SANTIAGO, Chile – Chile’s sound economy is being exploited by organized crime to encourage foreigners to travel to the country with the promise of a better job.
But once they arrive, their reality is very different.
Human-trafficking victims are smuggled into the country at border crossings or as tourists before they are subjected to labor exploitation or the sex trade, according to Cynthia Contreras, deputy prefect of the Human Trafficking Brigade (BRITRAP) of Chile’s Investigative Police.
“This is a crime that has been emerging in the country in recent years,” she said. “Chile’s economic stability in the region is the hook criminal gangs who operate transnationally use to mislead foreigners by offering them work in the country.”
From 2011 to October 2013, 152 human-trafficking victims, including those who had been exploited sexually, forced into slavery or were en route to another country, have been rescued, according to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security.
The victims mostly come from Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Law 20.507 was enacted in April 2011 to criminalize human trafficking for sexual and labor purposes, as those found guilty can be sentenced to five to 15 years in prison and fined between US$4,000 and US$8,000.
The law ordered the Ministry of Interior and Public Security to create BRITRAP in October 2012, as the unit is responsible for investigating trafficking in persons and migrant smuggling.
Currently, there are 30 ongoing investigations.
“[Before the creation of BRITRAP, human trafficking] was difficult to prosecute,” said Denisse Araya, the director of the NGO Roots, which assists female human-trafficking victims. “It remained hidden for a long time by the lack of a legal framework that allowed it to be investigated and combated.”
One of the law’s greatest achievements is that it made labor exploitation, which had been considered a civil violation, a crime.
“Now, you pay behind bars,” Araya added.
Thanks to the law, Paola Espinoza and Manuel Espinoza were sentenced to five years in prison for labor exploitation on Aug. 23. They were owners of a contracting company, who in 2012 brought in 64 Bolivians as tourists to work on high-voltage transmission towers in the Maule region, 270 kilometers south of Santiago.
“[The Bolivians] were deceived about the working conditions since wages offered were never paid,” Contreras said. “Moreover, they were kept in cramped conditions with forced labor and working hours that exceeded the legal standard.”
One of the main entry routes into the Andean nation that’s exploited by traffickers is the northern border, which is 2,059 kilometers from Santiago and home to an endless number of illegal border crossings.
“There are groups of human smugglers who charge between US$200 and US$300 to send people across the desert into national territory,” Contreras said.
In May, BRITAP rescued 12 Indian nationals who worked in forced conditions for two years in a Santiago restaurant.
They were isolated, had their passports taken, worked more than 12 hours a day, and the monthly salary of US$500 agreed before they arrived in Chile was never paid, according to a police report.
The victims entered the country through the Arturo Merino Benítez Airport in Santiago. The case against Rakesh Arora, owner of the La Joya de La India restaurant, also an Indian national, and his Chilean manager, René Montés, are expected to be tried in early 2014.
The Crime Victims Assistance Program of the Undersecretary of Crime Prevention of the Ministry of Interior launched a hotline – 600-818-1000 – to assist victims of human trafficking. The ministry also inaugurated the first care center in the metropolitan region on Aug. 21.
“People who have suffered sexual exploitation are very vulnerable and often feel guilty, so comprehensive support is vital,” said Idenilso Bartolotto, a priest and director of the Chilean Catholic Institute of Migration, a shelter for female victims.
Currently, 10 victims are being treated by psychologists, social workers and lawyers at the center in Santiago. There are 48 other centers for victims nationwide.
“[In the center, we aim to] achieve a restitution of rights and the reconstruction of a victim’s life,” said Rocío Miranda, a center psychologist.
By the end of 2013, the Ministry of Interior and Public Security will present the National Plan of Action against Human Trafficking, focused on prevention and awareness, control and prosecution of the crime, as well as protection and treatment for victims.
“Important steps have been taken in recent years but there is still a need for a response to the real context of this crime,” Bartolotto said. “The results need to be achieved with more depth and greater efficiency.”