Migrants trapped in web of sex slavery

EFE Reporters

8 minute read

The smuggling of migrants through Central America is having a sinister spin-off in the form of sexual slavery and forced labour.

PANAMA CITY: The smuggling of migrants through Central America is fuelling another crime - human trafficking for forced labour or sexual slavery.

Amado Philip de Andres of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Central America and the Caribbean says links are emerging between migrant smuggling and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Over half the victims are girls from the region aged between 14 and 17. The criminals deceive their families, "promise them everything" and exploit the girls, in a business that generates at least $US400 million (360 million euro) annually in Central America and the Caribbean, he says.

In 2015, half the women forced into prostitution in Panama were Venezuelan and Colombian, according to the National Committee against Trafficking of Persons (CNTP).

"Panama is considered a preferred destination by the criminal organisations," says Deputy Prosecutor Ricardo Muñoz, adding the traffickers are mostly from South America.

"Many come and go, they come as tourists. But in six months (with a tourist visa) a victim can be exploited and the investment recovered," he tells EFE.

Investigations carried out by his office have found that many of the victims initially exploited in Panama end up in Europe.

An agreement signed by the CNTP, the UNODC and Panama's carrier Copa Airlines uses the UN Blue Heart Campaign to raise awareness about trafficking - some of Copa's aircraft have the symbol of the campaign and information about it in in-flight magazines.

"Prevention is the gateway to begin tackling (the problem). I am talking about involving private enterprises," says De Andres, who says that 90 per cent of trafficking victims arrive in Panama by plane on scheduled flights.

The UNODC is holding talks with KLM, Air France and Turkish Airways to join the campaign as "they penetrate into our hub of the Americas" .

Hilton Hotels in Panama are contributing to the effort with personnel trained by the UNODC to identify the victims and raise an alarm, and Aircop, a police force backed by the UN and Interpol, is operating in airports such as Panama's Tocumen International Airport and Santo Domingo's Las Americas International Airport.

The UN office is now working in Panama to set up a "hostel model" through the continent for the victims, with the idea of opening them at strategic points and also on the borders with Colombia and Costa Rica.

De Andres highlights the need for "very close cooperation" between countries affected by trafficking.

"There may be four victims from the Dominican Republic and the trafficker may be a Panamanian woman in Panama. They are usually cases involving two or three jurisdictions," he says.

From Santo Domingo's Las Americas airport, "victims depart for Europe and Central America," says De Andres.

There is no data on how many Dominican women are victims of trafficking. According to a 2013 report by the Dominican NGO 'Tu Mujer', between 30,000 and 70,000 women from that country are engaged in sex work.

"Patricia" became a prostitute at the age of 15 after having her first child and being abandoned by the father.

She was told there was a "good way of obtaining money" if she travelled to Haiti, and once she was there the traffickers took away her passport and forced her to pay off the debt she had incurred, along with that of another woman who had accompanied her but was able to escape.

"As we arrived together, they claimed her entire debt from me and, so that I would not escape, they did not let me step out," Patricia says.

"I paid all the money and after that they let me leave. There are places where you get tired of paying but it never ends, but thank God I could get away after six months."

According to the director of the Special Prosecutor against Illicit Trafficking of Migrants and Human Trafficking, Jonathan Baro, there are Dominican sex trafficking victims in Panama, Haiti, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, Argentina, Curacao, Saint Martin, Trinidad and Tobago and even Equatorial Guinea.

While many years ago, most of them believed they were going to work in hair salons or take care of children or the elderly, they now know they will be prostituted, Santo Rosario, the head of Dominican Republic's Center for Integrated Training and Research, tells EFE.

"They know what they are getting into but do not know what awaits them," he says.

Human trafficking networks are made up of people from the same community as the girls, which is why most of them don't file a complaint.

A former victim, the now congresswoman Jacqueline Montero, who engaged in prostitution for 12 years and is now promoting a bill to defend the rights of these women, says that in many cases it's the families who push the girls "to help pull them out of poverty".

In America, most detected trafficking cases are for the purpose of prostitution.In 2014, it involved 55 per cent of the victims in Central America and the Caribbean (mostly girls) and 57 per cent in South America and North America, according to the UNODC.

Labour slavery involved 15 per cent of the victims in Central America/Caribbean, 29 per cent in South America and 39 per cent in North America.

Anna Rodriguez, the founder of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking (FCAHT), believes the statistics on trafficking for sex exploitation in the United States are "inflated" and that the victims of forced labour are being ignored.

"People do not understand that human trafficking is not only sex trafficking. Labour trafficking and domestic service trafficking are being ignored," she tells EFE.

Born in Puerto Rico, Anna was working for the police when, 18 years ago, she came across the first human trafficking case investigated by the FBI.

The victim was a Guatemalan indigenous woman, Maria Chuz, forcibly taken to the US at the age of 15, enslaved in a tomato plantation and subjected to sexual abuse by her employer, who threatened to use witchcraft on her parents if she escaped.

Chuz was the first person to receive the T visa created expressly for these victims. According to Rodriguez, the awareness this case raised began to wane in 2009 when sex trafficking came to the fore, an "easier" crime for the justice system to combat.

There are no figures of labour trafficking or of domestic slavery because authorities are not looking for these cases, she says.

Eighty per cent of the victims attended to by the FCAHT in the last 13 years were Asian men in forced labour.

"Nowadays, over 70 per cent (of trafficking victims) are entering the US legally through airports ... from Europe and Asia, more than from Latin America," Rodriguez says.

"When they arrive, they do not pay them, they take away their passports, they do not give them food and they tell them there are no vacancies (in the posts they were promised) and they put them to work at McDonald's or Walmart.

"After six months, they abandon them."

Other trafficking victims end up in begging rings, as well as those involving adoption, forced marriages and organ trafficking. However, authorities say they have no knowledge of such crimes.

"We cannot say that we have knowledge of an illegal extraction of organs, or of mendicancy, or of servile marriage" in Panama, says prosecutor Jonathan Baro.

The Office of the General Prosecutor of Mexico declined to respond to questions about organ trafficking. However, Alejandro Solalinde, a Mexican priest and activist for immigrants' rights, says there is evidence of such crimes.

He mentions the case of 15 undocumented Brazilian migrants who entered Mexico in 2007 through the Pacific coast and travelled across the country as far as Veracruz where they went to a bar where some girls approached them and put something in their drink.

When they woke up, they were in some kind of operating room and had lost some of their organs. "I don't know if it was a test-run, but they did not die. This was the first I heard" of organ trafficking, he says.

The head of the State Council for Migrant Care, Carlos Cea, tells EFE investigations carried out jointly with the US in Baja California, the Mexican state bordering California, did not lead to any proof of organ trafficking.

"We do not have any documented evidence of this, that is, we don't have organ trafficking, early deaths nor kidnappings related to this matter," he says.