US Report Illustrates Uphill Battle To Prosecute Human Trafficking

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In another apparent victory against human trafficking in Latin America, 37 women have been rescued from sexual exploitation in Argentina — but whether such an operation will actually lead to anyone going to jail is a different story.

The women were found in several properties in the northwestern city of Salta, where they were kept before being sent to other countries, reported La Nacion. The organization was headed by a 27-year-old woman, reported EFE.

Various suspected clients were also arrested, including the mayor of the nearby city of Salvador Mazza. Speaking to Radio Salta, one of the women working as a prostitute in the raided properties said many of her clients were politicians, reported La Nacion.

InSight Crime Analysis

As in many of these cases around the region, after the success of the operation in Argentina fades, the question remains as to whether it will be followed up with prosecutions and convictions that could ultimately have a long term impact.

Many countries in Latin America are now making significant strides advancing legislation against human trafficking — an industry estimated to be worth $6.6 billion across the region — but such improvements are not necessarily resulting in real progress for victims.

While good legislation may be in place, conviction rates remain low, both of traffickers and particularly of officials accused of complicity in trafficking. Politicians may be using the services of trafficking victims, as suspected in the recent Argentina case and in a high-profile child prostitution case in Guatemala that broke earlier this year. In other cases judges make rulings in favor of suspects, or law enforcement and border control officers accept payments to facilitate sex trafficking — the most common form of complicity according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Compounding the entrenched corruption are the crises of underfunding, case backlog and other inefficiencies affecting Latin American criminal justice systems, several of which are considered among the worst in the world. When it comes to sex trafficking these issues become even more problematic, as it is a very challenging crime to prosecute. Victims are typically transported along a chain, with different criminal groups involved at various points. Moreover, victims’ cooperation and testimony is often key to securing convictions, but fear of reprisals, the effects of trauma, or removal from the country often make that impossible to procure.

InSight Crime has selected a range of the Latin American country reports from this year’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report from the US Department of State for analysis to provide a snapshot of legislative efforts aimed at combating human trafficking across the region and the problems they encounter.

All the selected countries are categorized as Tier 2 out of three “tier” options in the TIP report, meaning they do not fully comply with the US Department of State’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but are making significant efforts to do so (Tier 1 signifies a government fully complies with the minimum standards, whereas Tier 3 is for governments who are not fully complying with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so). The date 2012 refers to the reporting period beginning March 1, 2012 and ending April 30, 2013.

Argentina 

Argentina passed a comprehensive new anti-trafficking law in December 2012 (building on legislation created in 2008), prohibiting all forms of trafficking with penalties of four to 15 years in jail. Authorities reported opening 368 investigations over the time period. A total of 17 convictions were secured, 15 for sex trafficking and two for labor trafficking — compared to 31 convictions in 2011. Trafficking-related corruption was a serious concern, said the State Department, noting “it was unclear what progress had been made in the investigations initiated in 2010 of 75 Buenos Aires police officers accused of trafficking-related complicity, and of the former head of the anti-trafficking police unit accused of running brothels.” Authorities reported filing 71 cases of trafficking-related complicity in 2012, including one of a deputy police commissioner accused of holding four trafficking victims captive.

Bolivia 

A new law was enacted strengthening protection for victims and prevention efforts, said the report, but the necessary money provided to implement it was not always provided — some ministries were not given funding to enable them to fulfill the new requirements until 2013, and no dedicated funding was given to local governments.New legislation also prohibited all forms of trafficking and increases the penalties to ten to 15 years, up from eight to 12. A total of 319 potential trafficking cases were investigated and 95 investigations opened, but it was not known how many prosecutions resulted. Altogether there were four reported convictions for sex trafficking and one for labor trafficking, compared to seven sex trafficking convictions and two labor trafficking convictions in 2011. The report noted that the number of convictions was low relative to the number of victims found. However it praised the increased number of victims helped, better coordination between different agencies, the establishment of anti-trafficking policies and the fact that there was a domestic servitude conviction for the first time.

Brazil

Funding was maintained for 16 anti-trafficking offices around the country and various anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns. A new national anti-trafficking plan was launched, with $2.9million assigned for its implementation by 2014. However the report noted that the legal definition of trafficking in Brazil was too broad in some respects and too narrow in others. The law prohibits most forms of trafficking but two statutes require the victims to be moved from one location to another to be considered trafficked (according to the UN legal definition of trafficking, the crime does not have to involve movement, it is rather the recruitment, transfer or harboring of people using force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of exploitation). Penalties range from two to eight years imprisonment. The Brazilian senate committee on human trafficking released a report recommending that penalties be increased and labor trafficking be expressly criminalized. There were reports of at least nine prosecutions and six convictions of domestic sex trafficking and two of international sex trafficking, but data was “lacking or unclear,” said the State Department. The report gave specific information on “trabalho esclavo,” (slave labor) a term used to describe Brazil’s common problem of people forced to work in slave-like conditions for major industries with low or no pay, frequently under debt peonage. The Ministry of Labor carried out 135 operations involving 241 properties in 2012, compared to 171 from 342 properties in 2011. Just over 503 police investigations of potential trabalho esclavo were open at the end of the year. During the year there were 286 prosecutions, of which 39 resulted in sentences, but it was not clear if there were any acquittals.

Guatemala

The government increased resources for specialized police and prosecuting units, said the report, but “corruption remained a serious impediment, and efforts against law enforcement were weak.” The government trained police officers for a greatly expanded specialized unit to handle human trafficking and other crimes, with one sub-unit for sex trafficking and another for forced labor. The government also increased the power of the anti-trafficking prosecutor’s unit, making it a directorate, and creating specialized units within it to handle sex trafficking and forced labor. Authorities also reported creating two new specialized courts in 2012 for crimes against women, sexual violence, and human trafficking. Despite this progress, anti-trafficking police and prosecutors’ ability to conduct investigations on a national scale continued to be limited by a lack of funding, staffing and awareness, said the report. Moreover, there were no figures for numbers of investigations initiated for sex trafficking or forced labor, which is a serious problem in Guatemala. At least 23 new sex trafficking cases were prosecuted and seven offenders prosecuted, compared to five the previous year. No forced labor prosecutions or convictions were reported in 2012 or 2011. Official complicity “remained a serious impediment to law enforcement efforts,” but there were no reports of efforts to prosecute or convict and punish any public officials in relation to trafficking.

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