Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

RIGHTS-MEXICO: Slow Progress Against Human Trafficking

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 27 2009 (IPS) - Despite progress in bringing Mexican law into compliance with the international treaty against human trafficking, little has been achieved so far in this country in terms of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers, protection of victims and prevention of this increasingly widespread crime, says a new report released in the Mexican capital Thursday.

The “Human Trafficking Assessment Tool Report for Mexico” was produced by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI).

“So far there have been no convictions, which is a very serious problem,” attorney Gretchen Kuhner, one of the authors of the report, told IPS. “But the law against trafficking in Mexico is very new, and more time is needed to evaluate its implementation.”

The Mexican Congress passed the Law to Prevent and Penalise Trafficking in Persons, creating federal mechanisms for the prevention, protection, and prosecution of human trafficking, in November 2007, although the regulations for the law were not issued until February 2009

The law provides for both territorial and extraterritorial jurisdiction over trafficking in persons, which is classified as a felony, the ABA ROLI report says.

Based on 78 interviews with experts and government officials carried out between January and June 2008, the report found legal inconsistencies such as limiting the definition of “trafficking victim” to passive subjects of the crime of trafficking who participate in criminal proceedings in Mexico or abroad.

“This narrow definition may have detrimental implications for those individuals who have been subjected to trafficking in persons but are unwilling to file an official complaint or testify against the perpetrators, or who require assistance before making a decision about cooperation with law enforcement authorities,” the report states.

Human trafficking consists of the recruitment, kidnapping, harbouring or transportation of individuals through the use of force, threats, coercion, deception or fraud, generally for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation.

“One of the greatest challenges regarding trafficking in persons in Mexico is that the phenomenon is believed to be extensive, but has yet to be documented in a systematic manner,” the report says.

In the case of Mexico, it identifies trafficking in relation with domestic work, prostitution, seasonal agricultural labour, maquilas (export assembly factories in duty-free zones), panhandling, the construction industry, informal trade, and organ harvesting.

The report focused on eight states in northern and southern Mexico where the practice is particularly widespread.

The Rule of Law Initiative by the ABA, which represents 410,000 lawyers in the United States, is being carried out in 40 countries. The report received a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“There is a jurisdictional vacuum,” Mónica Salazar, a Mexican attorney specialising in human rights who coordinated the field research, told IPS.

The federal law stipulates that trafficking cases fall under the Special Prosecution Unit for Violent Crimes against Women and Human Trafficking (FEVIMTRA), created in January 2008.

But if organised crime is involved, the cases fall under the Office on Organised Crime and the Office on International Cooperation, within the Attorney General’s Office.

ABA ROLI also reported that “On the state level, several attorney general offices have established separate intake units for criminal complaints related to crimes against women and trafficking in persons, to ensure that victims are assisted by specialised personnel.”

Mexico is a signatory to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children – the international treaty against human trafficking – which supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime that came into force in 2003.

So far, FEVIMTRA has investigated 24 cases and issued two formal indictments. And between March 2008 and February 2009, FEVIMTRA’s assistance centre provided support to 52 victims of trafficking.

But from 2005 to 2008, non-governmental organisations discovered 300 cases of human trafficking and helped 1,500 Mexican victims of that practice in the United States between 2002 and 2007.

“Most of the cases have been uncovered by Mexican or international organisations, or by the National Human Rights Commission,” said Kuhner.

The report says “Trafficking in persons includes internal trafficking, trafficking of migrants into Mexico, and trafficking of Mexican migrants in other parts of the world, particularly in the U.S.”

Some 500,000 Central Americans go through Mexico every year in their attempt to make it to the United States. And although there are no reliable figures, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people a year apparently fall prey to trafficking rings.

According to authorities in Mexico, at least 20 networks are involved in the trafficking of persons, with links to organised crime rings involved in other activities like drug smuggling.

Although the report acknowledges advances made in terms of prevention, prosecution, and victim protection, it criticises the government for failing to channel funds so that NGOs can help work on the issue.

“As long as the political will to combat trafficking is lacking and until further legal changes are adopted, nothing is going to change,” said Mario Fuentes, director of the non-governmental Centro de Estudios e Investigación en Desarrollo y Asistencia Social (CEIDAS – Centre for Studies and Research in Social Development and Assistance), which has produced reports on child sexual exploitation.

“Besides, the idea of treating drug trafficking as separate from other illegal activities persists,” he told IPS.

To date, 22 of Mexico’s 32 states have reformed their legal codes to define trafficking of persons as a crime.

In one high-profile case, a group of women reported in June that they had been exploited by a network that trafficked women from Costa Rica and South America, with the collusion of Mexican migration officials. Two people were arrested as a result of their speaking out.

The National Human Rights Commission, which established a programme against trafficking in persons in 2007, says the activity is one of the most profitable for organised crime.

“There is growing awareness that trafficking is an extremely serious problem,” Michael McCullough, director of the ABA’s Latin America and Caribbean Division, told IPS.

The Mexican law created several counter-trafficking bodies, like an inter-ministerial committee, while calling for a National Programme to Prevent and Penalise Trafficking in Persons, which has not yet been established.

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