CUCUTA, Colombia — It’s Friday night in this bustling frontier town near the Venezuelan border, and Colombian men are loosening their collars—and their belts—at the “Colegas” brothel.
Inside this darkened den, scantily-clad women in fishnet and tight tops slink amid the frenzied strobe lights to strike up conversations in rapid-fire Spanish that quickly betrays their foreign accent.
“Most of the ones working here are Venezuelans,” a waiter tells us after we sat down at a small table and ordered a couple of beers.
Cucuta has long been a busy border town, thriving on a black market of smuggled goods from Venezuela. But not everything for sale is merchandise. These days, prostitution—which is not illegal in Colombia— is big business along the border. And many of the sex workers are Venezuelans who pop over for a quick buck—something that's in high demand on their side of the bridge.
Most of the visiting sex workers stay in Colombia for only a few days, pulling in a purse full of Colombian pesos before returning home. Many come back for more.
Their border shuffle is the latest sign of Venezuela’s growing economic crisis, and the desperation it has caused among people trying to get by.
“There’s nothing to do in Venezuela,” said Alondra, a Venezuelan sex worker in her thirties who spends half her time Cucuta and says she has no job in her hometown of Merida. “What we have there is a dictatorship,” she said over a beer.
At “Colegas,” the music shifts from vallenato to reggaeton, as a curvaceous woman in a sleeveless jean dress joins our table. Her working name is "Jennifer," and in her “regular life” she’s an accountant from San Cristobal, a Venezuelan city 30 miles east of Cucuta.
Jennifer, 21, said that sex work in Colombia provides the income she needs to raise her two-year-old son.
“I have my own business in Venezuela, but you can’t make any money there,” she laments. “With a week of work here, I can make more than I can make there in a month.”
Jennifer whips out her cellphone and shows us a picture of her son. “I’m going back to San Cristobal next week to celebrate his birthday,” she says.
Jennifer charges 50,000 Colombian pesos, about $22, for 20 minutes of sex. It’s the going price at Colegas. And it’s good money in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage is currently worth $21, and steadily falling as the bolivar sheds its value against the U.S. dollar.
Outside the club, Sofia, an architecture student from Merida, Venezuela, takes a break from her clients. She says she can make around $400 — twenty times Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage — in a single weekend in Cucuta.
With blonde hair, full lips, and dark, penetrating eyes, Sofia could easily be confused for one of the aspiring models who strikes a similar pose in one of Bogota's many elite nightclubs. But Sofia has no intention of living in Colombia — it's just her workplace, not a home.
“I’ve already bought some land in Merida, where I can build a house,” Sofia says as she smokes a cigarette. “If I make money here and spend it in Venezuela, I’m better off, by far.”
Colombian cops are cracking down
Not everyone in Colombia is happy with the arrangement. The local government is trying to crack down on sex workers as part of its efforts to clean up the sweltering city of 500,000.
While we were watching the action in "Colegas," on Friday night police raided three nearby brothels, arresting 13 Venezuelan women who were working without proper paperwork or health certificates. The sex workers were handed over to immigration authorities who will determine their deportation.
Deportation isn't that big of a deal though. It's easy to get back in across the international bridge that connects Venezuela to Cucuta. Colombian authorities only check for documents when travelers head further into the country, or arrive at one of the international airports.
Officials in Cucuta however, defended plans to capture undocumented workers. “We want to stop sexually transmitted diseases…and what we are seeing is that these women are working without the health certifications that Colombian workers carry,” Oscar Gerardino, Cucuta’s chief public security officer, told Fusion.
Prostitution is tolerated in most parts of Colombia. But Cucuta’s health authorities do not issue health certificates to sex workers who don’t have proper documentation to work in the country.
“What’s going on worries us,” said Zaraí, a Venezuelan prostitute in her twenties, who works in Cucuta on weekends. “We have to be much more careful around here now.”
Cucuta’s crackdown on undocumented workers has already targeted Venezuelan street vendors and buskers.
Dozens of Venezuelan women also cross the border each day to work in beauty salons, where they can earn $15 a day on average, or almost a monthly Venezuelan minimum wage.
But it's the higher paid sex workers who are now feeling the heat.
At the Venus brothel, 20-year-old Pamela, a Venezuelan sex worker in a revealing white dress and black heels, jumps up from our table and runs into a back room as word spreads that police were arriving to inspect papers. Moments later she reemerges in a loose-fitting blouse and sandals, and gives us a goodbye kiss before departing.
“She’s got no papers, so she has to leave for the night,” explains her high school friend Candy. “I have double nationality, so I don't have any problems.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.