The recent arrest of a transnational sex trafficking network in Medellin, Colombia draws attention to the country’s importance to the illicit global industry, which has been historically high and shows no clear signs of decreasing.
On March 30, Colombian authorities detained three women and two men accused of running an international sex trafficking ring between Colombia and Guatemala. The group is alleged to have lured between 20 and 30 young Colombian women with the promise of well-paid work abroad before sending them to work as prostitutes in Guatemala City, where they were held against their will.
One of the victims recently spoke to Semana magazine, recounting in detail how she was recruited and ultimately enslaved by the gang.
Natalia, a pseudonym used to protect her identity, was 19-years-old when she met Hector Alonso Londoño Rios (an alleged member of the gang) in Medellin in May 2009. No longer living with her family and experiencing economic troubles, Natalia was enticed by Alonso’s offer of a chance to move to Guatemala where, though working as a prostitute, she could earn $2,000 per week. This would enable her to pay off her debts and return to Medellin after a short period to start her own business.
Alonso, with his accomplices, paid for Natalia to have plastic surgery, along with her travel and visa expenses. The total costs ran to $12,000, a debt that Natalia believed she could pay off in just three months. When she finally arrived in Guatemala in August that year, she was immediately met by the trafficking ring’s Guatemalan arm who began the process of enslavement. They took her passport and identity card away and drove her to a place housing other Colombian women with barred windows and barbed wired walls. She would be kept under constant supervision from then on.
When Alonso arrived some weeks later, Natalia confronted him. “What kind of friend are you? How could you bring me here?” Alonso replied, “What’s done is done,” threatening that he knew where her mother lived if she didn’t play by the rules. According to Semana, the women were warned that the group had ties to the Medellin-based Oficina de Envigado gang who would carry out any threats made against their families.
What followed was an endless cycle of psychological and physical abuse. Natalia says she was forced to work six days a week in “shifts” lasting 10-12 hours. All the money she and the others earned went on paying off their debts to the gang or was simply stolen by their pimps. In addition, fines were imposed for dirty hair ($150), faded nails ($100) and fighting with clients (potentially $2,000) among other supposed violations of the rules. These arbitrary fines added up, and by March 2011, Natalia’s debt had risen to $56,000.
After nearly two years, Natalia was finally able to escape when a Guatemalan client who fell in love with her took her away and paid off some of the debts. This enabled her to safely contact Interpol who started investigating the group, a task that had been previously attempted by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office in late 2010 but which was thwarted by corruption within the Guatemalan police, Semana writes.
According to the International Labor Organization, human trafficking is a $31.6-billion-a-year-industry, of which Latin America and the Caribbean constitutes 4.1 percent, or $1.3 billion. Some have even placed this higher, with the International Organization on Migration estimating that sex trafficking in Latin America alone earns $16 billion annually.
Colombia is one of the countries most afflicted by human trafficking in Latin America, and in 2009 ranked third in the region in number of victims (an estimated 70,000 annually). As attorney Lina Victoria Parra of the Colombian NGO Fundacion Esperanza told InfoSur last year, the business in Colombia is so big it is the “third-most profitable crime … after drugs and weapons trafficking.”
Of course, not all victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Many are sold into forced labor of various kinds, or are migrants being smuggled illegally across borders. However, if we take a 2003 estimate by Interpol and Colombian intelligence that an alarming 45,000-50,000 Colombian women were trafficked abroad to work as prostitutes, combined with the statistic from the 2009 United Nations Global Trafficking in Persons Report that 79 percent of human trafficking is for sex exploitation, it is fair to assume that sex trafficking constitutes the majority of the Colombian trade.
A significant factor contributing to the large number of females trafficked both within and outside of Colombia is arguably the millions of people displaced by the country’s ongoing conflict with guerrilla groups and BACRIM (“bandas criminales” – criminal gangs). Colombia has the second highest rate of internally displaced people in the world with 3.6 million, of which nearly 60 percent are women, and 65 percent are below the age of 25 (the target age for human traffickers).
These people become key targets for criminal structures seeking recruits for the sex trade as they can easily be exploited with the false promise of an income and a stable life. In some cases, as with Natalia, they may be told directly that they will be working as a prostitute, meaning the deception comes later when they are deprived of both money and personal liberty. In others, the job offers are simply fictitious. Anti-trafficking campaigner Fanny Polania Molina showed, for example, how Colombian women were tricked to travel to Japan through newspaper advertisements offering modelling, marriage, or simply “work.” Once in Japan, they can be sold for anywhere from $15,000-$20,000, according to NGO Espacios de Mujer.
Though recruitment techniques vary, the method of intimidation used to ensure women don’t escape follows a similar pattern to that employed against Natalia. As Espacios de Mujer notes, women may be physically abused and psychologically manipulated by being kept in isolation, having their passports taken away and threats made against their families. Over-arching all of this is the interminable level of debt that they are told must be paid off if they are ever to leave.
What is less clear about these networks is who controls them. If the case of Natalia is representative of the industry then it would appear sex trafficking is largely spread between smaller organizations — as is the case in Argentina — run by a few people with only loose ties to some of Colombia’s major criminal structures. Though the involvement of bigger gangs in prostitution rackets within Colombia is highly likely, it remains to be seen that they have a considerable stake in the actual trafficking of sex workers both inside and outside the country. For instance, in another major operation last year that saw three transnational sex trafficking groups dismantled, none were reported to have ties to any of the country’s major criminal groups.
Colombia has gradually fallen from being the third worst country in Latin America for human trafficking, overtaken by Argentina, Mexico and Haiti in 2010. However, this is not to say that the level of trafficking has decreased markedly, if at all, and may simply be attributable to the fact that others in the region have seen a rise in human trafficking activity beyond Colombia’s level.·
Though the US regards Colombia as fully complying with “the minimum standards for the elimination in trafficking in persons,” in the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, figures showing the country was only able to investigate 144 cases involving 90 victims in 2010 highlights how far the government has to go before it can be seen as a significant obstacle to human trafficking, if indeed the victims are in the tens of thousands as many estimate. What’s more, as the recruitment process of preying on the economically vulnerable shows, the measures taken to counter the phenomenon need to address a number of societal issues in addition.