Economy & Trade, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Migration & Refugees, North America

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Trafficking Victims’ Ordeal Never Over

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Jun 10 2009 (IPS) - A mixture of rage, impotence and terror is evident behind the sadness in María’s* eyes. It’s been five months since she escaped from her captors in the United States, where she was taken under a false job contract, and she still can’t shake off her fear.

Bogus job offers are one of the enticements used to lure people, particularly young women, into the sex trade. But human trafficking claims other victims too: men and women of all ages who are sold and forced to work under conditions of slavery in different trades.

According to the available data, some 70,000 people fall victim to human trafficking every year in Colombia, which ranks third in the number of victims in Latin America, behind the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Countries in Latin America serve as source, transit, and destination countries for trafficking victims.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York on May 13, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on countries to take a tougher stance against human trafficking, with strong laws, broad alliances and concerted action against a crime that, he said, some liken to modern-day slavery.

Millions are "bought and sold like chattel, most of them women and children," in what is "one of the worst forms of violence against women and girls," said Ban, who urged the international community to step up efforts to put "an end to impunity."

In recent years Colombia has also become a destination for victims, who are trafficked into the country mostly from neighbouring Ecuador and Peru, while the United Sates has been and remains today the main destination for persons trafficked from Latin America for forced labour and the sex trade.

"Last year we dismantled a trafficking ring that was holding 30 Peruvian nationals captive and forcing them to work in Bucaramanga," capital of the northern province of Santander, an Interpol (international police) Colombia investigations officer told IPS on condition of anonymity.

But statistics only partially reflect the magnitude of the crime, because many of the victims refuse to go to the police for fear traffickers will carry out their threats, or that they will be shunned by their community, or simply because they don’t realise just how severely their rights have been violated.

"One woman told me that she had been to hell and back, that she hadn’t been paid a thing, but that she wouldn’t go to the authorities because she had just had bad luck," attorney Lina Parra of Fundación Esperanza – a non-governmental organisation that has been working with human trafficking victims for 13 years in Colombia and for the last three in Ecuador – told IPS.

"And if the victims don’t report it, then we don’t push them, because we believe they’ve been through enough as it is, and that they shouldn’t be made to suffer anymore," said Parra.

The reaction of the victims does not change the fact that the human trafficking business is almost as large and as lucrative as the arms and drug trades.

It is very difficult to identify the perpetrators, because each step of the trafficking operation is independent from the next.

"The victims are first enticed or captured, then they are transported, and finally they are exploited. But some people are rescued right after they are snatched up, and others are transported but not actually forced into labour or prostitution, which means that when they are reported they are considered kidnappings, for example," Parra explained.

Three Interpol officers who spoke with IPS on the condition that their names would not be used agreed that it is very difficult to break up human trafficking rings.

But they pointed out that after 15 years of efforts to improve investigation methods and inter-institutional coordination, over the last two years Colombia has taken the lead in the region’s struggle against human trafficking.

The initial boost came from Fundación Esperanza, which in 1995 formed the first inter-institutional group to combat human trafficking. That group has since turned into a committee made up of representatives from 14 different bodies, including the United Nations, two cabinet ministries, the Attorney General’s Office, the Institute for Family Welfare, Interpol and the foundation itself.

In May, some 30 Colombian women were recruited with false job offers and taken to the city of Ibarra, Ecuador, where they were fortunately rescued after being held captive for just a few days in a prostitution centre.

But Parra pointed out that the episode also showed that the ordeal does not end after the victim is rescued.

The trauma of captivity was aggravated by the sensationalist, insensitive media coverage of the rescue operation and what the women had gone through, which only added to their suffering, according to the victims’ own account at the foundation’s shelter in Ecuador.

Fundación Esperanza takes in the victims for at least one month, providing both physical and psychological health care, helping them resume their lives, and assisting them in filing police reports and taking criminal action, if they decide to do so.

The Interpol officers, for their part, admitted that there aren’t enough resources to properly address "this complex crime, which is like no other."

But they said it was positive that Colombia’s criminal code had been modified to stiffen the sentences for those found guilty of human trafficking, forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation, which were expanded from 10 to 15 years.

There is still much to be done, however. The officers underlined, for example, the need to train judges and prosecutors so that they will understand the magnitude of the crime, as well as its causes and consequences. Only then, the officers said, will the justice system stop seeing the victims as responsible for a crime they suffered.

"During legal proceedings we often see victims being ‘hammered’ with questions like ‘why did you go?’ or ‘how could you not realise it was a bogus offer’," said one of the officers interviewed by IPS.

María and her never-ending fear

But people do fall for the bogus offers because they are in dire need of an opportunity for a better life. That was what happened to María, a 40-year old woman originally from the central province of Tolima, who was living on the outskirts of Bogotá when she was captured by members of a trafficking mafia.

She admitted to IPS that she’s still scared her captors will find her or come after her kids. Her fear will not leave her, even though she knows she’s protected by Fundación Esperanza and that her case is being prosecuted. "I wanted to go back to being me, but I can’t anymore," she said.

She’s also filled with rage. In November 2008 she and her family carefully examined the work contract before she decided to accept a job as a domestic in the home of a wealthy Colombian family in the United States. It provided at least a short-term solution to the unemployment and lack of income that were causing her such anxiety.

The offer came through a relative in whose innocence María still believes. "He didn’t know who was behind this," she said.

But everything changed when she arrived at her destination somewhere in the U.S., in a city she prefers not to disclose. They took away her passport and other documents, then forced her to work all day long, from 5 a.m. through midnight, with only half a day’s rest on Sundays, and drastically reduced her meals, feeding her a meagre vegetable diet.

In the 39 days she worked as a modern-day slave, María’s weight plunged from 58 to 41 kilos, and she was forced to spend hours on her knees cleaning, constantly watched and threatened, until she was collapsing from exhaustion.

Worst of all, she was prevented from contacting her family, María told IPS, speaking very softly, as if trying to exorcise the horrible experience. A Salvadoran woman working as a domestic in a neighbouring house noticed María’s rapid weight loss and the frightened look on her face, and decided to approach her when her captors were not watching.

The woman from El Salvador told María that what her "employers" were doing was illegal, explained how to unblock the telephone, and gave her an emergency number to phone the police for help.

But the police merely forced her captors to give back her passport and admonished them for how they were treating her.

That night, María’s kidnappers scared her with all sorts of threats against her and her family back in Colombia. They warned her that if she didn’t sign a paper exonerating them from all responsibility, they would report her to the police and accuse her of several offences, and she would be thrown in jail for years.

She was finally able to sneak out of the house while her kidnappers thought she was sleeping, and was driven to a shelter for human trafficking victims by the Salvadoran woman and her husband.

"There I started to get better. I spoke several times with my children and the rest of my family, and I came to realise that there are many people in the same difficult situation as me. Two other Colombian women were there with me, and another four had left the day I arrived," she said.

María said she knows she was very lucky and that her case was not as bad as what many other people have to endure, people who are traded like human flesh by trafficking rings. It is for those victims that she wants to fight this to the end, and she believes that if more and more people know what she went through, fewer people will fall for the same lies.

* Not her real name.

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