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:: Job Offer Too Good to Be True?

BOGOTA, Aug 23 (IPS) - The marriage or job offer abroad sounds too good to be true? It very well might be. Tens of thousands of people in Latin America fall victims to human trafficking every year. Claudia, a 28-year-old Colombian mother of two who has experience as a computer systems technician, was just one of them.

She was offered a job in an oil company in Venezuela, but she ended up beaten, raped and forced into prostitution, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which has fought trafficking in persons for over half a century, and is currently active in over 120 countries.

Juan, a 30-year-old engineer, was also lured by a deceptive job offer, traveling to Spain where he was to earn a whopping 200 euros a day. But when he got there, his documents were taken away from him, and he was put to work taking care of sheep, without pay.

Paula, 40, a divorced mother of two with a university degree and graduate level studies, was beaten, exploited both sexually and in terms of her labour rights, and held in check by threats that her daughter would be raped, after she met "Jorge" via the Internet and traveled to Central America to get married.

Other women have even lost their children due to their failure to check carefully into individuals, companies, laws, obligations and rights, because they handed over their papers, or because they failed to seek help in time.

That is what happened to a Colombian secretary who met an Austrian over the Internet, married him, and moved to Austria. "When I had my first son, he took the baby away. He locked me up and wouldn't let me go out. I had two other children as well, who both disappeared. I was finally able to escape and come back, but although I have been trying hard, I haven't found my children yet," she told Fundacin Esperanza, a Colombian non-governmental organisation (NGO) that combats people smuggling.

Similar stories abound in Colombia and the rest of Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children fall victim to this scourge that currently affects at least 20 million people worldwide and brings in more money for organised crime than any other business, after drug trafficking and weapons dealing, according to Anti-Slavery International, a British NGO founded in 1839.

Many Latin Americans are exploited by means of violence and threats. They are often locked up, and a large number are forced to work for no pay. "Others are sold or forced to work as prostitutes, are trapped into servile marriage, or are forced into the sex tourism trade. Yet others fall victim to organ trafficking rings," said Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, national coordinator of anti-human trafficking efforts in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bogota.

At least 10,000 people from 39 countries, mainly from Latin America, currently work as modern-day slaves in 90 cities in the United States, Jolene Smith, with the Washington-based Free the Slaves, said at an international conference on people trafficking in the Colombian capital earlier this year.

Forty-six percent of them have been forced into prostitution, 27 percent are in domestic service, 10 percent are working in agriculture, five percent work in manufacturing, and the rest are involved in other activities, she said.

MODERN-DAY SLAVERY

As Free the Slaves and Anti-Slavery International point out, slavery was only abolished on paper in the 19th century, because not only did abolition fail to do away with the servitude of blacks and indigenous people at the time, but slavery has actually expanded since then in some areas and given rise to other blights, like organ trafficking.

The 20th century brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous international conventions. But these have coexisted with people trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Between 600,000 and 800,000 people a year fall victim to trafficking in persons, 80 percent of whom are women and girls. Half of the total are minors, and most end up in sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. State Department's 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, released in July.

But the numbers are actually higher, because many victims do not file complaints or seek help "as they do not see themselves as victims, fear reprisals against themselves or their families, fear being judged for what has happened to them, or are afraid the authorities will treat them as criminals rather than victims," said Mnica Peruffo, with the IOM anti-trafficking in persons programme in Colombia.

Internal or international human trafficking occurs in virtually every country in Latin America, but many -- like Bolivia, Brazil or Paraguay -- have no specific legislation to crack down on the phenomenon, even though it is a growing problem, said Ruiz-Restrepo.

"There are no precise statistics," she noted. "It is difficult to document the cases, and tracking them down is extremely complex. No detailed regional study has been carried out, but we know the problem is serious and that no country is free of this scourge."

Colombia ranks third in the region, behind Brazil and the Dominican Republic, in the number of documented cases of international people trafficking, despite the numerous awareness-raising campaigns that have been carried out, free telephone hot-lines that have been set up for emigrants, and legislation on the matter that is among the most advanced in Latin America.

Human trafficking is punished in Colombia with prison sentences ranging from 13 to 23 years and fines of 140,000 to 175,000 dollars.

Colombia "is the most complex case in the region because it brings together many factors that generate this phenomenon: armed conflict, economic crisis, forced displacement and recruitment, and drug trafficking," said Ruiz-Restrepo.

Furthermore, as the only country at war in the region, it is especially vulnerable because above all, traffickers feed off of humanitarian crises, said researcher Judith Kumin, former spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

IN THE REGION

Latin America is a primary source of victims of human trafficking, as a region where poverty, a readiness to emigrate, and a widespread conviction that life must be better elsewhere come together to form a favourable breeding ground.

In the case of Colombia, nearly four million citizens live abroad, and estimates indicate that between two and 10 leave the country every day as potential victims of trafficking in persons, according to the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia's secret service, and Interpol (International Criminal Police Organisation).

"A recent novelty is that there have been reports of trafficking of Colombians in neighbouring countries like Ecuador and Panama," commented the IOM's Peruffo.

In Brazil, which does not yet have specific legislation on the question, many men in rural areas fall victim to slave labour on plantations. And in Feira de Santana, a municipality in the impoverished northeastern state of Baha, girls are actually auctioned off. "They put them in a truck and sell them. Virgins fetch a higher price," researcher Jacqueline Leite said in an interview in Bogota while taking part in a regional workshop on human rights and people smuggling.

Mexico, which ranks fifth in the region in terms of the number of human trafficking victims -- and where just as in Colombia, drug cartels flourish -- "is a source, transit, and destination country for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation and labour," according to the State Department report.

The phenomenon is closely linked to cross-border organised crime networks, it adds, while pointing out that many illegal migrants become victims of traffickers and are exploited in their journey from Mexico's southern border with Guatemala to the U.S. border.

Argentina also forms part of the global network of human trafficking, mainly of children and adolescents for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

And in Venezuela, the public prosecutor's office announced the arrest in early June of two members of the National Guard for their alleged involvement in an international ring that trafficked Chinese nationals.

ORGAN TRAFFICKING

To further complicate the matter, Latin Americans also fall victim to the trafficking of organs. Today it is no longer rare to find corpses that have been plundered for their organs.

In Bucaramanga, in the northeastern Colombian province of Santander, the body of 17-year-old Johana Maritza Pinto was found bathed and dressed, without any blood on it, but with a sewed up wound that stretched from her neck to her belly button. "They took everything, from her lungs to her bladder," the police reported.

Others survive to tell the tale. An 18-year-old university student on his way to class in Bogota one morning struck up a conversation with two strangers on the bus. The last thing he remembers is that they sprayed something in his face. Five days later he woke up in a local park with a sewn-up wound in his side. He later discovered that he was missing a kidney, according to the Fundacin Esperanza.

"We have heard of pregnant women whose babies have been stolen, or bodies of young people missing their corneas. But it is very difficult to document and follow up on such cases," said Diana Cano, national coordinator of Fundacin Esperanza.

What can people do to avoid falling victim to traffickers? Experts recommend that prospective migrants learn about their rights before traveling, check out who they are dealing with -- and avoid job offers or marriage proposals that are just too good to be true.

* Gloria Helena Rey has received several national and international awards during her 25-year career as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and Europe. She currently writes for El Peridico in the northern Spanish province of Catalonia, and for the Bogota daily El Tiempo. (END/2006)

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