Report Details Hierarchy of Guatemala’s Sex Trafficking Rings

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A new report provides details on the different levels of sophistication with which criminal groups run sex trafficking rings in Guatemala, shedding light on the business side of a highly lucrative criminal industry.

In a new report (pdf), the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) estimate sex trafficking brings in $1.6 billion each year in Guatemala. 

The industry is run by a plethora of criminal groups or individual brokers that may work independently or in concert with one another, according to the report. 

“In Guatemala [sex trafficking] is not solely an organized crime problem; the trafficker may be the brother, the father, the mother, an uncle, or a teacher,” an expert on the issue told UN researchers. 

In addition to relatives, individual businessmen subject women and girls to sexual exploitation. This usually involves owners of restaurants or bars forcing waitresses to provide male patrons with sexual services.  

The next level of sophistication involves what the report calls local criminal structures, which provide assistance to parents or individuals looking to sell girls into sexual exploitation. These structures typically include the owners of motels, inns, and even empty lots, who arrange the places where the sexual encounters transpire. They are the ones who profit the most off these schemes, not the relatives, according to the report. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Trafficking

Next, “territorial groups” are believed to control some of the brothels where sexual acts take place. These groups can be either local drug gangs or more sophisticated organizations that transport international cocaine shipments. According to the report, the MS13 and a drug gang called the Caradura are involved in human trafficking in Guatemala City. In Guatemala’s northwest, the report named the Mendoza drug clan and the Huistas; in the southwest, the criminal organization led by Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,”; and in northern Guatemala, Mexican criminal group the Zetas. 

These groups do not always directly participate in sex trafficking, but they do profit off the trade. For example, traffickers must pay a fee to operate in the territory controlled by the Caradura.

The report indicates that some of the territorial groups are interested in sex trafficking for more than just financial reasons. The Mendozas, for instance, allegedly use their prostitution networks to gain protection and political influence by providing services to police and local authorities.

Finally, international trafficking networks recruit women from other parts of Central America as well as Colombia and Venezuela. Victims are often deceived by offers to work in Mexico or the United States, although the report notes recruitment also occurs within elementary schools. These international trafficking networks are considered to be more organized than internal networks. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The joint report offers a detailed look at the diverse set of actors involved in sex trafficking operations in Guatemala, and the different points at which organized crime and sexual exploitation intersect.

It is interesting that the report names criminal structures that have been severely weakened in recent years due to the arrests of their leaders. Two of the top members of the Mendoza clan have been captured in the last 18 months, while Juan Chamale was arrested some five years ago. The Zetas, meanwhile, have been largely run out of Guatemala, and their influence in Mexico’s underworld has also considerably weakened. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

It could be that these groups are moving more into sex trafficking as their organizations fragment and their drug trafficking revenues dry up. Across Latin America, organized crime groups are diversifying their criminal portfolio by relying less on the drug trade and more on local criminal industries such as extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking. 

However, it’s also possible local sex trafficking networks are using the brand name of larger criminal organizations as a means to intimidate and earn respect. For several years now, the Zetas organization has been comprised of largely autonomous cells that are held together by little more than their shared name.

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