Sunday 19 September 2021

How Central America Can Better Fight Human Trafficking

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The number of successful convictions for human trafficking in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is miniscule. These countries have made advances in the war against this crime, but judging from the available evidence, at the moment the criminals are winning.

A human trafficking victim in Honduras with a US citizen she was forced to marry. Photo c/o Connectas.
A human trafficking victim in Honduras with a US citizen she was forced to marry. Photo c/o Connectas.

She was 12 years old and lived in a remote village in Yoro, Honduras. Her family was too poor for her to continue her studies.

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After reaching fourth grade, she had to leave school to dedicate herself to chores around the house. She started looking for work to help support the family, taking advantage of the fact that a couple had arrived in town, offering a job in housekeeping.

They promised her a monthly salary and support for her family. Her parents observed that the visitors were always friendly and polite, and allowed their daughter to travel to the city in order to work for them. The couple took the girl to Comayagua, sister city to Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa. There, the girl was victim to the whims of a foreigner, who shut her up in a house along with other girls who had arrived several days earlier in the same conditions.

This is the second part of an article originally published by Connectas, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited for clarification, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read part one here.

“From the moment I arrived, the gringo said his religion required him to get married, and that he was going to get married, that in his country men had several wives,” the girl says. “I went in there, afraid. He dressed me up in Arab clothing and celebrated the wedding.”

“We were four girls who were married to the man. And even though I didn’t want anything to do with him, he forced me and there was nothing that could be done. From that day on he kept us locked up. It was a big house and he watched us with cameras.”

“I didn’t see my parents again. The man abused us and if anyone cried he would get angry. It wasn’t until the police arrived that we were taken out of the house. I don’t know what happened to him after that. Now I’m back at my parents’ house, but I don’t want to go out again. I don’t want to ever end up back there.”

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Some of the girls were taken to a shelter financed by a non-governmental organization. Others were delivered back to their families. The man from the US was arrested in La Florida, Honduras, and is currently serving time for trafficking minors.

Looking for Results

In another case in El Salvador, five children between the ages of five and ten were rescued from a trafficker’s house in Santa Rosa de Lima, in La Union province, near the border with Honduras.

The police said that two of the five minors were drugged, and had to be taken to a hospital for treatment. Police took a man named Oscar Medrano into custody — there was already a warrant out for his arrest issued by a court in La Union.

There was another case in El Salvador in which a 14-year-old girl boarded a motorcycle-taxi in Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, and asked the driver to take her home.

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Instead, the driver took her to a motel and raped her. After threatening her, he handed her over to a trafficking network, which transported her to the capital in order to sell her body to the highest bidder.

The girl was forced to work in a prostitution zone in San Salvador to attract clients. After investigating, authorities were eventually able to locate the girl. Based on her testimony, the police arrested Roberto Javier Teban Guerra, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for raping a minor and eight years for human trafficking.

How are authorities in the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) finding out about these cases? From citizens calling the emergency number 911, previous police investigations, or other indications from officials that suggest a crime may have taken place, according to Smirna Salazar de Calles, the head of the anti-human trafficking unit in El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office.

Smirna Salazar de Calles, head of the Attorney General's Office anti-human trafficking unit in El Salvador. Photo by Jaime Armando Lopez
Smirna Salazar de Calles, head of the Attorney General’s Office anti-human trafficking unit in El Salvador. Photo by Jaime Armando Lopez

Authorities recognize that trafficking is difficult to detect, and that combatting it requires a great deal of experience, specialization, resources, and coordination between police and government agencies.

Some of this has been done over the past 15 years in the Northern Triangle region, as well as in Panama, Belize, and the Dominican Republic, with a heavy reliance on international aid.

In El Salvador, more than 1,000 members of the police have been trained in 45 workshops and seminars — lasting from two to five days — hosted by international organizations like Save the Children, world police agency Interpol, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and others.

But the results have been limited. The captures and dismantling of criminal networks haven’t made much of a difference to human trafficking statistics in the Northern Triangle region.

While these efforts have paved the way towards a better understanding of traffickers’ modus operandi in Central America, ultimately authorities have not been able to advance significantly in fighting this crime.

El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has also trained its lawyers via 48 seminars, some organized in conjunction with foreign authorities.

The Attorney General’s Office accused 87 people of human trafficking between 2010 and 2014, but 11 of these cases lacked the evidence needed to go to trial.

Judges — who ultimately have the final say when it comes to those detained in human trafficking cases — have also been trained in at least six seminars carried out between 2007 and 2010.

In Honduras and Guatemala, there is insufficient information about how security forces have been trained in fighting human trafficking.

In terms of economic investment, El Salvador’s police said they don’t have information available about the budget for anti-human trafficking training. The Attorney General’s Office said their 2010-2014 budget for general training was some $58,000 dollars, while the Supreme Court allocated around $3 million dollars for training. However, both institutions said they did not have information about what portion of this money was specifically used for training related to human trafficking cases.

While these efforts have paved the way towards a better understanding of traffickers’ modus operandi in Central America, ultimately authorities have not been able to advance significantly in fighting this crime.

The main source of evidence in trials comes from informants who can give information on where victims are being held captive — rather than coming from investigative work by the authorities themselves. Informants are frequently afraid of possible reprisals from traffickers, and the government cannot adequately protect them. Informants are also frustrated by how slowly the trials proceed.

In March 2014 in Honduras, the government allocated the equivalent of $200,000 dollars to the state commission that handles sexual exploitation and human trafficking, known as Cicesdt, in order to carry out education campaigns. But the problem lingers, and human trafficking investigations are generally treated as an office job, rather than something to be done out in the field.

It Takes More Than Laws

The Northern Triangle has advanced when it comes to the legal aspect of fighting human trafficking — there are a plethora of laws that penalize various forms of the crime.

In 2012, Honduras approved an anti-human trafficking law, which punishes the crime with up to 22.5 years in prison. Those convicted of the crime are also banned from holding public office for twice the duration of their imprisonment. They are fined between 150 to 200 minimum salaries (Honduras’ minimum salary is equivalent to $300 dollars).

In Guatemala, punishment is between eight to 18 years in prison, in addition to the equivalent of a $39,000 dollar fine. However, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office stated in its 2013 report that 97 percent of human trafficking cases in the country remain unresolved.

The latest anti-human trafficking law approved by El Salvador’s Congress was passed in December 2014 and went into effect on January 14, 2015. This law increases the penalty for human trafficking — previously, those convicted of the crime could expect to serve between four to eight years in prison; now, the penalty is between eight and 20 years. The new law will also allow for the prosecution of those who purchase illegal services, according to Vanessa Martinez, who works for El Salvador’s national council for child protection, known as CONNA.

Vanessa Martinez, from El Salvador's child protection council. Photo by Jaime Armando Lopez
Vanessa Martinez, from El Salvador’s child protection council. Photo by Jaime Armando Lopez

El Salvador’s new law also took into account one of the US State Department’s recommendations regarding cases of minors who become involved in trafficking under threat from gangs. These young people are generally recruited to traffic drugs and weapons, commit murders, and collect extortion payments.

Martinez said another important development was that the new law grants permanent status to El Salvador’s anti-human trafficking council — no subsequent government will be able to disband it.

Guatemala has a 2009 law against sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking; an adoption law; an anti-femicide law; and a child protection law, among others.

Still, the results show that beyond law making and awareness campaigns, authorities will need a great deal more determination to properly confront the problem.

Helping the Victims

The US State Department has highlighted the lack of treatment available to human trafficking victims as a major issue in the Northern Triangle region, as there are few places where survivors of the crime can receive specialized attention.

According to El Salvador’s national child protection council, the country’s capital only has one shelter exclusively for underage trafficking victims. Across the country, there are 15 offices that deal with human trafficking cases in different provinces.

In Honduras, there are no shelters for minors who are rescued from human trafficking networks. As the US State Department report puts it, Honduras has been unable to sufficiently identify and support victims of the crime.

“Authorities remained almost entirely dependent on NGOs to provide services,” the report states, adding that authorities also “lack systematic procedures to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, such as people in prostitution or working children.”

Nor does Honduras have an immediate response team to address abuses against minors in the country. Meanwhile, funds meant to aid human trafficking victims have been allocated only very recently. In 2013, for example, the only registered aid for victims was $38,000 dollars given to an NGO that supports vulnerable children and is essentially the only safe house in the country for girls who are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Guatemala’s security forces have an instruction manual that outlines procedures for attending to trafficking victims, but this is not enough to satisfy US authorities. In addition, there are more than 20 national and international organizations in Guatemala that focus on human trafficking.

Such is the panorama in Central America. Evidently, the extent of the problem has exceeded the capacity of institutions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Meanwhile, the number of victims increases, and the criminals remain free.

This is the second part of an article originally published by Connectas, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited for clarification, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here. Read part one here.

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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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