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GUATEMALA: Only 10 Agents to Fight Human Trafficking Nationwide

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - In spite of a new law against human trafficking in effect since March, little has been done in Guatemala to fight the trafficking of children, and child sex tourism has begun to flourish, experts warn.

“The office of the public prosecutor has only 10 agents (to fight human trafficking) throughout the entire country, and they have no telephone and just three or four computers,” and “the police do not have the capacity to tackle the problem at a national level,” said Sandra Gularte, an official with the ombudsman’s office.

Activist Leonel Dubón, director of the Asociación El Refugio de la Niñez, which provides shelter for rescued children, told IPS that “they brought two girls from El Salvador to work in a cafeteria, and the day after the girls got here they were prostituted. Young girls are preferred, because they bring the biggest profits in the sexual exploitation market.”

Dubón said trafficking of children occurs mainly in border areas, although he said it also exists in the capital, where underage girls are brought in by means of false job offers.

In this Central American country where corruption is so notorious that a U.N.-sponsored commission was set up to strengthen and purge the country’s justice system and help identify and dismantle clandestine armed security groups, the impunity enjoyed by traffickers is so great that their business has diversified.

“We know tourists come to have sex with street kids and that a network of taxi drivers is involved,” said Dubón.


After drug and arms dealing, human trafficking is the third largest organised crime industry in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

At least 15,000 children under 18 are the victims of child sex trafficking networks in Guatemala, estimates Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, which stopped operating in Guatemala in January due to lack of funds.

In the capital alone, Casa Alianza identified more than 2,000 children sexually exploited in bars and massage parlours, most of whom came from Central American countries.

One of the biggest achievements in the fight against such crimes was the new Law against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons, which entered into force in March.

The new law classified crimes related to sexual exploitation, created a Secretariat Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons, and put in place procedures for the repatriation of trafficking victims who have been taken out of the country.

But “the Secretariat has not been assigned the necessary resources for it to function, there is no training for the judges responsible for applying the law, and there has been no real interest in implementing the necessary actions on the part of state institutions,” Dubón complained.

In the meantime, trafficking continues apace in border areas.

“In Malacatán and Tecún Umán (municipalities in the southwestern province of San Marcos, on the border with Mexico), owners of child care centres, and even parents and other relatives, are involved in the trafficking of children,” José Maldonado, an official in the ombudsman’s office in Coatepeque, in the neighbouring province of Quetzaltenango, told IPS.

The trafficking industry feeds on the vulnerability and desperate economic situation of the Central American migrants who pass through the area in large numbers on their way to the United States, and the sexual exploitation of mainly Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran girls in that area is commonplace, the ombudsman’s office reports.

“Because there are so many people involved in this illegal trade that undermines the integrity of girls and boys, it has been impossible to curb it,” said Maldonado.

According to the World Bank, in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, around 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as an income that is insufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and services, while nearly 58 percent have incomes below the extreme poverty line, defined as the amount needed to purchase a basic basket of food.

Guatemalan girls, and to a lesser extent boys, are the victims of trafficking in border cities in southeastern Mexico, Guatemalan vice consul Estuardo Figueroa in the city of Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, denounced last month.

At a meeting of the human rights department of the Tapachula city government, aimed at finding ways to rescue child victims of trafficking, the Guatemalan diplomat said the children are purchased in border areas of the two countries and subjected to labour or sexual exploitation in Chiapas.

Figueroa described how children can be seen in the streets of Tapachula and Tuxtla Gutiérrez hawking sweets, shining shoes, cleaning windshields or dressed up as clowns.

The ninth annual Trafficking in Persons Report on Guatemala, published by the U.S. State Department in June, put this country on the Tier 2 Watch List “for failing to show increasing efforts to combat human trafficking, particularly in terms of providing adequate assistance to victims and ensuring that trafficking offenders, including corrupt public officials, are appropriately prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for their crimes.”

The State Department trafficking in persons report places nations in one of four categories based on their efforts to curb human trafficking, prosecute those involved and support and assist victims. Countries doing the best job are in Tier 1; Tier 2 includes countries that are demonstrating a commitment to addressing the problem but have not yet met international standards; and the Tier 2 “Watch List” includes countries that show signs of digressing to Tier 3, the lowest level.

In Latin America, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama were put in Tier 2, while Nicaragua, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are on the Tier 2 Watch List, along with Guatemala, due to the large number of victims of trafficking, despite the efforts made.

The report mentions the “nascent child sex tourism” in certain areas such as Antigua and Guatemala City, and points out that young Guatemalan girls are often subject to forced labour within the country as domestic servants.

In addition, it says, “Guatemalan men, women, and children are trafficked within the country, as well as to Mexico and the United States, for forced labour, particularly in agriculture.

And “In the Mexican border area, Guatemalan children are exploited for forced begging on streets and forced labour in municipal dumps (and) Guatemalan men, women, and children are trafficked for forced agricultural work, particularly on coffee plantations,” the State Department report adds.

It recommends that Guatemala “Implement and enforce the new anti-trafficking law; increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses, and convict and punish trafficking offenders, including public officials complicit with trafficking activity.”

María Eugenia Villarreal, director of ECPAT International in Guatemala told IPS that the main concerns of her organisation – whose name stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children – are the protection of children and adolescents and the prosecution of traffickers.

“There are many problems in terms of enforcing the law,” she said. “Although the law is new, we should have had many more sentences. We have also observed an enormous weakness in investigations by prosecutors and in the failure of judges to classify crimes as trafficking.”

Sandra Gularte, coordinator of trafficking issues in the ombudsman’s office, told IPS that Guatemala’s law is the most advanced of its kind in Latin America.

This year, the ombudsman’s office received 41 complaints of trafficking from January to September, compared to 23 in 2008, which she said does not represent an increase in cases as much as a growing willingness to report trafficking-related crimes and seek assistance.

Nevertheless, she said “there is a greater vulnerability due to the economic crisis, which will prompt more Guatemalans to try to make the journey to other countries and to fall prey to organised crime networks.”

Greater information and awareness-raising are essential, she said, because many people are unaware of what trafficking is and thus do not report it, and due to a long history of exploitation of poor, indigenous people in this country.

But in Gularte’s view, the essential thing is to continue strengthening the office of the public prosecutor and the police.

 
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