At an operational level, LibertadLatina.org faces the obstacles of inadequate funding, inadequate reach into the marketplace of our constituencies, a lack of translation capacity to handle the river of relevant issues documentation being produced in both Spanish and English, and the lack of capacity (available individual time) to address a broader range of analysis in regard to complex trafficking and exploitation issues.
I also wish to define the barriers to achieving our desired impact that are presented by the resistance of society to hearing, and dealing with these issues.
The following section is extensive, because the context of the problem needs to be explained in detail in order to effectively define the solution framework that LibertadLatina.org is, and seeks to further become.
From my perspective, it is important to focus on the roadblocks that cause the traditional approaches to ending trafficking to have limited success. Impunity is one such factor.
A significant cultural disconnect exists between perceptions of equality and human rights in the U.S. and Europe and how those realities actually play out in Latin America, especially for its poorest peoples, among whom are African descendant and indigenous populations.
The end result of this disconnect is that U.S. and European anti-trafficking activities targeting Latin America have little impact at this time.
For those of us who work against the sexual exploitation of migrants in the U.S., we also know that the underground economy and culture created by an undocumented legal status and language and cultural barriers also make existing anti-trafficking strategies ineffective against our criminal adversaries.
I have seen these realities play-out first-hand during over 25 years of indigenous and Latin American human rights activism.
It may be a logical assumption that Latin American nations should be expected to respond positively to anti-trafficking efforts. However, gender and race prejudice are often stronger influences than altruistic desire to rescue trafficked women and girls. Race, gender and class all come into play in the dynamic of the oppression of women in Latin America.
Dr. Miguel de la Torre, a Cuban American Baptist theologian and ethicist, explains this dynamic well:
"All too often, we who are Hispanic ethicists tend to identify oppressive structures of the dominant Eurocentric culture while overlooking repression conducted within our own community. I suggest that within the marginalized space of the Latino/a community there exists intra-structures of oppression along gender, race and class lines, creating the need for an ethical initiative to move beyond, what Edward Said terms, 'the rhetoric of blame.' Specifically, this article will present a paradigm called machismo, which explicates intra-Hispanic oppression."
And: "I am a recovering macho, a product of an oppressive society, a society where gender, race and class domination do not exist in isolated compartments, nor are they neatly relegated to uniform categories of repression. They are created in the space where they interact and conflict with each other, a space I will call machismo."
To understand the context surrounding the reasons why a public service such as LibertadLatina.org is needed, I will relate the following factual account, as one slice through this 'complex universe' of embedded gender oppression...
The invisibility-of, and the lack of aggressive advocacy-for indigenous victims of mass gender violence and its resulting slavery is similar, as a pattern of collective behavior, to the world's silence and inaction during the 1970s and 1980s when 200,000 Mayans were murdered in Guatemala, an act of ethnic cleansing that was rationalized by the Cold War concept of 'draining the pond' of humanity in which a few thousand leftist rebels lived. The United Nations Truth Commission for Guatemala and other international bodies don't deny that this genocide occurred, and that 50,000 innocent women and girls were murdered. The nation's Supreme Court has officially determined that 200,000 orphans resulted from the events of this civil war. Some 440 Mayan towns were destroyed in the mountainous northwestern highlands of the country.
Under the terms of the 1996 Peace Accords, perpetrators of these atrocities were given amnesty. They still roam the streets of the Americas.
Is the late 20th Century Guatemalan Genocide relevant to the topic of human trafficking today? Yes.
The men of the government security forces who carried-out these mass rapes and murders did not just go away. They remain among us. Their past criminal behavior expresses itself today, and has actually been passed-on to younger generations of men.
Over 500 women are murdered in Guatemala each year. Only 2% of those cases have ever been investigated by police. This rate of female murders is 10 times higher than the rate in Mexico's infamous Ciudad Juarez. In a typical Guatemalan case, the murdered woman has suffered 35 violent attacks in her home or community prior to death, with no law enforcement intervention whatsoever. The victim, at the time of her death, usually has been raped and tortured first, and then dismembered after the fact. These patterns of behavior were learned by the ‘perpetrators’ during the Guatemalan Civil War. Activists in the region understand that today's femicide is a legacy of the nation's Civil War.
To further tie together these linked issues, I know victims of that genocide, and I have met a perpetrator, through one of his family members. This family member talked to me at length about this perpetrator’s activities in Guatemala. I will refer to him here as ‘Juan.’
Juan’s grandfather owned a large ranch in Guatemala, and when he was feeling especially angry, he would go to the Mayan village at the far-end of his ranch and "shoot a few Indians" (a direct quote). During the time of the 1970s-1980s Guatemalan Civil War, Juan was a member of the Guatemalan president's security detail, the Presidential Guard. This security unit had a secondary task, aside from protection, of receiving a daily hit list from the president’s palace, finding these persons and murdering them for being suspected ‘subversives.’
The bodies of the victims were typically left laying in the street as a message to the population. Juan stated to his family: "Me daba mucha lastima tener que malograr a las mujeres" - that is: "it really saddened me to have to tear-up the women [on the hit list]." In other words, he supposedly felt sad for having willfully kidnapped, tortured, gang-raped and finally murdered his mostly Mayan women and girl victims over a number of years.
Almost all Mayan women, and girls of all ages, were raped by soldiers, policemen and 'civil guards' during this war. Mayans are 40%, and mixed-race indigenous people are 56% of Guatemala's population.
During the mid 1990s, before I even knew what sex trafficking was, Juan’s family member explained to me that Juan was engaged in smuggling people into the United States under peculiar circumstances, and had ties to Colombian mafias. Today, I understand that what was being explained to me was the fact that Juan, a former mass rapist and murderer of women, had 'graduated' to sex trafficking women into the U.S. while living a comfortable and otherwise 'normal' life in Washington, DC.
It was also explained to me that Juan would travel to Guatemala City, place an add in a local paper seeking young girls to work as escorts, and that 13 and 14-year-old girls gleefully responded. Juan then 'trained' these girls as prostitutes, and sent them out as escorts for wealthy businessmen.
In Washington, DC, Juan, when working as in the role of office building cleaning crew manager, imposed quid-pro-quo sexual demands upon the Latina women who applied to work at his office building.
The world's past denial of the Guatemalan Genocide plays into the world's current lack of attention to ongoing femicide, mass kidnappings of babies for illegal adoptions and prostitution, and the mass trafficking of Guatemalan women into the brothels of southern Mexico.
Compounding the complexity of addressing the realities of the Guatemalan crisis for women is the fact that followers of some political philosophies cannot bring themselves to support this politically neutral analysis, because these conclusions clash with a their particular view of the role of the U.S. and its close allies in supporting Guatemala's dictatorships during the time of the genocide. Discussion of Guatemala was censored from one important anti-trafficking forum in the early 2000s because of this conflict.
So the anti-trafficking movement, to be effective, must move beyond partisan politics. Are movement activists of a particular political view, who are otherwise some of the strongest supporters of the goal of ending sex trafficking, really willing to suppress discussion of Guatemala, limit U.S. support for ending femicide, and simply not deal today with the sex trafficking of an entire generation of our young Mayan girls and boys, just to make a political point? We hope not. LibertadLatina.org works to objectively describe the crisis, staying away from partisan political perspectives while simultaneously demanding a response to this mass gender violence from the world community.
The above true story is but one example of the invisibility of indigenous victims, who effectively have no civil or human rights under the laws of Guatemala, nor in most Latin American nations where we are a major segment of the population. The problem is also especially grave today in Mexico and Colombia.
By contrast, a 2005 Spanish language International Labor Organization report found that 1.3 million mostly indigenous people lived in mining and agricultural slavery in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. The sex trafficking of young indigenous and other Latina girls and women is massive in these regions also. Estimates provided by researchers in recent times point to approximately 500,000 youth 16 and under engaged in prostitution in northeast Argentina (the 2001 Protection Project Report), and another 500,000 underage youth engaged in prostitution in Peru at any given time.
Are the issues of machismo, the resulting deliberate under-education and under-employment of women, child sexual abuse, community-based rape, workplace rape, rape during civil conflict, domestic violence, youth gang violence, femicide murder and labor and sex trafficking separate issues in the Latin American context? No. Has the Latin American reality in regard to these issues been transferred, en mass, into the United States and other destination countries through mass migration? Yes. Therefore, LibertadLatina.org covers exactly this broad scope of related issues.
We cannot end modern slavery in one of its strongest global strongholds, Latin America, unless these related issues are also addressed. A rescued trafficking victim sent right back into the same social environment they came from will not, typically, be much better off, and will still be at-risk. There is no social safety net for her, nor for anyone else, for that matter, in the majority of Latin American nations. That lack of a safety net, together with gender-based poverty and a 'gender hostile living environment' drive women to take their children and attempt to migrate to a region of the earth where they can survive in peace.
I can see no concerted effort, beyond the important but little-known work being done by a few NGOs and intergovernmental bodies, to explicitly identify indigenous, Afro descendent and other Latin American populations of women and children as being the most aggressively targeted victims of mass gender violence and sex trafficking in the Americas. Therefore, LibertadLatina speaks out to provide a serious, globally visible voice to these issues.
The modern-day anti-trafficking movement and grant funders target known hotspots and issues. Unfortunately, the racism, sexism and cold war era politics that made the plight of Guatemalan women 'invisible' in the late 20th Century is one important marker of a similar pattern that exists all over Latin America. That problem involves the traditional 'code of silence' that prohibits open discussion of issues of sexuality and violent sexual crimes against women and children. It also involves a wall of silence about the institutional racism and sexism that flows from national governments and religious institutions through the rest of society.
Until the anti-trafficking movement, from policy makers to NGOs to grass roots activists understand and adapt-to these complex social dynamics, resources targeted by advanced nations to end slavery in Latin America will not be employed effectively.
Direct service providers, government agencies and inter-governmental bodies in the U.S. and Europe will find that the sexual and labor slavery of adults and children is actually quite acceptable to a large percentage of Latin America’s population. The region has 'comfortably' exploited its poor, and especially its ethnic minorities, for hundreds of years. I have seen this in-person in Ecuador and Mexico. As one very common example, middle class families yell-at, beat, scream-at, underpay and often rape their domestic servants, most of whom are underage adolescent girls.
One measure of the past invisibility of the anti-trafficking crisis in Latin America to the anti-slavery movement in advanced countries is reflected by the fact that Mexico to U.S. sex trafficking was a major problem for 20 years or more before the early 1990’s when the fall of the Soviet Union caused a newly-developed focus by the West on Eastern European sex slavery. Only that event brought about the birth of the modern anti-trafficking movement as we know it today. 'Little brown Maria in the brothel' existed in New York City's brothel 40 years ago, but was at that time invisible to the U.S. women's rights movement.
The dynamics of impunity in Latin America can be summed-up by these words stated by former UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy during her International Women’s Day Speech in 1999:
"Society’s silence is the main accomplice in allowing widespread impunity. Latin America and the Caribbean face enormous challenges... The region will have to bring out into the open this increasingly disturbing reality; and it will have to struggle against the high degree to which society tolerates or practices inconceivable forms of aggression against the most vulnerable individuals in society... It is everywhere, among rich and poor -- at home, in school, in the workplace and in the community. Yet... the vast scale of this outrage is still not widely acknowledged, nor even truly understood."
Carol Bellamy's above statement effectively defines the charter of our mission to end impunity. The task of LibertadLatina.org is to be an effective mechanism for breaking "society's silence" as an accomplice to the impunity of criminal sexual exploitation. That mechanism is needed because the traditional 'code of silence' is a very real social construct that Latin American societies adhere to.
LibertadLatina’s web information portal concept can be adapted to many global hot spots where impunity and social traditions hide local sex and labor slavery.
During the early 2000s I discussed Latin American trafficking with activists for a Washington, DC anti-trafficking group. I recall especially one male activist, a recent college graduate in Women's Studies, who stated that, according to his professors, no significant trafficking problem existed in Latin America, and thus, it was an unimportant issue. In fact, the trafficking crisis in Latin America is grave. LibertadLatina.org exists in-part to bridge the gap between assumptions being made in the English language world and the harsh facts on the ground that are occurring across Latin America.
Today in 2008, significant barriers remain to be overcome to achieving our main goal, to legitimize the basic sexual human rights of women and children of our core demographic groups of interest. Neither Latina, nor indigenous nor Afro-descendant women, nor their advocates sit, typically, at the anti-trafficking conference table. Their crisis and their equality have not yet been recognized by the world community. Virtually nobody is coming to their rescue, and their exploitation en mass continues and intensifies over time. Who will defend them from impunity? We (the world community) must!
LibertadLatina.org exists to break-through these barriers, and to put accurate information into the hands of vulnerable and victim communities, policy makers, activists, law enforcement and the general public, across the English/Spanish language divide.
Part of the focus of my work involves covering emerging crises, such as the repression of anti-trafficking activists and journalists like Lydia Cacho (covered from 2005 to the present), that I have reported-on through news translation. Without external help for brave grass roots activists (and Lydia Cacho faced death and rape threats, and jail from corrupt government officials), the war will be lost. Our information channel addressed that critical need for translated press coverage, related issues analysis and emergency activist response.
See: Journalist / Activist Lydia Cacho is Railroaded by the Legal Process for Exposing Child Sex Trafficking Networks In Mexico: http://www.libertadlatina.org/Crisis_Lydia_Cacho.htm.
When even Mexico's federal Special Prosecutor for Violent Crimes Against Women, Alicia Perez Duarte, resigns because a Mexican Supreme Court decision 'protected' the child sex traffickers who attacked Lydia Cacho (occurred in Dec. 2007), then it is time for the rest of the anti-trafficking movement to stand up and come help with this huge bundle of crisis issues.
When many tens of thousands of children are prostituted without control in Tijuana, Juarez and Matamoros, major Mexican cities on the U.S. border, and are sold to thousands of U.S. pedophile sex tourists who are never arrested, then it is time for this movement to stand up and act.
When investigators in Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Argentina provide credible reports and evidence that hundreds of (mostly indigenous) infants under 1-year-old are being kidnapped and then sold to sex trafficking and pornography gangs, or sold by their parents, to be serial raped (a situation that they cannot, reasonably, be expected to survive), usually by European sex tourists, then it is time for people in this movement to wake-up and do something to stop this madness. (Twenty nine such infants were rescued recently in Argentina.)
In Latin America an estimated 40 million children live on the street (Protection Project 2001 Report). It is known that almost 100% of them engage in 'survival sex' and prostitution to live. By extension, a minimum, 40 million men have engaged these childrene in sexual activity. A survey by one international organization found that 65% of Central American men saw no moral problem with having sex with children. That is unacceptable.
Tens of thousands of migrants are surging out of South and Central America heading to the U.S. at any given time. The women and girls among them literally run a gauntlet of sexual violence from policemen, youth gangs and trafficking mafias who assault and kidnap them as they pass through Mexico. Those who know what awaits them take birth control before the journey.
At the first stop in Mexico for many of these migrants, the city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, an estimated 21,000 Central American women (mostly Guatemalans), the majority of whom are underage, are prostituted in some 1,552 bars and brothels.
Migrant and also Mexican citizen women and children face trafficking without legal intervention. Governors, judges, prosecutors and police officers are paid-off by traffickers. Children are prostituted to government and business leaders in private parties. Thousands of others are trafficked to clandestine brothels in the U.S.
This is but one snapshot of the crisis issues that LibertadLatina.org tracks and presents to the public. The main targets of this 'mass victimization of women and children' are indigenous, Afro-descendent and other poor Latinas. At this time, virtually nobody is coming to their defense and their rescue. They have been exploited this way for centuries, so their societies don't care about them. Their governments will do nothing at all to help them, and trafficking mafias exploit these facts to 'mine' this population, as if they were coal in the ground, to make themselves rich.
The newer issues that have been added to this centuries-old 'traditional' pattern of feudal gender exploitation include the massive increase in demand for sex slaves domestically and internationally, and the severe impact that HIV/AIDS has had on this population. In addition, the Russian mafia today runs countless child brothels along Mexico's northern border with the U.S., and the Japanese Yakuza's trafficking of thousands of South American women annually to brothels in Japan has been a booming and ever-growing business since the 1980s. Brothels in Spain eagerly pay $25,000 for trafficked 13-year-old Mayan girls from southern Mexico, because they can sell them to johns as 'exotics.'
I rely upon the voices of front-line activists and journalists to lend credence to these facts. I did not invent these horrors, but the facts seem not to be getting to the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. However, many international organizations, such as the Organization of American States, the International Organization for Migration, agencies of the United Nations, and bodies of the European Union, are indeed seeing this horrible transformation of Latin America into a literal goldmine of human misery financed by billions of dollars from the region's many gangs, mafias and drug cartels. Slowly, but as-yet ineffectively, they are beginning to pressure Latin America's governments to protect (at least non-indigenous and non-Afro descendent) women and children from international commercial sex trafficking.
The news articles, research papers, analysis reports and essays assembled in LibertadLatina.org provide intelligence to the anti-trafficking movement as a whole, allowing it to more accurately assess the situation across multiple regions and demographic groups in the Americas.
LibertadLatina.org stands-up to address these barriers of impunity, apathy, 'compassion fatigue,' racism and the collusion of the region's governments with sex traffickers, who are often making the house payments for corrupt bureaucrats and beat cops.
With this infrastructure of corruption thoroughly entrenched in Latin America, neither the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking programs and system of ratings (that may lead to a potential loss of U.S. funding), nor the monies and actions of the rest of the anti-trafficking community can have any true impact. Therefore, we work to expose the complex dynamics of the crisis to help bring policymakers and activists together in addressing the real crisis as it actually exists today 'on the ground.'
A recent NGO report in Mexico stated that the nation is at a tipping-point, where it can easily descend down an avalanche of condoned criminality, leading it to a place where sexual slavery of children and women is virtually legal. In reality, Mexico, Guatemala and many other countries in the region have already passed that point.
Therefore, we stand to fight back!
For our peoples, our younger generations and our future generations.... In sum, for All My Relations.