BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – It was nearly 8 p.m. when 17-year-old Peruvian Evelyn Melissa Espinosa López left home on Sept. 30, 2010.
She said goodbye to her younger brother, saying she was heading to the bar owned by her family in west Buenos Aires.
López was never seen again.
One of the girl’s classmates provided her parents the only clue to her possible whereabouts: the phone number of a man she’d befriended.
“We called the guy, but he vanished,” said Evelyn’s mother, Francisca López Malvaceda, 51. “We know he’s a 23-year-old Peruvian who is suspected of having sexually exploited girls. He even got one of them pregnant.”
López most likely was recruited by an Argentine prostitution ring, according to her family.
Just like López, many young women enter the sexual exploitation circuit lured by enticing job offers. They agree to move to another province or abroad in the hope of improving living conditions for themselves and their families.
But only afterward they figure out they have been lied to and will be forced into a life of prostitution.
“Argentina is a place of frequent capture and transport, as well as a destination for sexually exploited women,” says Marcelo Colombo, the prosecutor in charge of the Argentine Public Ministry’s Anti-Kidnapping, Extortion and Trafficking in Persons Unit (UFASE).
The exploitation is mostly concentrated in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and other urban centers, as well as in southern and coastal cities like Mar del Plata and Bahía Blanca, but it’s also prevalent in the northern and northeast provinces, such as Chaco and Misiones.
Since 2008, UFASE has intervened in 100 cases of trafficking in persons for sexual purposes. Thirteen have resulted in convictions.
Among the ongoing prosecution cases, about 50% of the victims are Argentine, 40% are Paraguayan and 10% are Dominican. Victims from Brazil, Uruguay and Chile comprise much smaller numbers.
There are no official statistics on trafficking of women for sexual exploitation in Argentina. Criminals constantly shift their operations, and fear of retaliation causes many victims and their families not to cooperate with investigations – or the judicial system.
But records of other government agencies and NGOs show this type of crime is on the rise.
From April 2008 to October 2010, the Office for the Monitoring and Rescue of Victims of Human Trafficking rescued 1,064 victims from sexual and labor exploitation, of whom 220 were younger than 18.
Most of the victims of labor exploitation who were rescued came from Bolivia, while those suffering sexual exploitation were mostly Paraguayans and Dominicans, according to the Office for the Monitoring and Rescue of Victims of Human Trafficking, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.
Victims of sexual exploitation in Argentina often are 18 or older, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“In the past five years, IOM has assisted 565 human trafficking victims, of whom 240 were exploited sexually,” says Luciana Lirman, program coordinator of IOM’s Program to Combat Human Exploitation in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay).
Among those sexually exploited, 40% were between 22 and 30 years old, while 35% were between the ages of 18 and 21. Only 15% were over 30 and just 10% were younger than 18, added Lirman. In some cases, victims were older than 45.
The average age of victims has risen since April 2008, when the Law for the Prevention and Punishment of Sexual Exploitation and Victims Assistance was passed, Lirman says. Known simply as the Law of the Trade, the legislation provides harsher penalties for those found guilty of exploiting someone younger than 18.
The law ensured Argentina’s compliance with the United Nations Convention against International Organized Crime, the Palermo Protocol.
Customers requesting younger girls
NGOs providing assistance to victims of trafficking warn victims are getting younger.
“Brothel customers are requesting younger and younger girls,” says the general coordinator of the Asociación Civil La Casa del Encuentro, Fabiana Tuñez.
The NGO reported 700 disappearances in the last 18 months, based upon in-person meetings and contacts via email and telephone with the victims’ family and friends.
“Half of these women are minors,” says Tuñez. “Of these, most are between the ages of 13 and 17, but some are as young as 10 or 11. The other half is between 18 and 25.”
About 70% of the women are Argentine, whereas 9% come from the Dominican Republic and the rest from Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Brazil.
Eighty percent of women who are at least 18 years and have been rescued said they entered the prostitution trade between the ages of 13 and 17, Colombo says, according to the “La niñez prostituida,” released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2001.
“When one walks into a brothel and finds women over 18, one doesn’t see the broader context of their life story. You may not realize that a 23-year-old woman may have entered the circuit at 15,” Colombo says. “We try to get the judges to understand the extremely vulnerable circumstances of these victims.”
Both local and international prostitution rings operate in Argentina today.
Each ring has a network of participants, each with a distinct role.
The first in the chain is the man or woman who spots a potential victim. This role is often played by taxi drivers, street vendors, parking attendants or neighborhood residents.
The second is the transporter or recruiter, who initiates contact with the potential victim.
The third is the pimp, or ostensible “owner” of the women, who manages one or more brothels.
“Among the cases we’ve investigated, we’ve found some very small networks, comprising just two or three people,” Colombo says. “In one brothel in Mar Del Plata housing Paraguayan girls, the same woman who ran the place would travel to Paraguay to bring in new recruits.” But Colombo says there may still be larger networks operating in Argentina.
“Maybe we are not paying enough attention to this,” he says.
Lured by deceptive promises or kidnapping
“Typically, the story begins when the person responsible for spotting victims tells the delivery person that there is a woman who fits the network’s profile at a certain location,” Tuñez says.
The transporter then acts in one of two ways: making a misleading promise or arranging a kidnapping.
Women who are duped generally are attracted by an offer of employment in their country or abroad. The nature of the proposal depends on the victim’s vulnerability: it could be a job as a manicurist, maid, caretaker or cabaret waitress.
“Many recruiters lure victims with a complete package, including ticket, passport and greeters waiting for them upon arrival,” says IOM’s Lirman.
But once they arrive at the destination, they discover the job doesn’t exist.
They are forced into prostitution to pay off their debts, Lirman says.
The process involves physical and psychological violence, including threats against the family members of those who attempt to flee.
Most of the victims have their personal documents, including their identification cards and passports, confiscated by the pimps, so they have complete control over their victims, Lirman says.
In cases of kidnapping, women are cornered on a city street and forced into a car, then drugged and trafficked to brothels in Argentina or abroad, Lirman adds.
When kidnapping is involved, the confrontation often is more violent, making it riskier for the traffickers, according to IOM’s 2008 study “La Trata de Personas en Argentina, Chile y Uruguay.”
But kidnappings are not uncommon, especially in the Argentine provinces of Chaco and Formosa.
Ramona Nicolasa Mercado, known as Pelí, likely was kidnapped.
In April 2005, at age 13, she vanished just 50 meters (150 feet) from her home in La Rioja, capital of the Argentine province of the same name.
Neighbors reported seeing a car with tinted windows near the girl’s house.
“If you ask me, the person who turned her over to the network must have been someone she knew,” Pelí’s uncle Juan Domingo Yacante, says. “Pelí would never approach a stranger’s car.”
“The police reached out to me saying that Pelí had been spotted in a brothel in Córdoba. We went up to get her, but she wasn’t there,” says Yacante, who works for the City Hall at Patquía, 70 kilometers (42 miles) from La Rioja.
In the brothel in Córdoba, Yacante found some women from La Rioja. One of them told him that Pelí had never been there and that the brothel’s owner doesn’t take minors because he’s already spent six years and seven months behind bars.
Pelí’s relatives also have scoured the provinces of La Pampa, San Luis and Mendoza.
“Since she disappeared before the law of 2008 came into effect, the charges were first brought in the La Rioja’s courts of general jurisdiction. But due to the significance of this case, as well as strong support from NGOs, we’ve managed to transfer the case into federal court,” Yacante says. “We are a family of modest means. We had a lawyer early on, but we can’t afford one any longer.”
The cooling off period
Freshly kidnapped women are initially taken to a hideout for 15 or 20 days, Tuñez says. It’s the cooling off period, in which they are drugged and subjected to torture, rape, beatings and threats.
“During these first 20 days, the victim makes some kind of contact with her family, either by phone or text message. The communications are short, strange and closely monitored by the captors,” Tuñez says.
The kidnapper forces the victim to make this contact in order to reassure relatives and prevent them from turning to the police for help. Many families agree to forego putting a photo of the victim in the paper, making spotting the victim much more difficult.
“The goal of the cooling off period is to gain time and keep the case out of the public eye,” Tuñez says. “This step is crucial because in the beginning one has a much better chance of finding and freeing the victim.”
If the kidnapping is publicized, then moving the victim becomes much more difficult for her captors. Thus, it’s during the cooling off period that kidnappers decide whether they’ll release her or let her escape. After a decision is made, the transferring process begins.
“The woman then begins a rotation from brothel to brothel,” Tuñez says. “She’s treated like an object. In general, women don’t stay more than a month and a half in any one brothel.”
Brothels tolerated by society
Argentine law prohibits brothels.
But they continue to operate under other names: coffee house, night club, cabaret and whiskey bar.
“Opening a brothel in La Rioja is as easy as opening a cybercafé in Buenos Aires,” says Yacante, Pelí’s uncle.
But the number of Federal Police brothel sting operations has risen in recent months, Tuñez says.
“In many instances, the raid happens after the brothel owner had already been warned,” Tuñez says. “And many busts occur at the least busy hours for business.”
That’s why the increase in police raids hasn’t translated into more victims being rescued.
“For every woman who’s rescued or escapes, five new ones disappear,” Tuñez says.
Editor’s note: Infosurhoy.com will publish on Tuesday an exclusive interview with Argentine Susana Trimarco, founder of the María de los Ángeles Foundation, an NGO assisting victims of human trafficking and combating the crime. In 2007, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. former secretary of state, presented Trimarco with the International Women of Courage Award.