A court in Colombia stands up for sex workers

The Clock Tower Massacre ruling recognises for the first time sex workers as victims of the armed conflict. But this on its own is not enough. Español

16 May 2017

Photo by AP Images / Christophe Ena

This article is part of the partnership between 070 and democracia Abierta. Read the original here.

Bogotá’s Superior Court ordered the Government, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the crimes committed by the United Self-Defence Force of Colombia (AUC) against sex worker. The appeal was part of a sentence condemning ex-paramilitary Eugenio Reyes, better known by his alias Geño, to 40 years in prison for dozens of crimes, including the massacre of four women known as the Torre del Reloj Massacre (Clock Tower Massacre).

This is the first sentence that addresses the issue of sex work within the framework of the Justice and Peace law – the legislation created to facilitate the demobilisation of paramilitary groups in Colombia, and used to try ex-combatants of the AUC since its demobilisation back in 2005.

Among the 60 homicides committed by Reyes is the massacre of three sex workers: Ofelia Correa, Betsabet Espitia, Lourdes Lara; along with a minor who was sexually exploited, Heidy Mailth Smith Perez. The three women were murdered on Reyes’ orders on 3 February 2003, near the clock tower in the centre of Cartagena.

Despite sex work in Colombia being recognised by the Constitutional Court as a legal profession since 2010, the prejudices and stigmas surrounding sex work still exist.

“Almost every hearing with paramilitaries refers to sex workers, usually to talk about their victimisation,” explained Eduardo Castellanos, the Rapporteur Magistrate for the hearing. “We have been carrying out these procedures for 10 years,” referring to the Justice and Peace legislation, “and it is time to bring the issue of sex work to light”.

The sentence, in addition to condemning Reyes, contains a review of the previous judgements under the Justice and Peace legislation that have touched upon the subject of sex work. It highlights 17 cases in which female sex workers were victims of AUC, either because they were persecuted, sexually abused or exploited by ex-combatants.

“The ruling seeks to recognise sex workers as a collective, with rights in a context of high vulnerability, especially within the context of the armed conflict”, explains Laura Martinez, co-founder of Parces, and NGO that works for sex worker rights.

Despite sex work in Colombia being legal, and the Constitutional Court in 2010 recognising it as a profession and affording rights to those who engage in it, a report entitled ‘Ley Entre Comillas’ (‘The So-Called Law’), published by the Sex Work Observatory in 2016, stresses that “the prejudices and stigmas surrounding sex work still exist.”

The monitoring and enforcement of this ruling will depend on the media visibility it receives, the will of the Judge and the ongoing monitoring and oversight from NGOs.

That is why Andrea Correa, previously a sex worker and now a community leader is the Santa Fe neighbourhood, adds that the scope of the sentence must go beyond paramilitary violence. “Although it is part of the armed conflict, this sentence represents what is still happening in cities like Bogotá. Hopefully this sentence will lead to investigations into the many other hate crimes against sex workers,” she said.

That is what Castellanos, the Rapporteur Magistrate, expects. The ruling calls for the Office of the Prosecutor to investigate other cases of sex worker victimisation, it asks the Attorney General’s Office to define whether the State should recognise them, and calls for the National Government to find ways of regulating their profession and protect their rights.

According to a specialised prosecutor, who asked not to be identified, this motion is not enough to promote the rights of sex workers. “Legally speaking, it has no effect, because it does not necessarily have a follow-up or penalty for non-compliance”, said the lawyer. Instead, the prosecutor states, the monitoring and enforcement of this ruling will depend on the media visibility it receives, the will of the Judge and the ongoing monitoring and oversight from NGOs.

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