Aerial view of Cartagena, Colombia ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming visit, Aug. 25, 2017.
Aerial view of Cartagena, Colombia ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming visit, Aug. 25, 2017.

BOGOTA - Authorities in Colombia have pledged to work with businesses,  tourist agencies and advocacy groups in a bid to combat the sexual exploitation of children in the tourist hotspot of Cartagena.

At an anti-human trafficking event in the port city on Monday, the country's inspector general, Fernando Carrillo, said organized crime gangs were responsible for pimping and selling children into the sex trade, and to tourists in particular.

"It is no secret to anyone that cruise ship tourists, older men, they are offered children for the purpose of sexual exploitation," said Carrillo, who heads a judicial body that holds public servants to account.

"We must welcome tourists who come honestly to enjoy this city but we must repudiate the sexual predators of our children and adolescents," he said, describing them as "pirates of the 21st century."

Famous for its colonial walled ramparts, Cartagena is the country's top tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors each year.

But the 16th century city on the Caribbean coast is also notorious as a child sex tourism hotspot, and Carrillo said the authorities must do more to combat "a tsunami of impunity."

"There are too many laws and too few results," he said.

The parties agreed to collect reliable data about the issue, better coordinate efforts among the authorities, go after the profits made by criminal networks, and encourage citizens toreport the crime.

Mario Gonzalez, a state prosecutor focused on violence against children, said child sex exploitation was "an institutional shame."

"We're going to develop the largest operation in the history of Cartagena to dismantle those criminal (organizations) that are trampling over children and adolescents," Gonzalez said.

Adult prostitution is legal in Colombia, but paying to have sex with a child is a crime.

It is also illegal to force, deceive or coerce any adult or child into sexual exploitation - also known as human trafficking - and the crime carries a prison sentence of up to 37 years.

There are no government figures to show how many children in Cartagena are victims of sexual exploitation by tourists.

However, experts at the event said girls from the city's poor Afro-Colombian community, many of whom live in slums, do not go to school and come from abusive homes, are most at riskof being sexually exploited.