Human trafficking remains one of world’s most profitable criminal industries, but recent initiatives show governments and activists across the Americas are developing new and innovative strategies to tackle the illicit trade.
Latin America and the Caribbean are filled with source, transit and destination countries for trafficked people. Organized crime groups often traffic both adults and children for forced labor or, more commonly, for sexual exploitation.
While authorities across the region have struggled to effectively tackle human trafficking, recent approaches to combating the crime offer some hope for the future. On this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, InSight Crime examines five forward-looking ways to fight this criminal activity.
1. Raise Public Awareness
In the past year, some Latin American countries have launched public awareness campaigns that specifically target populations most likely to fall victim to human trafficking.
Peru has initiated several such campaigns over the last year, including a radio program called So They Don’t Find You. Broadcast multiple times a week in Spanish as well as two officially recognized indigenous languages, the program informs potential victims about traffickers’ methods — which typically involve falsely promising victims well-paid work abroad.
“Public awareness campaigns are an important part of any strategy to combat human trafficking,” said Cristina Rosero, Senior Attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, an organization that has focused extensively on the trafficking of women in Latin America.
However, Rosero told InSight Crime that governments must incorporate a “wider perspective” into prevention campaigns by focusing not just on raising awareness about how to identify false job offers, but also on how to prevent poverty and discrimination.
2. Empower Strategic Industries
Across the Americas, governments and advocacy groups alike have begun to realize the potential of empowering strategic industries to help identify and report human trafficking.
In the United States, the organization Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) trains commercial truck drivers to identify and report human trafficking to the national human trafficking hotline.
The country’s millions of truck drivers are “the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways,” TAT’s cofounder, Kylla Lanier, told InSight Crime. “They see things that other people don’t see, and they might be at some of the locations that [traffickers] frequent.”
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The model has proven so effective that the organization recently partnered with the Mexican organization Consejo Ciudadano to replicate it in Mexico.
In December 2017, TAT and Consejo Ciudadano launched a program called Guardians of the Asphalt to provide truck drivers in Mexico with the knowledge and resources necessary to identify and report human trafficking.
It’s too early to see any significant results from the program in Mexico, but TAT says that since 2007 they have helped identify more than 1,000 trafficking victims in the United States.
3. Look Beyond Traditional Law Enforcement
Police clearly play an important role in disrupting human trafficking organizations. But other government agencies can also contribute to these efforts in less obvious ways.
As part of a new strategy, Rochelle Keyhan, Director of Disruption Strategies at US anti-trafficking organization Polaris told InSight Crime that the organization has begun training code and liquor enforcement officers on how to recognize sex trafficking in commercial venues.
Cities across the United States have strict health and safety codes regulating the operation of businesses such as bars, restaurants and beauty salons. Polaris has been pushing for similar legislation to better regulate establishments such as massage parlors that are often used as fronts for sex trafficking.
Training officials in charge of enforcing these regulations has the potential to disrupt commercial fronts for sex trafficking, according to the organization. In San Francisco, for example, the Department of Health utilized massage business regulations to shut down all 250 known illicit massage businesses operating in the city, a spokesperson for Polaris told InSight Crime.
It’s unlikely that this strategy could feasibly be applied in Latin America and the Caribbean since many countries in the region struggle with enforcing regulatory infractions. However, a significant number of victims from Latin America and the Caribbean are trafficked to the United States, meaning this approach could nevertheless have a considerable impact, at least in the destination country.
4. Develop a Coordinated Transnational Response
Because of the transnational nature of most human trafficking, it is imperative that governments work together to tackle the crime.
Interpol has become a key venue for multilateral cooperation on anti-trafficking efforts. For example, Operation Intercops – Spartacus III, carried out in two stages in 2016, saw 25 Central and South American countries collaborate to take down seven organized crime networks, arresting 134 suspected traffickers and rescuing 2,700 victims, the international police body reported.
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“The effects of this large scale trans-border police operation … underlines the value of Interpol in helping police in source, transit, and destination countries work together in tackling the criminal networks behind human trafficking,” Tim Morris, Interpol’s Executive Director for Police Services, said in a press release.
Operations of such a large scale are not the norm. But smaller-scale efforts coordinated through Interpol frequently yield important results. In June 2018, for instance, an operation involving Interpol uncovered a trafficking ring exploiting Venezuelan women for sex work in Spain.
5. Follow the Money
Money laundering is an essential part of the business model of nearly all criminal organizations, including human trafficking rings. And tracking illicit financial flows can be an effective way to disrupt their activities.
In recent years, countries like Argentina have begun to shift their attention towards investigating money laundering tips as a way to identify and prosecute organizations potentially involved in human trafficking.
Julie Oppermann, Project Officer for Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking at the United Nations University, told InSight Crime that financial institutions can play an important role in combating human trafficking.
Oppermann said that financial data on money laundering related to human trafficking can serve as important corroborating evidence in investigations that typically rely heavily on victim testimony. And beyond alerting authorities about suspicious transactions, financial institutions could strive to eliminate slave labor from their client’s supply chains by making the provision of financial services contingent on client’s compliance with anti-human trafficking best practices.
While Oppermann admitted that there are “often a lot of interests at play that prevent this from happening,” she argued that the legal risks financial institutions face for handling funds derived from organized crime should incentivize them to exercise due diligence.