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ARGENTINA: Young Women Lured into Trafficking by Job Ads

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 6 2006 (IPS) - The ads read: “presentable young ladies”, “no qualifications or experience required”, “easy work,” “good conditions,” and “hours by arrangement”. They often offer salaries of over 2,000 dollars.

It sounds like a dream to thousands of poor, unemployed teenagers and young women in Argentina. But the advertisement is the gateway to a nightmare: the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. The same newspapers that publish employment “opportunities” for young women, advertise their “services for men and women.”

In a society where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, the ads are tempting. Police in the northwestern province of Jujuy have received more than 50 reports of missing young women since September 2005. All of them had gone to see about a “job” and have not been heard of since.

Ads offering sexual services take a different tone: “Daring university student”, “wild graduates”, “erotic little doll” are likely to tempt clients looking for young, or even under-age, women. “Hot Paraguayans”, “blonde Brazilians”, “new bunny fresh from the countryside”, or “just in from the south” allude to their places of origin.

With increasing frequency, the Argentine justice system is breaking up trafficking rings that kidnap women and reduce them to servitude, turning them into merchandise that can be shipped from one place to another without leaving a trail. These gangs tend to act with the connivance of police, the justice system, and sometimes politicians.

In February, in the southern city of Comodoro Rivadavia in Chubut province, the law dealt a harsh blow to a gang operating under police and political protection. They were bringing young women from provinces in the northeast, and passing most of them on to neighbouring Santa Cruz province, where they had links.

Judge Emilio Porras Hernández took statements from 35 women who had been drawn in through ads in the media. Two were from Colombia, one from Puerto Rico, while others were from Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. There were also women from the Argentine provinces of Tucumán, Chaco, San Luis, Mendoza, San Juan, Corrientes, Córdoba and Misiones.

Besides job offers, another method used is outright kidnapping. Women are taken far away from their homes, left without money and documents, locked up, isolated, beaten and raped. They are often denied food and forced to consume drugs, the No to Human Trafficking Network affirms, based on the testimony of survivors.

The Network is a collective of activists and organisations that want human trafficking to be considered as equivalent to the “forced disappearance of persons.” Sara Torres, the coordinator, told IPS that “the percentage of prostitutes who ‘choose’ their occupation is small compared to those who are victims of trafficking.”

Although sexual exploitation is prohibited in Argentina, “impunity is rife, with brothels, sex clubs and similar places where prostitution goes on operating freely,” especially in the provinces, but also in Buenos Aires, Torres said.

Poverty and unemployment form a breeding-ground for sexual exploitation. But the activist pointed out that often “the victims are blamed” instead of pursuing the traffickers who profit from the business, or tracking down and penalising clients, especially of under-age women.

“The State is an accomplice when it fails to regulate these places, and that’s why we think that human trafficking should be seen as equivalent to forced disappearance,” Torres explained. To further this quest, the Network has sought to draw attention to the case of Marita Verón, a young woman kidnapped in Tucumán in 2002 at the age of 23, who is still missing.

Verón had been spotted in several different brothels in the provinces. One year ago, an independent investigation, instigated by her relatives, led to the discovery and rescue of 17 women who had been sexually exploited by an Argentine ring with connections in Spain. But while several arrests were made, Verón remains missing.

There is also the case of María Fernanda Aguirre, a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped while walking down the street in her native province, northeastern Entre Ríos, in mid-2004. Her mother, María Inés Cabrol, told IPS she is convinced that she fell into the hands of a trafficking ring because that is what the clues thrown up by the investigation suggest.

The main suspect in the kidnapping of Aguirre was arrested soon after the girl disappeared, but died in jail in what was alleged to be a suicide. He was the cousin of a known pimp in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, who is also under arrest but has refused to say where the girl, now 15, might be.

A study published this month in Día a Día, a newspaper in the central province of Córdoba, indicates that the province has become a “focal point” for the sexual exploitation of women. People come to Córdoba from Paraguay, and from neighbouring provinces like Santa Fe, Tucumán, Entre Ríos or Santiago del Estero.

Official information provided by the newspaper indicated that there are 26 “whiskerías” or sex clubs in the provincial capital, only one of which is licensed. The provincial attorney general, Gustavo Vidal, has ordered the investigation and pursuit of this crime as a priority. It is thought that the young women are taken from Córdoba to other provinces.

Adriana Domínguez works with victims at the Roman Catholic prison chaplaincy in Córdoba. She told IPS that most of the women arrested for working as prostitutes were in fact exploited since they were under-age. The young women were taken to rural fairs which attract hundreds of farmers, she added.

In Córdoba, as in many other provinces, prostitution is treated as a crime, although what is actually illegal is the sexual exploitation of others. But “the chain always breaks at the weakest link,” according to the No to Human Trafficking Network.

Mercedes Assorati is the coordinator of Fointra, a programme for strengthening institutions to fight human trafficking in Argentina, financed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). This month she reported that Argentina has become a major receiving country for women, because trafficking rings here act with impunity.

In 2005, Assorati was in charge of efforts to train 400 public agents involved with the issue nationwide. Prosecutors, judges and officials in provincial public administrations participated in workshops and seminars aimed at making human trafficking more visible, and at raising awareness among authorities and public opinion.

She said the State “does not give as much support as one might hope” to preventing and fighting human trafficking and assisting the victims.

Assorati agreed that human trafficking should be viewed as equivalent to forced disappearance, a crime linked to State terrorism during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, when thousands of leftists and activists were abducted and “disappeared.”

The IOM, however, does not endorse this position. Speaking to IPS, IOM spokeswoman Elena Solari maintained that Assorati was expressing a personal opinion, and said that the IOM “does not denounce or call to account,” but works to strengthen institutions and assist victims.

“We know that many young women are exploited in brothels, and we know that there are under-age girls among them, but we cannot confirm that Córdoba is a focal point for this crime,” she added.

Solari emphasised that although the IOM does not provide legal defence for victims, it does offer assistance and helps foreign nationals return to their countries. In Argentina, 103 women have been assisted in this way since 2002, she said.

A source consulted by IPS at the No to Human Trafficking Network criticised the IOM’s work. “They provide victims with assistance for three months, but that’s not enough. Many of these girls are already addicted to drugs, and without employment training and sustained assistance, they go back to prostitution,” the source said.

At that point, the IOM takes the view that the young women “choose” to return to that activity, and no further crime would be involved because there was no coercion or exploitation by third parties.

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