The publication 20 Minutos took on other newspapers in Spain, where prostitution is legal, in a series that began Wednesday and exposes the big business behind the ads. One ad highlighted in the investigation shows the silhouette of a woman and the words "Sex Slave. Literally."
At stake is the millions made by the often-graphic newspaper classifieds that are generally placed not by individual prostitutes but by the gangs of men controlling them. The ads, in turn, help fuel the alarming rise in sex trafficking in Spain.
"As long as these ads run, they are contributing to the idea that this activity is normal," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in a recent address to the nation.
"There is so much money behind these ads, and the money comes from a horrible business," Rebeca Queimalinos, the reporter for the 20 Minutos investigation, told AOL News today. "The people behind the ads aren't the women; it's the Mafia who deals in the exploitation of these women."
Zapatero, who was elected in 2007 and is a vocal supporter of women's rights, said his administration plans to study how it can eliminate the ads from newspapers. Spain is the only European country where mainstream, dignified newspapers carry graphic sex advertisements.
The news about Zapatero's announcement ran in publications like the left-leaning El País, which supports the Zapatero administration but profits enormously from such ads.
The Association of Spanish Newspaper Editors responded to Zapatero's proposal by saying the plan was unconstitutional and that it would make more sense to outlaw prostitution. "Then the newspapers wouldn't carry the ads," the group said in a statement.
Pedro J. Ramirez, editor of El Mundo, said it was "hypocritical" to accuse newspaper editors of being in cahoots with the Mafia. "We are not the police," Ramirez said. "Prostitution is an allowed activity in Spain."
Yolanda Besteiro, the head of the Madrid-based Federation for Progressive Women, told AOL News today that newspapers that publish the prostitution ads are contributing to the exploitation of women. "Very simply, they are accomplices to the Mafia," Besteiro said. "There are no excuses for this."
Trafficking in humans is a $3 billion a year business in Europe, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The Associated Press reported.
Most prostitutes in Spain, as in other central European countries, are persuaded to leave lives of hardship in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe with fake promises of work.
Once they arrive, pimps often confiscate their passports and force them to work for very little money. Young women sitting in white plastic chairs at the side of highways are a common sight in Spain. They are almost all foreign-born prostitutes.
Individual ads for prostitutes in Spain are often quite explicit and frequently fill an entire page. The advertisements bring in an estimated $50 million in revenue a year.
Prostitution in Spain is an $18 billion per year business with about 200,000, mostly foreign-born prostitutes, The Guardian reported.
Spanish ads for prostitution are usually paid for by groups of sex traffickers from Romania, Nigeria and countries in South America, not individual women, the Guardian reported. The system of pimps exploiting the women leaves them "in a state of near slavery," the Guardian said.