– Marcela Loaiza was just 21 years old when a man approached her at her workplace in Pereira City, Colombia with promises of fame and money. The well-dressed, mysterious Colombian said he could give her an opportunity for a better life. Loaiza was also working at a supermarket to support herself and her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
“He said he want to help me to become an international dancer, that he would take me to another country to sing,” Loaiza told IPS News from her Las Vegas home.
At first, she declined, but the economy worsened and she lost her job at the supermarket. Her daughter was also hospitalized with asthma. She was desperate, so she accepted the offer. The man immediately paid the medical bills, got her a passport and bought her a plane ticket.
“I was happy for the opportunity, and I created my own fantasy that I’m going to be famous and rich and provide money for my family, but I was also sad cause I have to leave my family,” she said.
Loaiza took the long journey to Tokyo, Japan, and upon arrival, a pleasant Colombian woman welcomed her. But her passport was taken and Loaiza noticed the way the woman looked her up and down, appraising her from head to toe. She was taken somewhere to sleep, and the next day, the nightmare began.
“She just completely turned into a monster.” Loaiza was forced to dye her hair, wear contacts, and was told she would be a prostitute. If she wanted to leave, she would have to pay them $50,000. “I start to cry, I was losing my mind.” Loaiza told the woman she would call the police, and the woman responded with a threat to daughter’s life. Loaiza later found out that she had been watched- they knew everything about her life- her family members, where they lived, and everyone’s routines.
For the next 18 months, Loaiza worked as a prostitute with 30 other women. She doesn’t share details of the horrors she experienced, only saying it was sexual exploitation. She had paid off her “debt” to what she calls the mafia, but was still afraid to leave. Finally, hope emerged when a customer reached out. He told her she needed to escape, and bought her a wig, a map to the Colombian embassy and gave her some cash. Loaiza made her way to the Embassy, where officials housed her for a week, helping her to prepare to leave Japan.
Back in Colombia, Loaiza filed a report with the police, but it was futile.
Authorities didn’t believe that Loaiza didn’t know beforehand that she would become a prostitute.
Six months later, she went to the police station to check on her case. “I still felt scared. They told me they never had that case. These people are more powerful than anyone,” she said, referring to the mafia she believes is behind what happened to her.
Loaiza knows now she was a victim of human trafficking, but at the time, she had no concept of what it was.
Indeed, it is a nebulous concept that shifts rapidly to stay ahead of authorities and adapt to demand. The United Nations describes it as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
It also includes sex work, sex labouring, pornography, entertainment (exotic dancing, etc.), domestic labour, agricultural/construction/ mining labour, factory labour, food service industry, begging, as well as commercial fishing.
Ana Margarita Gonzalez, senior attorney with Women’s Link, a non-profit organization that works to advance human rights for women and girls, says there are several reasons trafficking has not been eradicated. “It is a complex crime,” she says, explaining that there are failures at the public policy level. “One problem is that usually victims of human trafficking are not identified as such.” A lack of training amongst officials, as well as a lack of focus on trafficking as a crime itself are also problematic.
It is estimated by the United Nations that there are about 50,000 people who have been trafficked, but these are only people who have been in contact with authorities, so the number is likely much higher. The International Labour Organization reports that at any given time in 2016, there were 40.3 million people in modern slavery, a term used interchangeably with human trafficking. Of that, 25 million were in forced labour (with 4.8 million of those in sexually exploitative situations), and 15 million in forced marriages.
In the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, exact figures are not know, but it remains an ideal location for traffickers, according to an academic paper by Dr. Mauricia John. The reasons include vast, varied, porous and coastal borders; the prevalence of tourism and migration, which makes monitoring movement difficult; and high rates of crime and violence combined with sparse resources. The most vulnerable citizens include those in poverty, unemployed, members of an indigenous group, illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, a history of physical or sexual abuse and gang membership, as well as LGBTQIA people, according to a 2016 U.S. government report.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Adrian Alexander runs the Caribbean Umbrella Body for Restorative Behaviour (CURB), a non-profit group that fights human trafficking, among other activities. He says that a report showed there were 16 victims identified between 2016 and 2018, but in actuality, there are probably 100 additional victims for every one identified. He says the problem is pervasive for several reasons: “Vulnerabilities still exist. The demand is there, and the impunity with which traffickers can operate is still there. It is high-profit and low risk and the people will engage in the activity, basic humanity is lacking in a lot of the individuals who are doing this work,” Alexander says.
The United States’ State Department ranks countries on three tiers according to compliance to human trafficking prevention methods. In the LAC, Cuba is the only country ranked at Tier 3, which means it is the least compliant. At least a dozen other countries are ranked at Tier 2 as of 2020, while a handful remain on a watch list. Only Argentina, Chile, the Bahamas and Colombia are ranked Tier 1 countries in terms of compliance. In terms of improving compliance, the situation has been improving, but it is still such an area of concern that CARICOM has prioritized its inclusion to be discussed at a special summit on security.
“Another issue of great concern to our community is the deepening sense of insecurity triggered by the scourge of illicit trafficking in goods and persons in our region. Such threats to law enforcement and security, specifically the illicit trafficking in persons, have been particularly disconcerting as the community continues its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” CARICOM chair and Trinidad and Tobago president Dr. Keith Rowley said in a local media report.
In the LAC, trafficking involves several flows, including illegal migration into the region by people in transit to other areas; those seeking a better life to North America and Europe and “intraregional migration” from poor to rich countries in the Caribbean, according to Dr. John’s paper.
Dr. Ninna Sorensen, a professor with the Danish Institute for International Studies, researches migration. Her most recent work has focused on the Dominican Republic, where trafficking manifests most popularly in sex work. She says trafficking is a result of stricter border control measures that force people to seek other, unofficial means of migration. “Very few people who were subject to trafficking in the region that I’ve met have been persons who were aware of the risks they took of traveling the way they did if they were trafficked for sex work,” she says.
In her experience, the women are often aware they are being trafficked for sex work, but are seeking opportunity. They are also not a part of a vast criminal network, rather a community or family based network, Dr. Sorensen says.
Experts say there are several measures that need to be taken to curb human trafficking, including stronger legislation, education campaigns, tackling corruption and poverty reduction.
Loaiza, the human trafficking survivor, says while she has created a safe and fulfilling life now, she is not the same person as she was prior to her experience. “It is like having a tattoo on the soul. I have been married 15 years and have three beautiful daughters, a job, my own business, but it’s always something there in any circumstance that reminds me. Some smell, some food, something is always coming out in any moment in any circumstance.”
Loaiza is now a business-owner, motivational speaker, has written two books, and has a non-profit organization that assists human trafficking survivors. She urges governments to strengthen policies, implement public education campaigns and provide more resources for victims. Families should also talk openly about trafficking, she says, especially with the prevalence of social media.
This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group.
The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.
The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalisation of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.