MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Poverty and unemployment are the common denominators that have turned Latin America into a region vulnerable to organized crime networks that profit from human trafficking.
It is the second-largest offense being carried out by organized crime after narco-trafficking, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
However, several Latin American countries are taking steps to combat human trafficking.
According to United States’ Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons 2012 report, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic have been taken off the watch list and are among 93 nations that do not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but are making significant efforts to be compliant.
Colombia and Nicaragua were among the 33 countries that fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking, with the latter ranking as the Central American country that has made the most progress about prevention, detection, prosecution and rescue of victims.
In 2011, 178 victims, ranging in age from 6 to 44, were rescued by the National Police of Nicaragua.
Out of a total of 26 court cases, 24 involved sexual exploitation, one involved illegal adoption and another labor exploitation. Sixteen of the cases resulted in sentences between 12 and 25 years in prison.
“The 2011 figures reflect the efforts being made by Nicaragua,” said Eloy Izaba, executive secretary of the National Coalition against Human Trafficking. “Human trafficking is a difficult crime to prosecute, with a series of elements that the country’s legislation, which is modernizing and broadening in scope, is taking into account to help judges issue sentences.”
Nicaragua is the region’s country with the most clearly articulated and coordinated coalition, with 159 organizations representing government agencies and entities, the armed forces and civil society, as well as 17 departmental workgroups operating at the national level.
The report also highlights the creation of a shelter for adult victims of human trafficking, a rare occurrence in Central America.
“This is fair recognition for the hard work carried out by the entire justice system in Nicaragua as part of governmental policies, together with civil society, the NGOs and the support of international agencies to fight, prosecute and punish human traffickers,” said Javier Morazán, head of the Public Ministry’s Organized Crime and Human Trafficking Unit.
In addition, organizations – such as Save The Children – have invested about US$4 million to strengthen and enhance the coordination and cooperation of state institutions in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador the past four years. Training and educational materials about human trafficking have been provided to 489 journalists and more than 200,000 people from civil society.
Costa Rica shields itself
On March 29, the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly’s Special Standing Committee on Security unanimously approved the proposed Law against Human Trafficking and Related Activities, which will be discussed by the legislature.
The law mandates treatment and confidentiality for victims, as well as the creation of an Anti-Trafficking Institute.
“This initiative aims to strengthen the laws relating to public safety and organized crime to fully combat human trafficking and its related activities,” said María Julia Fonseca, a committee representative. “This encourages national and international cooperation, which will allow for the establishment of the rules needed in this area.”
Currently, human trafficking is punishable with up to 16 years in prison. However, the crimes are not handled by a special unit and are mixed with cases involving those who are paid to smuggle people across borders, according to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency.
Despite the shortcomings of the system, Costa Rica’s efforts were recognized by the U.S. Department of State, which this year took the country off of its human trafficking watch list.
“There is a lot to do and this motivates us to keep working, strengthen our plans and actions and seek out resources and partnerships. We also want to launch new initiatives, such as the proposed law against human trafficking,” said Marcela Chacón, coordinator of the National Commission against Human Trafficking and deputy minister of the Interior and Police.
Last year, 4,100 officials were trained in the prevention of this crime, including Judiciary Investigation Organization (OIJ) officials, who launched the massive campaign “Not everything is as it seems,” which provides advice to the public on how to react to potential offers from human trafficking organizations, according to the Directorate General for Migration and Immigration (DGME).
Chacón said a public forum is scheduled for the end of July to shed more light on human trafficking.
“We will seek to include a broad range of representatives from institutional, legal, academic, political and civic organizations,” she added. “They’ll share their ideas and experiences that can help improve the state’s efforts to control and eradicate human trafficking, which targets men and women, young and old.”
Venezuela continues to serve as a transit country for human trafficking networks despite the efforts made by the government and organized communities.
Its geographic location and remote borders, which are difficult to access, have complicated efforts in its fight against human trafficking.
Laws approved in January by the Venezuelan National Assembly, such as the 2007 Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free from Violence and the Organic Law against Organized Crime and Terrorist Financing, allow courts to sentence convicted human traffickers up to 30 years in prison.
Last year, authorities reported the sentencing of two human traffickers and the identification and assistance of 38 victims of human trafficking.
The government has established a strategic plan for broad national coverage to ensure victims of human trafficking receive protection and comprehensive assistance through the cooperation of governmental security institutions, including the National Guard, police and prosecutors, according to María José Briceño, state coordinator of the Crime Prevention Division of Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice and the Interior.
“This crime can be prevented by providing training to the officials and entities that make up this network,” she said.
But beyond the country’s legal framework and geography, educating the population is a vital part of eradicating human trafficking in Venezuela, according to María Velázquez, who analyzes security and prison issues in Venezuela.
“The population of Venezuela needs to be made aware and educated about this problem,” she said. “Not just young people, but also their parents. They need to be on the lookout for suspicious situations.”
The Venezuelan media are filled with advertisements for models, “good-looking people,” which are traps placed by human traffickers, Velázquez added.
“The government, multilateral agencies and civil society need to come together to raise societal awareness about this problem,” she said. “People need to be aware of their rights and that there are mechanisms of protection against this crime. Nobody should have to suffer.”
Colombia moves forward
That’s how much a woman in municipality of Itagüí in the department of Antioquia sold her daughter – a minor – to 70-year-old man so he could have intercourse with her.
The news, which was released in late March, shocked Colombians.
The 32 year-old woman was charged with numerous sex crimes, including the procuring of a child, and human trafficking, while the man was charged with aggravated sex assault and the commercial sexual exploitation of a minor.
When the two were arrested, additional National Police officers were used to escort the suspects into custody for the fear they’d be hurt – or worse – by the members of the community, who were outraged.
Colombia, however, is making progress against human trafficking.
Last year, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) received 589 reports of child victims of trafficking for sexual purposes.
In addition, the justice system has made specific training available to judges and prosecutors regarding the prosecution of trafficking cases. Eighteen local committees were also organized to provide care to victims, as they’ve treated 240 people rescued the past decade.
Work is also being carried out by the Anti-Trafficking Operations Center (COAT), which since 2007 has coordinated efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking rings.
All of these advances were recognized in the Department of State’s report. However, the document identifies regions such as Antioquia and northern Colombia as epicenters of sexual tourism and human trafficking.
The report also urges Colombia to provide better shelters to victims, improve security provided to migrants, who are often tricked into becoming into sexual servitude and trafficked throughout the world.
Finally, the report calls on the Colombian government to pay more attention to the forced recruiting of minors by terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, considering there were 282 cases of minors who were forced to join the terrorist group in 2011.
Every year, about 60,000 Brazilians are forcibly removed from their country, as they are victims of threats or deceived with promises of job opportunities, according to the Ministry of Justice.
The majority of victims are between the ages of 15 and 25.
To combat trafficking, the Brazilian government is expected to invest R$5.9 million (US$2.83 million) by 2014. The aim is to intensify legal cooperation with countries that share its border, adopting common concepts and definitions for this type of crime.
In the case of Brazil, for example, only trafficking for sexual exploitation is a crime. The government wants to include organ trafficking, servile marriage, adoption and slave labor as criminal acts.
“We need to create some type of [global] standard for data collection in order to provide statistics that can serve as the basis for public policies,” said Paulo Abrão, the national secretary of Justice, during the Brazil-European Union International Seminar on Combating Human Trafficking from May 31-June 1 in Brasília.
In 2011, the Department of Asset Recovery and International Legal Cooperation of the National Secretariat of Justice carried out 33 initiatives involving cooperation and the exchange of human-trafficking information with other countries, including Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.
Brazil also has units to counter human trafficking at the country’s main points of entry. In 2013, another eight advance units will be introduced to offer humanitarian assistance to migrants in border cities, followed by another two in 2014.
The local agents will be trained to identify and provide assistance to victims, as well as combat criminal activity.
Argentina makes progress
Argentina is a country of origin, transport and destination for the sexual exploitation of women.
The victims are mainly taken from the country’s northern and northeastern provinces, such as Chaco and Misiones. Exploitation most frequently occurs in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and other major cities, in the southern region and in coastal cities, such as Mar del Plata.
There are no comprehensive statistics on the trafficking of women in the sex trade in Argentina, but experts said the country is among those that have made the most progress toward combating human trafficking in the region.
The number of court cases, for example, rose from 78 in 2010 to 195 in 2011, with 39 convictions, according to the Public Ministry’s Ransom Kidnapping and Human Trafficking Assistance Unit (UFASE).
The number of investigations nearly doubled, from about 100 cases in 2010 to 196 in 2011.
The Ministry of Public Security was a major factor behind the increase because it started forward telephone reports to the UFASE in 2011.
Of the processes that involved UFASE intervention, 68% of those sentenced were men. Among the victims, 41% were Paraguayan, 29% Argentine and 16% Bolivian, as well lesser proportions of Brazilians and Dominicans. Of those exploited, 26% were minors. Of those convicted, 71% were Argentine, 21% Paraguayan and 3% Bolivian.
In 2011, the Argentine Senate approved a bill that alters Law no. 23,364, also known as the “Human Trafficking Law,” which was passed in 2008 and allowed the country to take part in the Palermo Protocols.
The alteration eliminated the concept of “consent” in sexual exploitation cases involving adults older than 18, which had favored impunity for offenders. The proposal also increases the penalties against criminals and the protection offered to victims, but it still needs to be evaluated by the House of Representatives.
The Senate also approved the creation of a national registry of genetic data associated with sex crimes. The registry will be overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, which, since 2011, has also coordinated the Office for Monitoring the Publication of Sex Trade Advertisements.
The agency is responsible for ensuring compliance with decree PEN 936/2001, which prohibits the publication of sex trade advertisements in any medium.
Correspondents Mario Garita in Costa Rica, César Morales in Venezuela, Carlos Barahona in Colombia, Cristine Pires in Brazil and Eduardo Szklarz in Argentina contributed to this report.