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When Susana Trimarco’s 23-year-old daughter, Marita Verón, disappeared on the 3rd April 2002, little did she imagine the scale of the quest she would embark upon. Trailing the insidious path of Marita’s kidnappers, Trimarco’s decade-long pursuit has led her undercover as a prostitute in La Rioja, and as far as northern Spain, in an attempt to infiltrate the opaque networks of the sex trade. Ten years later, the trial is finally underway in Tucumán, with 13 of the accused due to appear in court over the next few months. But Marita’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Marita is just one of thousands of women in Argentina who are subjected to forms of sexual exploitation and trafficked into hellish conditions at the hands of human trade mafias everyday.
“These girls have no one to protect them, the state makes no effort to find them,” Trimarco told The Argentina Independent. “And so I’m left pursuing the case of Marita, and those of thousands of girls in Marita’s shoes, alone.”
Trimarco’s high profile campaign has been instrumental in catapulting the issues of corruption and impunity at the heart of human trafficking networks into the public agenda, exposing an industry which had remained unlegislated and thus unaccountable for years.
In 2007, Susana Trimarco set up the María de los Angeles Foundation, an organisation aimed at combatting human trafficking and providing legal, psychological, and social assistance to its victims. Andrea Romero, the director of projects, explains how the victims are lured with false promises of work.
“The trafficking networks take advantage of women, mainly from economically vulnerable backgrounds, in such a way that they leave their house on their own accord.”
Once in the grasp of the mafia, a wide array of psychological and physical techniques are administered so as to desensitise their victims. The women are maltreated, ill fed, and frequently enchained.
Removing documentation is a crucial form of domination in the mechanics of the trade. If women are exported without papers or money, it follows that they have no logical means of escape. Moreover, by divesting these women of their identity, the mafia creates the illusion that they simply never existed.
At this stage, the women are repeatedly assaulted with a brutality endemic to the trade and threatened into submission.
“The only way they will be released from this subjection,” says Trimarco, “is if there are organisations set up to empower these women and inform them of their rights. They need to speak out if they are to reclaim their identity and denounce their perpetrators.”
According to a report conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, no prosecutions or convictions were recorded for trafficking in persons in Argentina between 2003 and 2007.
In 2008 an anti-trafficking law was passed, making the abduction and sexual exploitation of persons a federal offence in Argentina.
The Rescue Office, established that year under the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, oversees the prevention and investigation of human trafficking crimes and provides legal assistance to victims.
Since its implementation 2,774 victims have been rescued, with that number rising by 181% in the last year alone, according to statistics from the Rescue Office.
In July 2011, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner passed a decree banning the publication of “adult service” advertisements in newspapers and magazines with “implicit or explicit reference to the solicitation of people for sex” (widely known as Rubro 59). The law marks a crucial step towards addressing the exploitation at the heart of the mainstream media, questioning the “normalisation” of such means of procurement.
“2011 has been a critical year for national measures,” says Viviana Caminos, the national coordinator of the Stop Traficking and Trade Network (RATT). “It was the first time that we began to see significant changes with the Ministry of Security denouncing police forces implicated in the trade.”
Initiatives have been set up to train security forces to detect trafficking networks and assist victims. The schemes will also promote the exchange of data thereby strengthening the capacity of state agencies to prevent and investigate trafficking.
“We are principally an exploitative country,” Carlos Garmendia, Marita’s attorney, explains. “And we are, by that logic, also a recruitment country.”
Whilst many victims are trafficked from Paraguay, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic, “internal trafficking” remains an acute problem.
According to the Fiscal Unit of Kidnappings and Trafficking (UFASE), 39 sentences were apportioned in 2011. While the majority of victims are imported, over 70% of the traffickers convicted are Argentine.
The global human trafficking market now has an estimated turnover of US$32bn. If that figure is accurate, it makes the industry more lucrative than the narcotics trade. Because, unlike drugs, people can be used and abused on multiple occasions. The figures are startling not only because of the ubiquity and the pervasiveness of these ‘invisible’ networks, but because their presence remains integral to the everyday functioning of a country’s economy.
The countries most vulnerable to human trafficking are those that have undergone periods of economic or political crises, leaving a power vacuum to be exploited by criminal networks. Viviana Caminos recalls how the sex trade first became visible in Argentina in 1999, becoming fully conspicuous in 2000, just as the economy took a nosedive and the burden of debt began to take its toll. Women began to be bartered, sold and exploited as commodities in an unregulated marketplace.
The widespread cultural endorsement of prostitution in Argentina is the principal obstacle in infiltrating these opaque networks. Garmendia is categorical: where there is a demand, the supply chain will continue to flow unabated. Raising awareness of the consumption of prostitution is the only way to staunch the supply at its source.
Vicious Cycles: Debt and Dependency
Despite the groundwork achieved by the 2008 law, campaigners are still fervent that the legislation lacks several key amendments. Firstly, the law does not take into account victims over 18 years of age who allegedly consent to prostitution.
Secondly, the legislation does not address the regnant topic of enforced marriages, according to Inspector Claudia Flores, who has overseen a number of trafficking cases in Córdoba. Women from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, without the immigration papers required to enter the country, are lured into formal marital arrangements. In such circumstances, the women have to provide a dowry and thereafter they are set an unattainable monthly quota to sustain their husbands, ensuring they remain in a perpetual state of dependency.
Not only are these women an extremely lucrative form of currency in themselves, but they are forced to consume and pay for an exorbitant amount of drugs and alcohol, and to sell these substances on to their clients.
“The women need to be sedated simply to entertain the unfathomable number of customers – often 20 to 30 in six hours – that they are subjected to each night,” Flores explains.
A recent high profile court case, overseen by Flores, is that of Victoria P. A mother of two, Victoria was trafficked into the the region known as ‘tolerance houses’ in Río Gallegos, where she was drugged, sedated and forced into prostitution.
Victoria’s tragic tale took a turn for the worse when she fell pregnant to a client. Her pimp subsequently forced her to undergo an abortion, but it failed and she remained pregnant. After giving birth, her child was shipped off to Paraguay and into the hands of the pimp’s boyfriend. Since the brothel counted members of the police and security forces among its clientele, immigration never presented an obstacle.
According to Flores, politicians, prosecutors and the police are heavily implicated in this trade whose lucrativeness and very existence depends upon their complicity and consent. Even when the brothels are raided and perpetrators convicted, only 6% of the establishments remain closed; for the rest business continues as normal – and the chain remains unbroken.
The case of Lorena Martins, who publicly denounced her father, Raúl, last year, is emblematic. An ex-agent of the state intelligence unit (SIDE), Martins has allegedly been involved in the sex trade for 20 years.
Accused of more than 12 crimes in Argentina, he still has several brothels to his name in Buenos Aires, including The One and Maxim. His notorious Cancún establishment, The Mix, visited by Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri on his honeymoon, was closed in 2011.
According to Martins, such clubs function as covert sites for the exploitation of dozens of women who are forced into prostitution and delivered straight into the hands of leaders of drug cartels.
Relentlessly searching for evidence to incriminate her father, Lorena Martins discovered a series of documents which allude to a payment made to the former head of the Buenos Aires government agency as a contribution to the electoral campaign of Mauricio Macri.
Accusations of corruption are all too common in these cases, and seem to indicate that corruption is entrenched in the system. When there is suspicion that the mafia may be financing political campaigns and bribing the police, who, it may well be asked, is left to hold them to account?
Trimarco remains vehement that “the only way trafficking victims will be released from this subjection is if there are organisations set up to empower them and inform them of their rights. They need to speak out if they are to reclaim their identity and denounce their perpetrators.”
Find out how aware locals are of the issue of women’s trafficking here.