How Venezuela's crisis is fuelling prostitution and sex trafficking on the Costa del Sol

Joe Wallen
Lucia Palacios trained as a nurse before being forced out of Venezuela and into prostitution

Lucia Palacios, 22, was consistently top of her class at home in Maracay, Venezuela. Her grades were so good she gained a place at one of the country’s then coveted medical schools, training to become a specialist nurse.

But today Ms Palacios - not her real name - is working as a prostitute, selling sexual favours to British and German holidaymakers on the Costa del Sol.

She is one of 208,333 Venezuelans that the Spanish authorities record as having fled the failed central american state for Spain over the last few years.

The true figure is thought to be much higher and many educated women, like Ms Palacios, have been forced into prostitution to make ends meet.

“This is the first time and the last time that I will work in this industry,” said Ms Palacios who works from a small apartment in Benalmadena near Marbella.      

She says most of her clients are British tourists, adding that many are “abusive due to all the alcohol”. She has at least escaped the area's brothels.

“I’ve worked in places here that make you see clients for 24 hours and you aren’t allowed to sleep,” she said.

Ms Palacios says she was forced to leave Venezuela after the country’s economy went into meltdown with annual inflation hitting 80,000 per cent at the end of last year.

She feels trapped in Spain, as her family in Venezuela are reliant upon the several hundred Euros she sends them every month to buy food and essential medical supplies.    

“I am the head of the family now,” she says.

Venezuela's humanitarian crisis has now taken centre stage in global politics, with the US, UK and the European Parliament recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president, while Russia and China line up behind Nicolas Maduro. 

Corruption and mismanagement under former president Hugo Chávez, and now Mr Maduro, have created a perfect storm.

More than 30 per cent of the population is out of work and, for those in work, the monthly minimum wage has been so eroded by inflation that it is only enough to buy single cup of coffee.

Supermarket shelves lie empty and water and electricity are intermittent at best.

Hospitals have run out of basic medicines, leading to a health crisis so profound that experts compare it to the war-shattered states of Syria and Yemen.

Law and order has also broken down and the capital, Caracas, now has the highest murder rate of any capital city in the world.

Spain counted Venezuela as a colony until 1821 and has the most relaxed entry requirements for Venezuelans in Europe.

Migrants are entitled to a three-month tourist visa on arrival and can apply for permanent citizenship after three years living in the country. 

But for women like Ms Palacios, migration to Spain is fraught and dangerous.

For those unable to buy their own plane tickets, human traffickers are funding the travel costs and then forcing women to work in the sex industry on arrival to pay back their debts.

Between 2014 and 2017, the Spanish Interior Ministry recorded a 1,200 per cent increase in victims of forced sexual abuse from Venezuela.

One Venezuelan immigrant who gave her name only as Salome, 30, told The Daily Telegraph last week that she was forced into prostitution on arrival in Spain together with four others, by a fixer who threatened to harm her and her family in Venezuela if she refused.

“There was no food on the shelves [at home], no jobs to earn money to feed my daughter,” she said. “I had to leave my daughter in the care of my mother and come here to work.”

Salome and her friends were made to service British and other European clients at a brothel in Madrid until they were freed in a police raid.

A spokesman for Genera, a charity helping trafficked women in Spain, said there has been a spike in cases involving Venezuelan woman in the last two years. The police confirm the same trend.

Volvi Gutierrez, 29, works as an prostitute in the popular holiday resort of Palma, Mallorca, sending €1000 a month back to her family in Venezuela.

Like the others, she says her clients are predominantly British and German.  When she arrived in 2012 she says she was only was only aware of only two other Venezuelan women working in prostitution on the island.

Now, she says she knows over 30, all working to support families at home.

“Between having to send money to our relatives and paying to stay here to do this, what other job can we do?” she asks.

On the Poligono Guadalhorce industrial estate in Malaga, women from across Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa perch on road-side stools gesticulating to drivers who occasionally stop to pay €20 for half an hour with one of the women.  

Women are forced to work on this industrial estate

It’s a distressing scene by any measure. Many of the women, already traumatised from violence and poverty at home, have become dependent on drugs and alcohol.

And the streets they live and work in are littered with hypodermic needles, condoms and other detritus. Yet the recent news from home has raised the women's spirits and brought a degree of hope.

“Maybe, finally, things will change at home,” says an young Venezuelan woman in a navy hoodie.   

Ms Gutierrez also hopes Mr Guaidó succeeds, paving the way for her and her friends to return home to Venezuela. “I would like to participate in the reconstruction of my country”, she says, “without being ashamed of what I have had to do.”