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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The scale of sex trafficking around illegal gold mines in parts of Latin America is "staggering," and thousands of people working there are prey to labor exploitation by organized crime groups, a think-tank said on Wednesday.
"When these mines are directly controlled by criminal groups, or in areas controlled by organized crime, there is an elevated risk of human trafficking," the report by the Geneva-based organization said.
"In Colombia and Peru particularly, and to a lesser extent in the other countries studied, our research uncovered numerous instances of labor trafficking and exploitation, sex trafficking and child labor."
The report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime examined the links between illegal gold mining, organized crime and human trafficking in nine countries - Peru and Colombia, the region's largest producers of illegal gold, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Livia Wagner, who wrote the report, said she had seen girls as young as 12 working in the brothels and bars around illegal gold mines in Madre de Dios, a vast province in Peru's Amazon jungle.
"Sexual exploitation is very much prevalent in illegal mining areas, especially in Peru and Bolivia, and my impression is that the girls are getting younger and younger. The scale is staggering," Wagner, a private sector advisor at the Global Initiative, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
High gold prices from 2000 to 2010 created a gold rush and led organized crime groups to move into the multi-billion dollar illegal mining industry, especially in Peru and Colombia, the report said.
It quoted Colombian police authorities as saying record gold prices and a government crackdown on cocaine trafficking had pushed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group and criminal gangs to seek new revenue sources and expand into illegal mining in the past five years.
Profits from illegal mining are at least three times as high as those from drug trafficking, the Colombian government says.
Though gold prices have fallen in recent years, organized crime groups are still driving the expansion of illegal gold mining, the report said.
Global Initiative estimates up to 80 percent of the gold mined in Colombia is illegal, while government officials say about half of all mining operations in Colombia are illegal.
In Peru's Madre de Dios province, in one mining area alone, known as Delta 1, around 2,000 sex workers were employed in 100 brothels, 60 percent of them children, according to 2010 estimates by Huarayo Association, a local campaign group.
"Whenever there are large migrations of men to an area for employment, there is a high demand for sexual services, which often generates sex trafficking," the report said.
Most women and girls come from poor backgrounds with little education and are easy prey for recruiters who offer them non-existent jobs as cooks and waitresses in mining camps.
"The wives of miners ... (in Madre de Dios) are themselves the principal recruitment agents of new girls for the bars and brothels," the report said.
Men, women and children are also found in forced labor, essentially slavery, in and around mines in Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Colombia, according to the U.S. State Department's 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
A key reason why human trafficking flourishes in the illegal mining sector is because mines are often located in jungle areas that are hard to reach and there are few labor inspectors and police working in remote rural areas.
"There's no police presence there," Wagner said.
Local authorities trying to combat illegal gold mining have largely been helpless because of the power of criminal groups who corrupt officials, the report said.
The governments of Peru and Colombia say clamping down on illegal mining is a top priority, and both have created special police units to tackle the problem.
In the past few years, both countries have shut down thousands of mines operating without a government license and have rescued hundreds of victims of human trafficking during raids on illegal mines.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org