The majority of countries in the Western Hemisphere now have anti-human trafficking laws compliant with UN standards. But better laws mean little without more convictions for this crime.
More Latin American countries than ever before have passed legislation that meets international standards for human trafficking, as highlighted in a new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report (pdf).
Out of the 31 countries surveyed in the Americas, 26 now have anti-human trafficking laws that are compliant with these standards. This is a stark contrast to 2003 when just three Latin American countries were compliant, as indicated in the chart below.
But while Latin America may have strengthened its anti-human trafficking legislation, the region is dragging when it comes to actually convicting those found guilty of the crime. According to the UNODC, just 10 percent of all suspects investigated on human trafficking charges in the Americas were actually convicted. The only Latin American country to see more than 50 human trafficking convictions between 2010 and 2012 was Peru. During that same time period, some countries in Central America and the Caribbean failed to convict anyone.
The UNODC also noted that North and Central America — as well as parts of South America — experienced some of the most significant increases in child trafficking worldwide during these three years. In total, children made up about 30 percent of trafficking victims in the Americas. Approximately two thirds of these child trafficking victims were female.
The UNODC report also highlighted the key role of organized crime in human trafficking operations worldwide. As would be expected, transnational trafficking rings are generally orchestrated by larger, well-organized crime groups, while smaller groups or individuals tend to traffic victims at either a domestic and subregional level.
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Human trafficking is reportedly the third largest illicit industry in Latin America, behind drug and arms trafficking. While the passing of legislation that’s more in line with international anti-human trafficking standards is a step forward, the region still needs to confront the high levels of impunity involved in these cases. As seen in countries like Colombia, where strong anti-human trafficking laws are in place, better legislation doesn’t mean much if the laws aren’t enforced.
One reason for Latin America’s poor conviction rate is official corruption, including the acceptance of bribes by border control and visa officials. Judges who are reluctant to rule in favor of victims is another issue.
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Nevertheless, the lack of convictions for human trafficking in Latin America isn’t just because of corruption. As noted by the UN report, the lack of reliable data on what they call “hidden populations” makes human trafficking a difficult crime to catalog, and by extension prosecute. One notorious human trafficking case in Argentina, which saw the acquittal of all suspects in a 2012 ruling, demonstrated how a lack of physical evidence may often result in an outcome unfavorable to victims.
As for the demographics that fall victim to human trafficking, the high rate of minors being trafficked in and from Central America is likely due to the escalating levels of violence in the Northern Triangle (an area that includes Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador). Gang violence has been widely credited as driving more unaccompanied child migrants out of this region, which has left children highly vulnerable to human traffickers eager to take advantage of the chaos.
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Latin America has recently made some other key advances in combatting human trafficking. In its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department lauded efforts by Chile and Honduras to invest more in anti-trafficking law enforcement personnel. Peru is expanding the number of prosecutors who specialize in investigating the crime, while in Argentina, the 2012 ruling that released all suspects in an iconic human trafficking case was reversed and resulted in the conviction of ten people.