By Dialogo January 01, 2010 María Celia Wilson sensed something suspicious in the weeks before her daughter Paula disappeared. Phone calls were coming in from relatives she didn’t know well, asking where Paula went to school and when she would get out of classes. Wilson believes Paula was abducted by people who wanted to exploit her for domestic or sexual slavery. The perpetrators, she said, were distant family members involved in a human trafficking ring. Argentine society is just beginning to address human trafficking, with mixed success. In 2008, Argentina passed its first federal anti-trafficking legislation. But experts and victims’ family members complain that many traffickers operate with impunity, and so it has largely fallen to civil society to take action. To evade detection, traffickers move their victims around frequently — sometimes along drug routes, since many perpetrators are also involved in the drug trade. Many of the trafficking routes start in the northeastern corner of Argentina, at the celebrated Iguaçu Falls at the Tri-Border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The famous falls, bigger than Niagara, are adored by tourists for the 40 billion gallons of water that pour across them every day. But a quieter stream flows across the border: Argentine authorities receive a new report of a trafficked person every other day — and those are just the ones who are identified. Human traffickers take advantage of a person’s vulnerabilities, often lying and making false promises, said Monique Altschul, a former trafficking advisor to the International Organization of Migration. Wilson said 18-year-old Paula had the psychological age of a 14-year-old when she disappeared. Some traffickers tell victims they will work as nannies or on ships, but they are taken to brothels instead and are not paid, Altschul said. “They say that because they had to pay for the trip, they are in debt, and they will never be able to repay the whole debt.” Argentina’s new law, following U.N. conventions, recognizes that in these cases, manipulation and deceit are as common and as criminal as brute force. Viviana Camino, coordinator of the National Network to Stop Trafficking and Slavery, said many law enforcement officials, especially at the local level, are accomplices in the slave trade. “There still has not been a real investigation into the network of complicity, which downplays the information about human trafficking,” Camino said. Victims’ photos appear in newspapers, and Camino’s National Network has a toll-free phone number for citizens to report sightings. Wilson said she had to conduct her own search for her daughter with help from people such as Susana Trimarco, whose daughter was abducted in 2002. Trimarco — whose story about one family’s attempt to rescue their kidnapped daughter from forced prostitution was the basis for the popular soap opera Stolen Lives — was given the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department in 2007 for her anti-trafficking work. Wilson’s search led her first to the northwestern province of Tucumán and then to the southern beach resort town of Mar del Plata. Those far-flung spots are two classic destinations for trafficked Argentines, often brought there from the Tri-Border area near the falls. Ten miles (16 km) down the road from the falls, Marcelina Antunes runs a Ministry of Labor anti-trafficking program called Light of Childhood. Leafing through her scrapbook of missing and rescued kids, Antunes pointed to a picture of two teenage girls rescued from a brothel just over the Brazilian border. Antunes said the two came from an Argentine town 100 miles (161 km) away, fooled by a woman who offered them work in a hotel. Antunes then turned the page to a much younger girl who still hasn’t been found. She said the girl was sold, along with her youngest sister and brother, by her own mother. Antunes said both girls and boys are in demand for sex work. A 2006 International Organization of Migration report found that brothels pay a few hundred dollars for a capture, depending on the child’s “quality.” A woman older than 23 is generally considered less desirable, but there’s no lower age limit. Until about 2007, almost all of the cross-border trafficking in the region came into Argentina from abroad. Now some of it is going the other way into Brazil, where, according to the U.S. State Department, between a quarter and half a million children are kept in prostitution. But immigration officer Emilio Osses, who oversees one of the Argentine checkpoints in the area, said that contrary to popular belief, it is not the worst trafficking hot spot on Argentina’s border. He said the Tri-Border area is heavily controlled — saturated with officers from at least eight local, federal and international agencies, including CIA agents. And it’s largely because of the intelligence community that there’s a lot of attention around the Tri-Border area, he said. There is a large and important Arab population, and it’s believed that the terrorist cells that bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires had support in this area. But Osses admitted there’s a lot of room for illegal trafficking there. During peak season, 30,000 people per day cross the Tri-Border — and that’s just at the official checkpoints. As at any border, much of the travel is uncontrolled. As for María Wilson’s daughter, Paula was found in April 2009 in good health living with a man and a newborn baby in Mar del Plata. But she still hasn’t given a conclusive account of the past two years, and Wilson insists her daughter was tricked and exploited by a prostitution ring. The case is under investigation by the prosecutor general’s specialized Unit to Assist Investigations into Kidnapping, Extortion Crimes, and Trafficking in Persons — although some local law enforcement agencies, Wilson said, dismissed the case early on by saying there was no evidence of a crime. Adolescents for sale ‘Graciela’ : “We couldn’t refuse, and if we did, they hit us. …We had to do what the client wanted,” said “Graciela,” a 16-year-old who was promised a decent job at a bar in Misiones, Argentina. They made her secretly cross the Paraná River in Paraguay, and she wound up sequestered in a brothel, mistreated and forced to have sex with up to 10 clients per night, earning 50 pesos for her captors without being compensated for it. She managed to escape, but did not press charges for fear of retaliation. ‘L’ : “I said that I would never do that [prostitute myself], and then this man began to hit me until I was unconscious,” said “L,” a 15-year-old from the countryside, taken from Caaguazú in Paraguay supposedly to work as a maid in Argentina. She was taken to a brothel in La Plata and two days later, sold for 500 pesos. Because of her age, she was the most requested one there. After a month, she managed to escape and informed authorities. Today, she is back in her community and still has scars on her body. Última Hora Mafias Traffic Indigenous People As Sex Slaves Natives of Puerto Iguazú, Argentina, are recruited by criminal organizations involved in human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, a criminal trend that first came to light in 2007. As per their ancestral customs, the indigenous communities do not recognize border limits between countries. They constitute a single nation, and their members tend to live for months in Brazil, Argentina or Paraguay, then break camp and travel to another village in any of those countries. That continuous and rotating movement is exploited by mafias in order to recruit natives from these areas and transfer them, typically in luxury cars, to various points in Paraguay. The crime is planned without a single detail being left to chance. Depending on the area in which the selected victim is located — in this case Brazil or Paraguay — the victim is taken to Argentina, and is sent to various recruiting destinations like Córdoba, Rosario, Bahía Blanca and areas farther south in the country. In 2008, the justice system disrupted a dangerous group in Río Cuatro, a city in the province of Córdoba, in which 11 young missionary girls were rescued from forced prostitution in subhuman conditions. At times, to avoid any problems with immigration control, the natives are taken in precarious watercraft along the border rivers to Argentina or from Argentina to neighboring countries. Human trafficking in the Tri-Border region — more specifically in the Puerto Iguazú jurisdiction, when transport is by water — is carried out on clandestine, under-developed routes in places like Puerto Peninsula, Picada Galeano or Guazú Cué. In the Misiones province, for example, cases were uncovered of boys and girls who were deprived of their freedom in Zona Centro and rescued in Iguazú or San Vicente. In this context, there is no doubt that the sex slave traders move victims permanently, from one side to another. “Misiones supplies a constant flow of boys, girls and adolescents to neighboring countries,” said César Raúl Jiménez, criminal and juvenile court judge from Posadas city, Argentina. “The main providers are municipalities such as San Vicente [and] San Pedro, that border Brazil, Jardín América, Eldorado and Posadas.” The recruiters focus their attention and area of operations on the province’s rural areas, more specifically on families with scarce resources, whose unfulfilled basic needs leave them vulnerable to the deceitful actions of these groups. That internal exploitation network is combined with child sex tourism, becoming a thriving business for the mafias in the Tri-Border zone. In that region, sexual exploitation and indigenous trafficking is known as “exotic sex tourism.” Interested parties are usually wealthy European tourists who travel to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina seeking sexual adventures. www.territoriodigital.com efforts in the tri-Border Area Prevención de la trata de Personas en la triple Frontera, a project to prevent human trafficking in the tri-Border area, provides medical, psychological, legal and job placement assistance to the victims while strengthening the existing countertrafficking network based in the three border cities: Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil; and Puerto Iguazú, Argentina. It is coordinated by the International organization for Migration or IoM, and funded in part by the U.S. department of State, and various governmental and social organizations are involved. the project has a media campaign in Portuguese, Spanish and Guarani.