“I got a message on Facebook, I did not know the person who sent it, nor were we friends on that social network, but it said there was a photo casting, I was excited and I went with my mom, we were not there even five minutes.
“Everything was extremely normal: the clothes, the photos, the girls. There was nothing out of place. About two or three photo sessions were normal and then those in charge began to demand other things (photos of a sexual nature).
“They got the data from the place where I was studying, they knew my schedule, they were going to look for me and, since I didn’t want to (do the photos), they started with threats.
“They threatened to take my sister’s life, kidnap her or sexually abuse her, they attacked me with the most sensitive things in my life, she was very young and to protect her, I agreed. I was a girl, I was 13 years old …
“I never went for money, nor did I want to be a model, I was curious, I was very innocent and I entered that (social) network unconsciously.”
This is the way, María, a made-up name used for this report, described what she lived for approximately three years, during which time she was a victim of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation derived from the production and dissemination of child pornography.
She is one of 26 girls who was recruited by a modeling agency based in San José, of which two photographers linked to an international network were in charge of producing material and send it to Mexico.
They produced photos and videos of minors between 11 and 17 years old and uploaded to pornographic websites.
The investigation of this case, known as R–INO (rescue of innocents), began in 2015 after the mother of one of the minors discovered that there were photos of her daughter on porno sites and filed the complaint.
Starting there, the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ) began to investigate and, in June 2017, carried out seven raids.
The work by the OIJ investigators determined that the leaders of the group in Costa Rica were two photographers, identified as Elías de Jesús Solano Corrales and Justo Tony Núñez Romero.
The Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that the first is serving 39 years in prison and the second was convicted, but remains in preventive detention (waiting out any appeal), while his 28 years sentence becomes firm.
Both accepted the charges and went through an abbreviated process.
How human traffickers operate
HOW THE PEOPLE TRAFFICKING NETWORKS OPERATE
Authorities believe that anyone can be a victim of this crime.
Rodrigo Picado Mena, OIJ investigator these types of cases are very complex and difficult to connect all the links. In addition to Costa Rica and Mexico, the group had members in Brazil; and, the pages in which the material was disseminated were blocked for those three countries, so it was necessary to use special technological tools to uncover the case.
“It was not just a site, but it was linked to a lot of other web pages with child pornographic content (…). We realized that the material was promoted on pornographic pages and on the deep web, and to have access you had to be a member and pay with bank cards, wire transfers and bitcoins.
“Membership cost US$29 and, from there, the value of the material varied between US$500 and US$5,000,” said Picado.
He highlighted that in Costa Rica the group recruited its victims, all minors, through social networks and in schools located in urban-marginal areas; however, they did not have an established profile.
The offer they made to hook the girls was modeling and later, under duress and threats, they continued to use them for the production of pornographic material.
Picado mentioned that in order not to raise suspicions, photography, and video sessions were held in the afternoons at the houses of the accused, motels, or remote hotels.
Initially, they were paid ¢25,000 (US$45) per session, but when they were forced, they stopped giving them money, despite the fact that Solano and Núñez continued to receive money for production expenses.
“The payment was at the beginning, and then everything under threats and coercion. They, through social networks, had all the information of the victims and their relatives, so with the data they exercised control over the girls. In some cases there were threats with knives and in others they said they would harm them or their family members,” said the investigator.
Although three other people were arrested in the raids, the investigation determined that the two photographers were the only ones responsible, who were also convicted of rape, sexual acts and illicit association.
If they have knowledge of a case, people can call 800-8000-645, which is the OIJ’s confidential line. The authorities believe that a complaint can make a difference.
María, who was a victim of the two men for approximately three years, remembers that they both had everything so controlled that they knew who her best friend was, so when they picked her up from school they forced her to say that she would be at her house.
When they did not want to take a photo or were not satisfied with their work, the band used another method of control: the attention of a psychologist, who was the brother of one of the accused and insisted on telling the girls that the photos they were taking in the nude or with little clothing, there was nothing wrong.
“Every time you did this type of photography he (the psychologist) talked to you as if to try to convince you that this was okay, or that nothing bad was going to happen.
“Once I was depressed, he gave me about two weeks of therapy that was useless, but his role made me feel like I was cool in that network at the same time.
“Just imagine, I was a girl and a psychologist comes with scientific therapies and obviously one will believe it.
“Every time a victim felt bad, they sent him and he talked to you,” explained María, who is currently 20 years old and is a student of Health Sciences.
Her disassociation with the organization occurred with a deception, which she saw as the only possibility to prevent her situation from worsening, since they offered her a considerable amount of money in exchange for allowing the recording of a video while masturbating.
She claims that in order to leave the house she was in at the time she said that she accepted, but it was then when she decided that she never wanted to have contact with those types who had taken advantage of her.
The intimidations did not end there, but to defend herself, she threatened one of the photographers to file a complaint, so they agreed to leave her alone as long as she did not tell.
After that, she decided to break the silence and tell her mother what she was experiencing and, although the first option was to report, she begged her not to do it out of fear, since the group had members in other countries.
However, with the passing of time, she could not recover, so filled with courage went to the OIJ to report.
María never changed her address, but she did move from her school and her cell number varied.
In addition, she stopped using Facebook, and, although she currently has Instagram, she acknowledges that she uses it little because social networks do not seem productive.
Recruiting in public places and social networks
Trafficking in persons is a crime whose purpose is exploitation, in this case it was sexual, but it can also be for labor, irregular adoption or for the illegal removal of organs.
Sandra Chaves Esquivel, from the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Management of the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería (DGME) – Costa Rica’s immigration – stated that this crime can occur in the country or in other countries and that the methods used by criminals to capture its victims are variable.
Chaves assures that there are no vulnerable people, but rather conditions that make trafficking groups take advantage of the circumstances.
For example, consider a myth that only low-income people become victims, since there are times when the offer of a trip, an invitation to an activity, among others, can trigger the crime.
She stressed that age is an important factor, since 15-year-old does not believe the same as at 25, so this is sometimes taken advantage of by criminal networks.
“When there is an organized network, there is preparation to search for victims, that is, that in the group they are merchandise captors, it sounds very ugly, but in human trafficking, the human being is simple merchandise, so they study the profiles very well. .
“In the social network there is data of where she lives, where she studies, where she eats ice cream on the weekend, friends, the person’s emotional state, among others, which is why, if they are well organized, networks choose those profiles and attack from there, it is very easy to do it because they have a lot of information on people’s profiles.
“The other way to choose their victims is through a study, in which they look for the highest condition of vulnerability of people. We have had recruitments in churches, where there is a person who takes advantage of people’s testimonies to recruit them,” Chaves emphasized.
She added that the deceptions usually come with job offers, whether in modeling or other areas.
Erick Lewis Hernández, head of the OIJ’s Specialized Section Against Cybercrime, stressed that social networks are a double-edged sword, because they have too many uses for the population, but they also host personal data.
He recognized that there are those who create job offers or virtual businesses and that facilitates the criminal’s access to data.
“The information that the victim often puts on their social networks is used by the criminal to profile and gradually try to gain confidence until they reach what they really want,” he said.
According to Hernández, groups dedicated to human trafficking are often organized, where there are people with established functions such as the recruitment, transfer and threat of victims, in which one or two people are in charge of all the work.
There are also cases such as the R-INO, where there are members in various countries with a leader who gives orders remotely and only occasionally visits to verify how the business is progressing.
Women are vulnerable populations, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Francesca Tabellini, assistant project specialist with emphasis on human trafficking in the Mesoamerica Program of the IOM National Office for Costa Rica, explained that 73% of women (23% underage girls and 50% over 18) have levels of vulnerability against 27% men (7% children, 20% adults).
She indicated that, sadly, there are cases in which a person can be a victim of trafficking throughout their life, taking into account that they become invisible.
“We have statistics on global trafficking cases that exceed the millions, together with the migrant smuggling, arms and drug trafficking, as one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.
“We know that for every victim that we are able to uncover, there are many more that unfortunately, we will never know, that they are cases that will never come to light because they are invisible.
“This is a very complex crime and an extremely lucrative business, it generates a lot of profits worldwide, which is why these networks are very sophisticated and make a person, sadly, be able to stay in that situation of human trafficking for life, if we did not succeed as an institution that can effectively escape,” explained Tabellini.
María stressed that it was her courage and her desire that other girls did not go through what she did that she denounced and acknowledges that moving forward, after what she lived, has been a personal decision.
She emphasizes that in her case there were never any economic or social problems that made her connect with the group and she asked other victims not to be afraid, because there are always people who will help them.
In her case, they were the judicial investigators and a psychologist. So for her, the Judiciary is an efficient institution that really cares about helping people who come to report.
“I tell parents never to let children use social media alone, because they are very innocent and family support is important. You really don’t have to trust anyone.
“My message to the victims is that although sometimes we feel alone and we think that because of what happened to us, no one will accept us, that thought is a mistake, it is possible to get ahead and fulfill dreams. Sometimes, it is very heavy to live from the past and to continue with our normal lives and meet goals, we have to put that chip aside, “concluded the young woman.
In the future, she hopes to run a campaign or some group that has to do with human trafficking, but for now she is focused on her career and moving on with her life.