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Crime & Justice

Modern Slavery Rears its Ugly Head in Chile

SANTIAGO, Feb 27 2013 (IPS) - In recent years, Chile has become a source, transit, and destination hub for human trafficking victims, experts say. According to judicial authorities, forced labour and sexual exploitation are the crimes most frequently associated with this “modern form of slavery”.

“Although human trafficking appears to be a considerably common phenomenon in Chile, the number of criminal investigations does not match the perception that there is a greater number of cases,” Mauricio Fernández, head of the Economic Crimes, Money Laundering and Organised Crime Unit of the National Prosecutor’s Office, told IPS.

“Actual figures must be much higher, with many unreported cases or ignored reports,” he added.

According to statistics made available by the under-secretary of the interior, from 2007 to 2011 only 22 people were identified as victims of human trafficking, most of them women and children. In that same period, 63 individuals were arrested in connection with this crime, and only 10 of them convicted.

The 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report issued by the U.S. State Department, however, identifies Chile as “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour”.

The document notes that much of the trafficking in persons that occurs in Chile is confined within national borders, although it also involves “women and girls from other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia (who) are lured to Chile by fraudulent job offers and subsequently coerced into prostitution or domestic servitude”.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) puts the number of people affected by human trafficking in Latin America at two million and estimates that it generates some 6.6 billion dollars in profits.

Chile only recently adopted legislation to combat this crime, when it revised its Criminal Code in 2011 (Law 20507), criminalising all forms of trafficking in persons, including trafficking for forced labour purposes and the smuggling of migrants.

“Following the criminalisation of these practices there have been some (criminal) investigations resulting in prosecution and sentencing,” Fernández said, although he admitted that “there are certainly many challenges ahead, in terms of training teams of investigators to apply and enforce a regulation that is new.”

He observed that no procedures have been put in place to “efficiently process information on suspicious circumstances that may constitute an offence of this kind.”

“Some countries are transit routes for trafficking victims, others are countries of origin or destinations, but Chile is all of these,” Father Idenilso Bortolotto, vice president of the Chilean Catholic Institute of Migration (Incami), told IPS.

Bortolotto added that this is due to the fact that Chile offers “a certain security” and is an attractive destination, amidst the many difficult “social, economic and political situations in the region”, which provide fertile ground for human trafficking.

In the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, adopted in 2000 to supplement the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, the United Nations defines human trafficking as recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person through the use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.

Human trafficking made headlines in Chile in 2011 when a scandal exposed the deplorable living conditions of 57 Paraguayan nationals who were working illegally in a rural estate owned by right-wing politician and businessman Francisco Javier Errázuriz.

Errázuriz, a former presidential candidate, was charged with migrant smuggling and taken to court in an action brought by the Interior Ministry and the Human Rights Institute. This past Thursday, Feb. 14, however, the judge hearing the case temporarily and partially dismissed the charges against him, based on a medical report that found him “mentally unfit” to stand trial.

In early 2012, another businessman, Eugenio Mujica, a former honorary consul in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), recruited 43 Peruvian nationals to pick plums during the harvest in his south Chilean estate, with false promises of decent wages and accommodations.

Other cases under criminal investigation in Chile involve victims of commercial sexual exploitation who are recruited in Colombia or the Dominican Republic.

Before the law that criminalised it “we thought human trafficking didn’t exist in our country,” said Ingrid Almendras, a social worker with the non-governmental organisation Raíces, which has been investigating Chile’s sex trade for over ten years.

Almendras told IPS that while the law is “a huge step forward,” the fact that it is new means “we’re only just starting” to address the issue.

One very positive aspect that she sees in this law is that it gives foreigners who have been legally recognised as trafficking victims the possibility of staying in Chile, in contrast to what is common in Europe, where victims are sent back to their home countries.

Taking the same protection approach, Incami and the National Women’s Service opened a shelter for women victims of human trafficking.

Almendras noted that “the most damaged” among victims of the sex exploitation industry are girls, boys and adolescents who have been trafficked.

“They find themselves in strange places, with no networks to fall back on and nobody they know. They’re often forced into drug addiction, increasing their dependency and making them more compliant for potential clients,” she said.

According to the social worker, in these cases rehabilitation takes at least three to four years, because that’s how long it takes “to really get somewhere” with these victims, although every case is different.

A pending task identified by the experts consulted is the need to raise awareness on the issue among Chileans and promote greater tolerance towards immigrants.

“A great effort is needed to raise awareness, sensitise people to the plight (of these victims) and inform them,” Bortolotto said.

A recent survey by the Communication and Poverty Alliance revealed that 41 percent of the migrants polled had suffered some form of discrimination by Chileans. That figure is greater in the case of black migrants and respondents from neighbouring countries.

“We still have a long way to go before Chileans know and understand what we’re talking about and realise that it’s a modern form of slavery,” the priest concluded.

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