Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Trafficked Women – an Invisible Problem

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 19 2005 (IPS) - “They simply vanish, as if the earth had swallowed them up,” said activist Juan Carr, referring to the girls and women who fall prey to trafficking rings in Argentina that sell them into forced prostitution.

According to activists like Carr, the head of the Red Solidaria (Solidarity Network), and the families of missing women and adolescents, the victims are kidnapped by organised crime networks that operate with the complicity of political and judicial authorities and the police.

Thirteen-year-old Fernanda Aguirre was kidnapped in July 2004 in San Benito, a town in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos. While the legal investigation has been focusing the search on finding a buried body, Fernanda’s mother has come across evidence that her daughter fell into the hands of a prostitution ring.

People who claimed to have taken the girl demanded 600 dollars. But although the small ransom was paid, Fernanda never reappeared.

Fernanda’s mother, Maria Inés Cabrol, told IPS “I believe she was taken away to be forced to work as a prostitute.”

The desperate mother, whose search has taken her to seven different provinces, said “there are no words” to describe the pain of a mother whose young daughter was suddenly whisked away from a street near her home.

“Every day that goes by, the suffering is worse. I can’t imagine how she might be doing, my little girl who was so attached to me, who has no one she can trust now,” said Cabrol.

Although the police arrested a suspect with a criminal record, in connection with the case, he reportedly hung himself in the police station lock-up a few days later.

The suspect, whose death was reported as a suicide, was the cousin of a well-known pimp from Entre Ríos who is in prison, but has provided no information that would assist the investigation.

In December, a hand-written letter asking for help was found in the town of Las Termas, in the northern province of Santiago del Estero. Although the expert analyses came up with contradictory results, Fernanda’s mother said she has no doubts: “It’s my daughter’s handwriting.”

The police and legal authorities have carried out a number of searches and raids in Las Termas that have led to arrests in connection with the sexual exploitation of minors, but there has been no sign of Fernanda.

Cabrol has made two trips to Santiago del Estero. “In Las Termas, local residents, chauffeurs, the police, everyone told me my daughter was there, but that the mayor’s brother had her, and the federal police were involved,” she said almost in a whisper, as if she were afraid of being overheard.

In her desperation, Cabrol has met with President Néstor Kirchner, government ministers, lawmakers, governors, judges, the police and non-governmental organisations. “They have all told me that they’ll give me whatever I need, but all I want is my little girl,” she said.

Sara Torres, a representative in Argentina of the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, told IPS that “For nine years we have been trying to draw attention in Argentina to the trafficking of women, but society does not want to open its eyes because it sees prostitution as a necessary evil, and prefers to blame the victims.”

The nature of the phenomenon makes it impossible to obtain reliable statistics, and whatever information is available is based on the missing person reports that are filed by families.

Carr told IPS that the Red Solidaria is currently seeking 190 missing persons. Of that total, 67 percent are girls and women, and 63 percent are girls between the ages of 13 and 18.

He added that in the past seven years, of the more than 300 missing adolescents reported, 90 percent have been found, and “Among those who have shown up were 10 girls who said they had been sexually exploited.”

The cases occur only sporadically, in an isolated fashion, and the media draw no links between them. After a short fruitless search, the stories fade from the headlines. Nor do police and legal investigators or government authorities talk about a pattern.

The most recent case was that of 24-year-old Florencia Penacchi, who was seen for the last time leaving her Buenos Aires apartment on Mar. 16. Her smiling face shines out from posters plastered all over the city. There have been no requests for ransom or any other signs that she may still be alive.

Another case involves Marita Verón, 23, who was kidnapped in 2002 in the northwestern province of Tucumán. A woman who escaped from a prostitution ring in that province reported that she had seen and talked to Verón. But as usual, the police arrived late to the place where she was reportedly being held.

Young tourists have also gone missing, like Nikola Henkler, a 28-year-old from Germany, who disappeared in Bariloche, a ski resort in the southern province of Rio Negro, in December 2002, or 23-year-old Annagreth Wirgler from Switzerland, last seen in the northwestern province of La Rioja in August 2004.

Torres pointed out that in 2002, Argentina signed the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, as well as its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

“The sale of people for sexual exploitation purposes has become widespread, and is tolerated,” she said. “There are even judges, prosecutors and police who admit the existence of brothels that are theoretically illegal under local legislation and the conventions signed by the country at the international level.”

“Society has the impression that these places are legal, but they aren’t,” noted Torres, who accused certain media outlets of acting as “accomplices” in the “flesh trade.” She pointed out that the newspaper Clarín publishes classified ads selling sex in the “useful services for men and women” section.

Women’s groups hold workshops and seminars to give visibility to the question of the trafficking of women, but they have not made contact with th e families of missing girls and women, who often have more clues, information and knowledge on the issue than the professionals who have received training in that area.

Cabrol has been in permanent contact with Susana Trimarco, Marita Verón’s mother. Thanks to Trimarco’s unstinting efforts, a number of clues were found pointing to the existence of a network of pimps that operates in the provinces of La Rioja, Tucumán and Buenos Aires, the central province of Córdoba and the southern province of Santa Cruz, and that has ties in Spain as well.

In an open letter published in April, Verón’s family, with backing from human rights organisations, reported that their investigation, along with police work, led to the rescue of 17 young women in the hands of this network, in the cities of Bilbao and Burgos in northern Spain and Vigo in the northwest.

“In Argentina those who commit these crimes enjoy impunity, and thanks to the complicity of the justice system, the police, and many politicians, these mafias operate in a huge area where they are free to negotiate the lives of our daughters and sons,” adds the letter.

The police intelligence commissioner in the province of Tucumán, Jorge Tobar, has played a key role in investigating the trafficking in women, although he has sometimes been reprimanded by the police force for his outspoken declarations. His zeal in fighting the phenomenon appears to be the result of a personal commitment.

“In Argentina there is a system of organised crime that captures women, sells them, and puts them to work as prostitutes in slave-like conditions,” Tobar said in an interview with the Buenos Aires daily Página/12. “They are sold as cattle, taken away, exploited, and all of this is done with complicity.”

Tobar has taken part in the Verón case and in joint operations carried out by Interpol (international police), which have led to the rescue in Spain of a total of 25 women from Argentina who were being sexually exploited.

The police commissioner said there was an enormous difference between Spain and Argentina in the resources available for cracking down on the trafficking of women.

Referring to the case of Fernanda Aguirre, he said “I tracked her down in Santiago del Estero and reported the exact spot where she was being held. But the legal authorities and police carried out 19 raids before finally going to that spot.” And when they did eventually arrive, he added, the girl was no longer there.

In April, a report by the U.S. State Department warned that Argentina had serious problems with respect to trafficking in people for sexual and labour exploitation purposes.

The Kirchner administration issued an angry denial, with Interior Minister Aníbal Fernández saying the report was extremely damaging to Argentina’s image, and that the authorities are working hard to clamp down on trafficking.

He also said the report may have been linked to offers by U.S. companies working on computer programmes for migration security, which the Argentine government had refused to purchase.

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