old sister we’ll call “Shauna” received a direct message over Instagram by a “professional modeling agent” who told her she had a knack for modeling and he could definitely do something with her talent if “she’d be willing to meet with him.”
Shauna, not wanting to miss her big break or do anything to upset the “modeling agent,” ended up meeting this agent multiple times at a hotel on the Mexican border where her pictures were taken in increasingly provocative settings. The last encounter with the agent led to nude photos that were eventually posted on her Instagram feed.
In other words, this guy used social media to get in touch with an underage girl in order to groom her for abuse and illicit images. Pretty messed up, right?
If the story about Shauna wasn’t enough proof, take it from a study performed by The University of Toledo (UT) Human Trafficking Social Justice Institute. The study found that social media is increasingly being utilized as a medium to contact, recruit, and sell children for sex.
But why is all of this happening?
Why traffickers utilize social media
Social media is the ideal tool because a trafficker has immediate access to a wealth of information about their potential victims including, but not limited to: what their victims look like, what their interests are, whether they are happy or not, where they’re located, and who they spend time with. A trafficker can see who’s a vulnerable target from this information and figure out how to exploit them.
In the case of Campos Puello, economic status and age seemed to be the most important pieces of information based on the demographics and stories of the girls who were rescued. In addition to being able to gather this information from her followers’ profiles, she was also able to contact them directly.
Imagine being one of those girls: you’re contacted by a prominent Instagram model who has hundreds of thousands of followers. This model has chosen you out of the crowd—she sees your potential and promises you a modeling contract, a journey that all begins at a ritzy Colombian hotel. In their shoes, would you say “no?” Of course not. This model is the real deal—thousands of gorgeous photos, hundreds of thousands of followers, and millions of likes, remember? You want to be them, and now you might just get that chance.
With the scenario painted above, it’s easy to see how Campos Puello was able to entice so many young girls.
Sadly, this isn’t the only tactic used by traffickers over social media.
How else is social media used to traffick children?
In the end, the trafficker doesn’t care how they get you—they just want to get you.
The question that decides what tactic the trafficker will use is decided based on the vulnerability of the potential victim.
For many who ended up in the sex trafficking ring, money was their vulnerability. However, the experts from the UT study also say emotional vulnerability can lead to more emotionally manipulative tactics, too.
In these cases, the traffickers will use strategic phrases like, ”I think you’re beautiful,” “The world deserves to see your amazing body,” and “I’ll protect you,” to get the victim’s guard down and establish trust.
Why this matters
We know social media may seem safe—if you’re not even communicating face to face with another human being, how dangerous could it be? And yet, any of those recruited by Campos Puello would tell you otherwise.
The data says that 42% of those who met their trafficker online never actually met their trafficker in person. This is part of what draws traffickers to use social media—they can protect their own identity while simultaneously endangering you.
What lessons can be learned? Well, be sure to keep open communication with older, trusted figures in your life and trust your gut if something doesn’t seem right.