Honduras’ New Human Trafficking Law Faces Enormous Challenges

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A new anti-human trafficking law is supposed to reduce Honduras’ importance as a source country for the sex trade, but will likely face many challenges in its implementation thanks to the country’s inefficient, corrupt police and judicial system.

On May 22, members of the Honduran National Congress officially signed decree 59-2012, a new anti-human trafficking law that is the country’s most comprehensive to date. As the US State Department points out, previous legislation in Honduras mainly focused on child sex trafficking, but the new law sets out more formal penalties for the crimes of forced labor, organ trafficking, and the forced prostitution of adults, with convicted human traffickers facing up to 20 years in prison.

The renewed focus on forced prostitution is particularly welcome. This appears to be the most widespread human trafficking crime in Honduras, a key source country for Central America’s sex trade. According to 2010 statistics, 60 percent of the victims who received assistance from Honduras’ chief human trafficking protection program had been subjected to commercial sexual exploitation.

A documentary by journalist Ramita Navai (see video below), aired last week on the UK’s Channel 4, highlighted the extent of Honduras’ sex trafficking problem. In the northwest city of El Progreso, Navai found that hundreds of Honduran women had been “disappeared,” likely forced to work as prostitutes in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Traffickers reportedly lured their victims, often poor females, with the promise they would be moving to Mexico for well-paid jobs. Once there, however, they were immediately sold into sex slavery and forced by their “owners” to work in bars and brothels as prostitutes without pay.

Sex trafficking is now so lucrative an industry that the International Organization on Migration estimates·it·brings in $16 billion a year for Latin American criminals. In one indication of the trade’s profitability, an alleged former trafficker told Navai that he was able to sell up to 40 Honduran girls a day in Mexico for $100 each.

As the documentary highlights, once the victims had been captured, they were subjected to endless psychological and physical abuse. This included threats that if they escaped, their families would be harmed, and that if they refused to work, they would be raped and beaten. These are familiar tactics employed by sex traffickers throughout the region and ensure that the women are too afraid to attempt to flee. As one Honduran victim told Navai, once the traffickers have “broken you in,” there is no escape, physically or mentally.

The former Honduran consul in Chiapas, Patricia Villamil, stated that during her eight months in office, Mexican authorities received some 200 calls from Honduran females claiming they were victims of sex trafficking. This probably only represents a fraction of the total victims, as many are likely too afraid to attempt to contact help. And only few of those who actually reached out to Mexican authorities were rescued.·Villamil was removed from her job·in June 2011, when she began to receive death threats, which she says may have been linked to her criticism of Mexico’s inability to properly confront the human trafficking problem.

While Chiapas appears to be a major destination for Honduran trafficking victims, it is by no means the only one. Many women are forced into prostitution in neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala. Some are even sent further. For example, a sex trafficking ring dismantled by Honduran authorities last year allegedly trafficked its victims to Europe and the United States, and there have even been reports of unsuspecting Hondurans shipped to Romania, forced to work without pay once they arrived.·All of this highlights the extensive reach of networks operating out of the Central American state.

Honduras’ endemically high poverty rate makes the country attractive ground for traffickers. Statistics from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book show that in 2010, 65 percent of Hondurans lived below the poverty line. This alarmingly high number gives traffickers an enormous opportunity to exploit people’s needs for money with false offers of work abroad. What’s more, since the coup in 2009, Honduras’ economy has disintegrated further, as Navai noted, rendering any prospect of a foreseeable improvement slim.

Compounding this problem is the apparent move by traffickers into targeting the middle-class as well as the poor. A La Tribuna report from last year found that traffickers were turning their attention to affluent urban women, luring them into the global sex trade with advertisements promising a successful modelling or dance career. These increasingly sophisticated methods will be a significant challenge to Honduran authorities as they try to implement the new law.

In order to become fully effective, decree 59-2012 must still be signed by President Porfirio Lobo. As of last week, Lobo had somewhat surprisingly still not sanctioned the law, leading Save the Children and the Spanish International Cooperation and Development Agency (AECID) to publicly call for him to do so. However, in light of his wife’s presence at the May 22 signing, along with her championing of the legislation, it is highly unlikely he would send the bill back to Congress.

Provided Lobo’s delay is nothing more than short-term feet dragging, Honduras must turn its attention to how the law will be made effective. While its extensive coverage and punitive measures against traffickers are vital steps, seeing Honduras’ police force and judicial system implement it properly will be another, arguably more difficult task. Impunity rates in Honduras hover around the 90 percent mark and the police have a notorious reputation for corruption and links to the very criminal structures they are supposed to be fighting. Unless these issues are addressed alongside putting the law into practice, any potential progress in countering human trafficking in Honduras will likely stall.

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