The Crime No One Fights: Human Trafficking in the Northern Triangle

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With thousands of victims and just a few convictions, the nations that make up Central America’s Northern Triangle region have yet to prove that crime doesn’t pay when it comes to human trafficking.

 Judging by the way the justice system has reacted to human trafficking so far, those responsible for tricking minors into becoming models and hostesses — but ultimately forcing them to sell their virginities — will remain unpunished in Central America. In one recent case, El Salvador’s Fourth District Court only convicted four out of seven collaborators in one such gang to ten years, eight months in prison. The case was front page news for weeks in El Salvador, once it was reported that those involved sold the virginities of underage victims for $150 each. It became more of a scandal once other versions of the story reported that among the buyers were prominent businessmen, professionals, and politicians.

This is just one ruling that contributes to the high impunity rates that human traffickers enjoy in the Northern Triangle. Years ago, a report by the United Nations Development Program established that these countries are highly vulnerable to complex, sophisticated transnational criminal organizations — include human trafficking networks. 

This is the first part of an article originally published by Connectas, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited for clarification, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. See the second part of InSight Crime’s translation here.

The governments of these countries have signed international treaties. They’ve created laws, institutions. They’ve shared experiences and knowledge when it comes to combatting this crime, but it appears that criminal groups are in fact winning the war. Central America is in the grip of these criminal networks, and neither the isolated nor joint actions by the authorities are having effect. 

Statistics confirm this. In El Salvador, for example, the police only registered 96 arrests for human trafficking in the past four years. Just 35 of these cases ended with convictions.

In Honduras, authorities report that 74 human trafficking cases were investigated in the past two years. Just 16 of these have gone to trial, where the battle becomes even uglier — only four cases resulted in convictions. 

15-05-28-CentAm-girl-rescued

A human trafficking victim rescued in Honduras. Photo by Xiomara Orellana for Connectas

Things look similar in Guatemala. While the Public Ministry reported that police detained 604 traffickers between 2009 to 2013, there were just 183 cases in which authorities gathered the evidence needed to merit a trial. Of these, just 33 saw convictions. 

Given these results, it’s not for nothing that the US State Department — in its annual reports that evaluate efforts to combat human trafficking — ranks the Northern Triangle nations as Tier 2. This ranking means these countries are not fully compliant when it comes to meeting the standards of US federal law for protecting human trafficking victims. Known as the TVPA, this act was passed in 2000 in an effort to combat the crime. 

Trafficking networks can take advantage of everything that surrounds their victims: family, neighbors, friends, newspaper ads, TV shows, social networks, and the Internet.

This list kept by the US has prompted different countries to take action. Such is the case with Honduras — where, according to the US State Department 2014 report, there have been “significant efforts” to meet the minimum standards. Honduras has been on the TVPA Tier 2 Watch List for two years, which has prompted several advances. Honduras increased the number of law enforcement agents that focus on human trafficking, and even created a new agency that includes technical research assistants responsible for identifying criminal networks that exploit minors. This has come with a cost — it’s been two years since Honduras became subject to restrictions on US bilateral foreign aid, as a result of its Tier 2 status. 

The criteria for the TVPA watchlist demands that governments should impose penalties sufficiently severe to dissuade people from committing the crime, with more severe punishments when the case merits it. The question, then, is whether Central America is taking this issue seriously enough.

In contrast to the modest advances seen in these countries, trafficking networks can take advantage of everything that surrounds their victims: family, neighbors, friends, classified ads in nationally distributed newspapers, TV shows, social networks, and the Internet.

When it comes to sex trafficking, the victim needs to fit a certain profile: pretty, naive — underage women who are contacted and then tricked by their “friends.” They come from the most humble economic backgrounds — peripheral and rural parts of the country. And in search of a job, they end up in the hands of organized crime. 

The Modeling Agency that Wasn’t

Such was the case for two minors, age 15 and 16, who modeled for a beer agency in Guatemala and who were hired to do the same in El Salvador. 

The girls were recruited in a mall in Guatemala’s capital, when a woman approached them and made them an attractive offer. She put them in touch with an alleged Salvadoran modeling agency where the girls would supposedly make a lot of money.

The woman pretended to be a headhunter working for her boyfriend, the owner of a fashion modeling agency that needed young models. She faked the documents that the girls needed to cross the border into El Salvador.

“We were shut up for a week inside a room where they didn’t give us anything. All they did was throw us boxes of condoms.”

She did such a good job that there was no problem in crossing the border. Upon arriving, the girls realized the truth — they were in the hands of a transnational human trafficking network. 

The girls were kept locked up in the trafficker’s house. “We were shut up for a week inside a room where they didn’t give us anything, no water, and all they did was throw us boxes of condoms,” they stated. The man wanted to turn them into prostitutes.

According to the Attorney General, the procurer moved in political and government circles, which meant he had plenty of connections.

One of the pick-up sites was in a red light district, in western San Salvador, the neighborhood of San Benito. The Guatemalan girls assert that they were forced to work here, and one of them started screaming at one point, with no results. 

One day they were left alone in the house and escaped. They made it to the bus terminal and boarded a bus to Guatemala.

While traveling, they encountered officials from El Salvador’s child protection agency, known as ISNA by its Spanish acronym. After interrogating the girls and reviewing their fake documents, the agents found out what had really happened.

With the information provided by the girls, authorities initiated an investigation that ended with the arrest of Nelson Orlando Campos Chacon, alias “El Pelon.” He used his modeling agencies — called Exclusive Models, and International Models and Hostesses respectively — as a facade to exploit minors since 2004. The victims came from Central and South America.

What the Numbers Say

According to 2010 data from a 2012 study by a US-government funded program for human trafficking victims, known as the IPSVT, 60 percent of all human trafficking cases in Honduras involve commercial sexual exploitation, followed by labor exploitation, then enforced servitude. The study also states that 71 percent of victims are women, and 29 percent are men (who are mainly exploited for labor). 

The situation is similar in Guatemala, where 70 percent of trafficking victims are female; 22 percent are male, and 8 percent have an unidentified gender, according to a 2013 report by the Human Rights Ombudman’s Office. The study also revealed that 32.47 percent of victims are minors. Most cases of trafficking involve commercial sexual exploitation, child pornography, and sex tourism, although authorities have also investigated cases of fraudulent adoptions.  

According to El Salvador’s police, 97 percent of human trafficking cases registered in the last few years have involved sexual exploitation. Non-governmental organizations like Save the Children maintain that there have also been trafficking cases involving child labor, forced marriages, fraudulent adoptions, and indentured servitude for which there are no arrests, trials, or statistics. 

This is the first part of an article translated by InSight Crime and originally published by Connectas, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited for clarification, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. See the second part of InSight Crime’s translation here

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