Ivan Duque speaks after winning the Colombian presidential election.
BOGOTA: Colombian President Elect Ivan Duque pledged to step up efforts to fight sex trafficking in the tourist city of Cartagena, following the arrest of 18 people charged with the sexual exploitation of more than 250 women and girls.

Those arrested over the weekend include foreigners, hotel owners, policemen, a navy captain who forced his victims to tattoo his name on their bodies, and a Colombian woman known as “Madame” who authorities say led a sex trafficking ring.

Charges include recruiting and selling girls aged 14 to 17 into the sex trade in Cartagena and abroad, and forcing them to have sex with locals and tourists.

Cartagena, on the country’s Caribbean coast, attracts hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists a year to visit its colonial-era ramparts and squares.

But the three-day sting operation, which ended on Sunday, has also exposed rampant child sex abuse. “We will not allow Cartagena to become a sexual tourism destination,” Duque tweeted on Monday, promising to “attack human trafficking and the exploitation of women in our cities and tourist destinations.”

In separate tweets, Duque, who takes over the presidency on August 7, said those found guilty should receive the maximum prison sentences possible - up to 40 years - to help prevent such “atrocious” crimes from recurring.

It was one of the biggest operations to combat child sex trafficking and forced prostitution in Cartagena, authorities said.

The attorney-general’s office described the victims as “real slaves of the 21st century”.

“Madame” is charged with trafficking girls and young women abroad, in particular to nearby Caribbean islands. - Thomson Reuters Foundation