Sex slavery racket a growing concern in Latin America

Last month's UN conference in Italy ad-dressed the problem of forced prostitution.

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Though only 23 and from a small town in southwestern Colombia, Viviana has already lived through "something you would only see in the movies," she says. She has escaped from a Spanish bordello at dawn, received death threats directed at her 5-year-old son, and informed on an international crime network to Interpol.

Viviana is a victim of sex slavery, a multibillion-dollar racket where women are sold as prostitutes to mafia-style networks that stretch from Spain and Germany to Japan and the United States.

Though the women have traditionally come from Asia and Eastern Europe, it is a growing problem throughout Latin America as well.

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Viviana was one of what the Interpol estimates are 35,000 women trafficked out of Colombia every year, with estimated profits of $500 million, making it second only to the Dominican Republic in the West.

"It began when a neighbor told me I was pretty, and could work in a casino in Spain and make good money," recalls Viviana. "She said I could earn $1,000 a week. It seemed like the only way I could ever buy a house for my son. So I said yes."

Viviana's case was typical of many young women in Colombia. Once relatively calm, her hometown became snared in the country's decades-old civil war in the last year, when paramilitary soldiers began massacring supposed guerrilla sympathizers.

Hundreds fled her native Tulua, joining Colombia's estimated 2 million internal refugees. Viviana moved to nearby Cali, but the city staggered under 21 percent unemployment.

The offer seemed like a good deal, until she got to Asturias, Spain, where a man began explaining about "towels, sheets, condoms, and percentages." He also said she owed them $4,000. She then realized - "this was not a casino, it was a bordello." She spent that night crying, convinced she had "fallen into the jaws of a beast."

Trafficking women is increasingly attractive to organized crime, since "people are cheaper and easier to traffic than drugs and arms, and the laws are pretty lax even if you get caught," said lawyer Ann Jordan of Washington's Human Rights Law Group. Her organization was in a broad coalition that worked on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a bill that received unusual bipartisan support in the US Congress last fall and has been called the first modern antislavery law.

Ms. Jordan thinks that trafficking people, whether for sex slavery or other forms of labor, is an issue whose time has come. The CIA first reported on it in 1999, and in December's UN meeting on organized crime, 80 nations signed a protocol to share information on trafficking rings, and protect women forced into prostitution.

Fanny Polania is the founder of Fundacion Esperanza, or Hope Foundation, with offices in Amsterdam and Bogota. Since 1995, the group has offered public information, given protection to deported women after being forced into prostitution, and lobbied for more prosecution of traffickers.

Ms. Polania says that Colombia's ongoing conflict and its displacement of millions is increasing the trafficking of women - even regionally. "We have information from Ecuador that increasing numbers of Colombian women are arriving over the border and being convinced by international crime rings to travel to other countries, where they wind up in prostitution," she said.

According to Polania and several women interviewed for this article who preferred anonymity, trafficking rings work by offering a legitimate-sounding job overseas, like working in a night club or domestic labor. They give the women money and help for visas and plane fare, and cash to pass as tourists to immigration authorities. Once abroad, they must work as prostitutes to pay a "fee."

The time it takes to earn this money is usually longer than the duration of the visa, making the women illegal and more vulnerable. Traffickers threaten their families back home if they disagree with terms. Some are let go after paying the debt; others are kept in captivity.

Attorney Bill Cartwright of Chicago's Depaul University is leading the first study of trafficking women and children for prostitution in the Americas. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence, and we want to get beyond that," he said. He hopes to have results next year.

Meanwhile, Viviana works odd jobs and volunteers at a center for special-needs children. "I would like to study education," she says. "I just wish my country offered more opportunities for women."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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