In 1928, the League of Nations conducted a three-year global study of sex trafficking of women and children throughout Central America, which concluded, “Latin America is the traffic market of the world.” Currently, Central America is the third-highest source of human trafficking. These 7 facts about human trafficking in Central America will explain the factors leading to this significant problem and what people are doing to combat it.
7 Facts About Human Trafficking in Central America
- Dangers During Migration: It is not always an easy decision to relocate one’s entire family to a new country, but rampant poverty, extreme violence and governmental corruption throughout Central America force families and children to flee for a more prosperous life elsewhere. Risky job prospects and economic opportunity abroad may tempt migrants, but the true danger of migration lies in the 2,000-mile trek from Central America to the U.S. On this journey, migrants are in danger of human trafficking for domestic servitude, forced labor or the sex trade. A report by UNICEF states, “These families must navigate a long, uncertain journey in which they risk being preyed upon by traffickers or other criminals.” To avoid detection by authorities, migrants and refugees take dangerous routes where they do not know their whereabouts and where others can take advantage of their invisibility.
- The Vulnerability of Children: Children are one of the most vulnerable populations to trafficking due to their immaturity and the ease in which others can overpower them. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), children account for three in every five victims of human trafficking, backed in large part by organized crime rings. The impact of child trafficking in Central America is far-reaching, with many risk factors leaving children susceptible. For instance, criminal gangs’ main operation is illegal adoption, which they can achieve through kidnapping and involvement of government officials. Street and orphaned children are especially vulnerable to trafficking into the sex trade, while others must work under dangerous circumstances in the agricultural and mining industries. In 2014, a report from the Department of Labor found ample evidence of the use of child labor in the production of goods throughout Central America, including bricks, coffee, gold and sugarcane.
- The Vulnerability of Women: Along with young children, women are another vulnerable population at high risk for trafficking, especially sexual exploitation. Traffickers traffick most females for prostitution, especially near the Guatemala-Mexico border, while they use others for stripping and pornography. These women are often irregular migrants who fall through the cracks and eventually suffer further exploitation in bars and brothels to local clientele. It can occur forcefully, with smugglers kidnapping victims or coercing them into prostitution. In other cases, women may have no other means of support, and with dependents at home, traffickers may lure them into the sex trade. Once they are involved, it is not easy to leave, as brothel owners may threaten violence or exposure if they sense that a worker is tempted to leave. Traffickers may send women internally or internationally and State Department officials have estimated that 10s of thousands of Central Americans suffer trafficking internationally each year. Large numbers of these victims come from Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
- Central America and Trafficking: Although human trafficking is a significant problem among Central American countries, none of them comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, which establishes human trafficking and related offenses as federal crimes with severe penalties. Through the TVPA, the U.S. Department of State ranks countries based on tiers, focusing on the country’s governmental efforts to comply with the TVPA standards. Mexico, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador rank as Tier 2, meaning they do not meet TVPA standards but are making significant efforts to combat human trafficking. Belize ranks as Tier 3 country, signifying it does not meet TVPA standards and are not making substantial efforts to comply.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS): The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has attempted to step in in the absence of action from Central American governments. In early 2019, the DHS developed a partnership with government officials from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by signing a Memorandum of Cooperation, which concentrates efforts to combat human trafficking and stem the flood of irregular migration. Other initiatives are establishing, including combatting criminal organizations and gangs, addressing the root causes of human trafficking and smuggling and developing a proposal to tighten the region’s laws regarding trafficking. After a temporary halt of foreign aid being dispersed by the U.S. to the Northern Triangle countries, the White House resumed its support for the program by releasing $143 million in October 2019 to specific targeted efforts.
- The United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act: In July 2019, the U.S. took an additional effort to address the root causes of migration by passing the United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act. This bill, which New York Representative Eliot L. Engel and Texas Representative Michael McCaul announced, passed unanimously through the House of Representatives. Because of the serious challenges that drive illegal migration to the U.S. and threaten the Northern Triangle’s stability, the act proposes a five-year strategy that prioritizes anti-corruption, economic growth and development and strengthening security conditions. Additionally, the bill authorizes $577 million in foreign assistance to the region for the 2020 fiscal year.
- The Polaris Project: Another organization working to stop human trafficking is the Polaris Project. Polaris’ work focuses on dismantling the networks that support human trafficking and sexual exploitation while boosting the international safety net. It acknowledges that its response must include a comprehensive understanding of migration, cultural context and gender norms. Not only does it engage in active efforts to combat the root causes of human trafficking, but it also recognizes the importance of supporting survivors in rebuilding their lives after the trauma they have endured. The organization operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline as well as the BeFree Textline to connect survivors with resources and support. Also, as 26 percent of the world’s trafficking victims are children, Polaris synchronizes its efforts with the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking as well as the National Network for Youth to support legislative efforts that increase protections for youth. Its combative efforts to end human trafficking by partnering with government officials and law enforcement are the crucial steps that are necessary for ending this exploitation.
The issue of human trafficking throughout Central America is a complex and nuanced one. A combination of political, cultural and socioeconomic factors contribute to a sense of desperation in Central America, forcing individuals to seek alternatives elsewhere. This environment creates a space in which traffickers can take advantage of the vulnerable. It is important that Central American countries work with one another as well as with international supports to combat human trafficking and promote a sense of safety and security within the region.
– Rachel Baum