BUENOS AIRES — Like many countries, Argentina is considered a source, transit and destination nation for the trafficking of men, women and girls, according to the United States State Department. Female victims and children are brought to the country from across South America — Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru — as well as from the Caribbean. Argentine women and children are also trafficked in their own country.
All the victims run a serious risk of being sold into sexual slavery or into forced labor, such as in sweatshops or on farms. Women have a much higher chance of ending up in prostitution rings than men do.
Argentina, a wealthy country in South America that is also a popular tourist spot globally, is not known as a symbol of outward depravity for women and girls. It ranks 35th on the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap index (out of 145 countries, with 1 being the best: Iceland.)
Yet Argentina’s machismo culture, many people interviewed for this article said, contributes to pervasive harassment and criminality in many walks of life, an aspect that the gender-gap index, for one, does not feature.
Women and girls who end up being trafficked in Argentina go to the country often lured on false pretenses for jobs. If they seek jobs in agriculture camps, for example, they can be pushed into prostitution, the US report noted. For a long time, the Argentine government has looked the other way or acted as an accomplice in the human trafficking market.
A law on the Prevention and Punishment of Sexual Exploitation and Victims Assistance was passed in 2008, but how well it is enforced is not measured by the gender-gap index, either. Since 2008, 3,465 women and girls have been rescued from human trafficking operations. Moreover, brothels are banned in the country, but criminal rings have found loopholes around the federal laws.
Men and boys are also trafficked in Argentina, mostly for forced labor. To a limited extent, Argentine men, women and children are subjected to sex and labor trafficking outside the country. Regional migration to Argentina is vital to its economy, the second-largest in South America, as it supplies low-skilled workers and accounts for three-quarters of Argentina’s immigrant population.
Besides the 2008 federal law, other remedies are slowly being formulated in Argentina to address trafficking of women and girls and to help those who are rescued as the problem becomes more open. The US government estimates that at least 100,000 Latin American women are trafficked internationally each year. It does not offer statistics on how many women are trafficked in Argentina, given the shadowy nature of the phenomenon.
Globally, the US estimates that 20 million men, women and children could be held as slaves at any given time.
Human trafficking in Argentina became highly visible only about 15 years ago. One notable case led, for example, to the creation of the Fundación María de los Ángeles, an organization founded out of despair and hope by Susana Trimarco in 2007. Her 23-year-old daughter, Marita Verón, was kidnapped in 2002 one morning on the street where the family lived in Tucumán, in northern Argentina. Verón has never been found.
The foundation, which helps rescue young women and girls who have been sexually exploited or trafficked, is based in one of Buenos Aires’s beautiful colonial-era buildings. Lujan Araujo, who works there, explained how human trafficking operates in Argentina.
“Many girls are tricked into sexual slavery,” Araujo said in November. “They are lured with false offers of work and then find themselves trapped into the vicious web of sexual slavery. A girl from Misiones [an Argentine province], for example, answered an ad in the newspaper for a nanny in Buenos Aires. They paid for her ticket and when she arrived she discovered that it wasn’t a home but a brothel. She was held as a slave in the middle of Buenos Aires along with her daughter. They threatened to harm her child if she tried to escape.”
When the girls enter the brothels they are often gang-raped and beaten to break them, Araujo said. They are told they have to “repay” the cost of transporting them from their homes to Buenos Aires, but the traffickers make it impossible for the girls to pay off the expenses.
“They try to break them with torture,” Araujo said. “They are brutally raped and burned with cigarettes. They do the most horrible things that you can imagine. One of the girls testified that she was locked inside a closet with a dead friend who had tried to escape.”
Foundation staff members provide the women and girls — from 12 to 40 years old — with skills to find regular jobs. The foundation will also provide a lawyer, social worker and psychologist as part of its free services to clients.
Argentina ranks as a Tier 2 nation in human trafficking by the US State Department, among a list of about 70 countries as varied as Afghanistan in Asia and Chad in Africa. The tier rankings reflect “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” the State Department notes. The rankings go up to Tier 3, with a Special Case above that: Somalia. Tier 2 means that the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is “very significant or is increasingly significant.”
It is not just human trafficking plaguing the lives of women and girls who either migrate to Argentina or are native born. Sexual harassment and violence against women are normal here, Araujo said. “Women here are used to being harassed by men. It’s very common for women to walk past a group of men and be subject to gross comments and to be touched. It’s not O.K.”
Much of the violence against women in the country is bound up in the machismo mind-set, an attitude found throughout Latin America in varying degrees. Argentina is a mostly white, urban nation, with a population of 42 million: around 1,800 women were murdered in Argentina between 2008 and 2014, according to La Casa del Encuentro, a women’s rights organization in Buenos Aires. That rate is considered comparable to rates in Europe; elsewhere in Latin America the rates are much higher.
Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina denounced her country for having a “culture that devastates women.” At the United Nations last fall, Kirchner described to a packed forum of world leaders that she was treated as a sex object by men in her country, despite being president. (A new president, Mauricio Macri, was elected in December 2015.)
Besides being tricked with false offers of work, some girls are kidnapped or sold by their own family members into human trafficking rings and prostitution in Argentina.
Julio Benjamin Fernández, the head of the human trafficking division in the police department in Tucumán, where Susana Trimarco’s daughter was kidnapped, said there were many situations where husbands forced their wives to work as prostitutes in the street.
“We found a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped by her 28-year-old cousin,” Fernández said. “She took her to a bar and when they arrived, it was a brothel. There are many cases of girls 13 or 14 years old who are forced to work as prostitutes. We have cases where mothers sell their daughters because of economic reasons. They may be pressured by their husbands.”
“The only ways we can stop the trafficking of women is to punish the client,” he said. “If there are no clients there is no trafficking.”
In 2012, 13 people were put on trial for allegedly kidnapping Marita Verón and selling her to traffickers in Tucumán. The accused were found not guilty because of insufficient evidence. Carlos Garmendia, a lawyer for the María de los Ángeles foundation, was part of Trimarco’s legal team at the trial.
“We believe that Marita was kidnapped by a group of people from Tucumán who were then ordered to sell her to another region in Argentina,” Garmendia said. “We don’t know what happened after that — if she was killed or if she was sold to Spain. During the investigation, we found evidence of a woman who was involved with moving women to Spain and we know that she had links the traffickers who kidnapped Marita.
“The traffickers threatened to kill me inside the courtroom. The judge heard but didn’t do anything.”
Laila Natucce, who directs a small organization in Buenos Aires combating human trafficking, said that there have been many cases where the judicial system has been involved in trafficking women.
“There have been cases where women have escaped and tried to ask for help from the police and the police have taken them back to the brothel,” Natucce said.
Lujan Araujo of María de los Ángeles elaborated, saying: “The police receive money from traffickers to not press charges. Girls have reported seeing the chief of police coming to collect money from the traffickers, they know that they cannot go to the police.”
According to the US report, an Argentine government entity found that police were complicit in 40 percent of sex trafficking cases either as purchasers of sex or as personal contacts of brothel owners.
Some officials, mainly in the provinces, including police officers and mayors, protect brothels where trafficking goes on. Nongovernment organizations and officials have reported that judges have received bribes from traffickers and failed to adequately investigate cases.
Trimarco’s search for her daughter never stops. She has disguised herself as a trafficker to infiltrate brothels, pretending to look for girls to buy so she could learn how these institutions worked.
“We are going to continue to have problems until women have the same sexual rights as men,” Garmendia of Trimarco’s legal team said.
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.