A case involving a woman’s search for her daughter, believed to have been kidnapped by a human trafficking ring 10 years ago, has gripped Argentina, shedding light on how the sex trade operates inside the country.
Twenty-three-year-old “Marita” Veron was kidnapped in Argentina’s northern Tucuman province in 2002. Since then, her mother, Susana Trimarco, has become one of Argentina’s most visible lobbyists against commercial sexual exploitation. In recognition of her activism, the US State Department granted her the International Women of Courage Award in 2007.
Thirteen people are currently on trial in connection with Veron’s disappearance. Her mother testified in court on February 15, describing her search for her daughter over the years. While attempting to trace Marita’s whereabouts, Trimarco visited brothels across the northwest, pretending to be a former prostitute looking to recruit other sex workers. She said she spoke with women who’d met Marita, who had been beaten, drugged and abused. She testified that her daughter apparently had a child with one of her kidnappers, and was “given cocaine so that she could work more,” according to El Nuevo Herald.
As the trial wrapped up on February 16, Veron’s lawyer said in his closing statement that there was evidence that Marita was dead. Some of the 129 women whom Trimarco rescued from the sex trade have reportedly said that Marita may be in Spain, according to an IPS report.
The exchange of sex for money is legal in Argentina, but organized prostitution, including brothels, is not. And while Argentina has effectively outlawed all forms of human trafficking, under current legislation many cases end up being dismissed if the victims initially gave their consent.
The Veron case calls attention to one form of human trafficking inside Argentina: the abduction of women to work in the sex trade. In such cases, as detailed by an Infosur report, potential victims are typically picked out by neighbors, street vendors, or cab drivers who work as “look-outs” for sex trafficking rings. The victims are then assaulted in the street, forced into a car, and taken to a hide-out, as reportedly happened to Veron when she disappeared in 2002. Afterwards, the women are sold to brothels, or are forced to work rotating shifts at multiple sex dens.
This type of sexual exploitation is most common in northwestern provinces like La Rioja (where Veron reportedly ended up) and Tucuman, as well as north-central regions like Mendoza and Cordoba. The phenomenon has also been reported in southern Argentina, where many areas have a low population of women.
But asides from kidnapping, many women are tricked into working in Argentina’s sex trade. Women may be promised work in legitimate trades, and, if they live overseas, recruiters to make the travel arrangements. The women then arrive and are forced to work in the sex trade in order to pay off the travel debt they have supposedly incurred. Women and girls from Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia have been “imported” into Argentina’s sex trade in this manner.
If Veron’s trial ends with a conviction, it will be an unusual outcome for a sex trafficking case. According to the US State Department, in 2010 Argentina obtained just 15 convictions on sex trafficking offenders, up from three in 2009. For many in Argentina, Veron and Trimarco have already become the public faces of forced prostitution. A victory for them, while highly symbolic, should not obscure the fact that Argentina has a long way to go in fighting sexual exploitation.