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ARGENTINA: Sold into Prostitution as Children, Accused in Court as Adults

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 6 2006 (IPS) - A trial opened Tuesday in Argentina against a former federal police officer charged with running a brothel and three women who were supposedly his accomplices.

But human rights groups point out that two of the women facing charges were themselves his victims, sold into slavery and forced prostitution at the ages of nine and 13.

A number of young women have gone missing in Argentina, and human trafficking rings engaged in sexual exploitation are suspected in many of the cases.

The 2006 Trafficking in Persons report released by the U.S. State Department Monday puts Argentina on the “Tier 2 Watch List”.

The “Tier 2” category includes countries whose governments do not comply with “minimum standards” set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but are making “significant efforts” to bring themselves into compliance.

In “Watch List” countries, meanwhile, the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or significantly increasing, or governments have failed to step up efforts to halt these abuses.

Washington recommended that the Argentine government work with Congress to secure passage of a federal law against trafficking, whose victims are mainly women and children; ramp up efforts to arrest and prosecute traffickers; expand training for court and law enforcement officials; and work with non-governmental organisations to raise public awareness of the problem.

The story behind the current trial dates back to late November 2004, when a 15-year-old girl managed to escape from a hideout built in the back of a cabaret near the town of Inriville, in the province of Córdoba, 800 km northwest of Buenos Aires.

The girl, who was held in captivity, said she was often deprived of food, forced to use drugs, and beaten. She was also tortured, by being made to eat excrement and drink urine, and was anally raped with a stick.

Psychological exams found that the victim was suffering “severe psychological damages” after being subjected to “repeated cruel, abusive and violent behaviours.”

In connection with her case, and that of three other minors subjected to sexual exploitation, charges were filed against former police officer Jorge Gonzalez, who owned the cabaret, and his girlfriend Valeria Calderón for promoting prostitution, illegal deprivation of freedom, forced labour, weapons possession, and abetment.

But two 21-year-old women, Vanesa Payero and Betiana Zapata, have also been charged with promoting prostitution, illegal deprivation of freedom and forced labour, even though as minors they were also deprived of their freedom and subjected to a wide range of abuses. And under threat, they were forced to abuse the new victims.

The Red No a la Trata de Mujeres (No to the Trafficking of Women Network), a coalition of Argentine social organisations, called for a suspension of the trial against Payero and Zapata, who were arrested when they were 19 and 20 years old, respectively.

The two women do not deny having taking part in abuses against minors, but say they did so under duress, and under the threat of violence. They themselves had originally fallen prey to forced sexual exploitation.

According to social psychologist Adriana Domínguez, a member of the Red No a la Trata de Mujeres, Payero was “sold” at the age of 13, and Zapata when she was just nine years old. Both were raped and tortured – burnt with boiling water and cigarettes, and whipped – and were often deprived of food, to force them to work as prostitutes. They were help in captivity and reduced to slavery, and were not allowed any contact with the outside world.

Domínguez said Payero was raped and impregnated by González, who forced her to abort. And at the age of 13, Zapata bore the daughter of another pimp, but the baby was killed by her captors shortly after the birth.

“They beat me, but they let me bury her,” Zapata told the Córdoba daily newspaper La Voz del Interior, in a 2005 interview from the prison in the town of Villa María, in the province of Córdoba. “I reported them, but I was never summoned to testify.”

“I didn’t know what being a child was. I never had a toy,” she said.

The Red No a la Trata de Mujeres holds the state responsible for omission “in the face of these abuses and for failing to bring to trial the real perpetrators of these crimes.”

“The state was nowhere to be seen when these minors were kidnapped, abused and shuffled around as if they were livestock,” but now it has “shown up to try them,” said the coalition of NGOs.

Domínguez told IPS that Payero and Zapata did not even have the right to a defence. They were assigned a pro bono lawyer when no court-appointed public defender was available. But their attorney only met with them once in the nearly two years since they were arrested.

When the trial actually began, the two women met Carlos Figueroa, their new lawyer, who had just recently passed the bar exam.

Figueroa explained to IPS that his clients had not been assigned a public defender because the only one available at the time was already representing “the victims” – the girls and women whose testimony led to the arrests of González and his supposed accomplices, Payero and Zapata.

And while Figueroa was appointed to represent the two young women a month ago, they have only met him once. “We’ll see how I’m going to prepare the defence,” the lawyer said after the trial had already begun, declining to give any idea of what his strategy would be.

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