Human trafficking in Latin America has become a serious problem that can no longer be ignored. According to a 2012 estimate by the International Labour Organization (ILO), Latin America and the Caribbean account for the third largest number of forced laborers, at 1,800,000 victims. This number does not include trafficking for the removal of organs or for forced marriage/adoption.
Louise Shelley, a leading U.S. expert on transnational crime and terrorism, provides an explanation for this high number in her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective. According to Shelley, the region’s sordid history of colonialism and slavery “has created a permanent underclass in many countries that is ripe for exploitation by traffickers.” Furthermore, the region’s unstable cycles of military rule, democracy and populism has increased the vulnerability of its poor citizens.
Latin America has a notorious reputation for its high rates of inequality. While human trafficking is a very complicated international and intersectional phenomenon, one of the biggest factors behind trafficking is a lack of economic opportunities. In a region where around 167 million people live in poverty—66 million in extreme poverty—there is plenty of room for its citizens to be exploited.
Almost as disheartening as Latin America’s human trafficking problem is the lack of empirical research to help prevent it. Why is there such a paucity of regional research on the topic, when seven of the top-10 countries of origin for documented human trafficking cases in the U.S are from Latin America and the Caribbean?
On June 4, the Mexican Army raided a house in the border town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas and rescued 165 people being held against their will by a 20-year-old identified as Juan Cortez Arrez. Testimonies from some of the victims show that they had been kidnapped for nearly three weeks.
News of their rescue has drawn praise for Mexico’s armed forces, which responded to an anonymous call and implemented an operation that resulted in zero casualties and one arrest. However, this event should also serve to bring attention to a problem which has become graver in recent years: trafficking in persons (TIP).
The group rescued comprised 77 Salvadorans, 50 Guatemalans, 23 Hondurans, one Indian, and 14 Mexicans, all of whom had contacted a supposed “pollero” (a person who assists unauthorized immigrants in crossing the border) in the hopes of reaching the United States. The pollero was really a member of a criminal gang who had other plans for the group.
After the rescue, the Mexican government’s spokesperson for national security, Eduardo Sánchez Hernández, stated that many aspiring migrants end up “being delivered to the hands of criminal organizations,” rather than taken safely across the border. These criminal groups then use their captives for sexual trafficking and prostitution, forced labor, as drug mules, and—as the narcofosas (clandestine mass graves) tragically show—execute kidnapping victims in initiation rituals of new gang members. In 2011, 236 bodies were discovered in narcofosas in the border town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Granted, there is no proof that all of the victims were intended migrants and some might have been killed in other gang-related activities, including inter-cartel wars, but the problem remains.
Human trafficking is not new to Mexico, but it was not until 2004 that the first anti-trafficking in persons law was passed, making this activity a crime punishable by up to 18 years of incarceration. In 2008, the Attorney General’s office created the Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia Contra Las Mujeres y Trata de Personas (FEVIMTRA), a special prosecutor’s team designated to work on crimes against women and human trafficking and whose members have received training from international outfits specializing in these matters. And last year, then-President Felipe Calderón passed a new law making femicide a crime punishable by up to 60 years in jail. Some radio ad campaigns have been launched at a national level to focus on prevention.
The U.S. Department of State yesterday released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which evaluates states’ actions to combat human trafficking around the world. The 2011 report shows an increase over 2010 in the number of countries that fail to take adequate steps to prevent human trafficking. In Latin America, Venezuela joined Cuba on a list of Tier 3 violators—a status given to countries that do not make sufficient efforts to address the problem.
Of 13 states cited for insufficient action in last year’s report, the Dominican Republic is the only country to be reclassified due to progress. In April, 2011 Dominican President Leonel Fernandez met with leaders of the U.S. armed services’ Southern Command to develop a plan for an Antinarcotics War Coordination Center—to be headquartered in the Dominican Republic—which will also combat human trafficking in the Caribbean.
The report also honors ten individuals for their extraordinary efforts in the fight against human trafficking. Two TIP Report “Heroes” hailed from Latin America: Leonel Dubon, founder of El Refugio de la Niñez (Children’s Refuge House), a Guatemalan NGO that provides shelter to underage sex-trafficking victims and human trafficking specialist Dilcya Garcia, a former deputy prosecutor in Mexico City’s Attorney General Office.
The TIP Report was first published in 2001 following the passage in the United States of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Its classification system also includes Tier 2 countries, which do not currently meet TVPA standards but are making significant progress, and Tier 1 countries—like the U.S.—that are fully compliant with anti-human trafficking standards. Of the 184 countries evaluated in 2010, 23 were given the lowest, Tier 3, designation.