Human trafficking is a worldwide phenomenon, but poor racialized women and girls from the Global South are particularly vulnerable. When the crisis began to reach every corner of working-class life in Venezuela, human trafficking networks took root in the territory. Venezuela has laws in place to combat human trafficking, and the General Attorney’s Office has taken some steps to address the problems, but the situation remains critical. We talked to Yelena Carpio, Legal Coordinator for Tinta Violeta – a feminist organization that promotes networks against machista violence – about human trafficking in Venezuela.
What is human trafficking?
Generally speaking, human trafficking is a term used to identify situations in which the liberty and autonomy of a person over their body are taken away through force, fraud, or coercion. It affects children, teens, and adults, and, as is always the case in any patriarchal society, minors and women are the most vulnerable.
Human trafficking strips victims of their most basic human rights: they lose their physical and psychological integrity, they lose control over their own lives and, in some cases, the practice leads to the victim’s death.
Human trafficking begins with “recruitment” of the victim through different mechanisms, from deception to the direct exercise of violence. Most victims are recruited through a combination of manipulation and coercion: the victim may receive a “job offer” and she may take it “willingly,” but what is on the other end of the deal is radically different from the original offer. When we talk about human trafficking, we might as well be talking about modern-day slavery. In fact, the sale of victims is not unheard of.
The destinations of the victims are multiple, from unpaid work in terrible conditions to forceful incorporation into irregular armed groups, from sexual exploitation to ending up six feet under, after having their organs extracted.
The crisis has made Venezuelans think about migrating. In a capitalist world, a population in this vulnerable condition will be targeted by human trafficking networks. Tell us about the situation in this country.
Historically, Venezuela was a transit stop for human trafficking networks. Victims were forcefully recruited in other countries, particularly Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and they had a stopover in Venezuela, on their way to a third country. Additionally, all this happened at a relatively small scale, so the alarm bells didn’t go off within the feminist movement.
Now, Venezuela is going through a complex crisis of a political, economic, and social nature. The origins of the crisis are multiple, from external aggressions to the exhaustion of the old economic model. Of course, in this situation, women always get the short end of the stick.
Women living in the barrios or in the campo will often tell us that they have run out of options to cover their most basic material needs and those of their families. When faced with this situation, many begin to consider migration but, as it turns out, they have little or no money. In many cases, they don’t even have a passport to legally cross border lines.
Human traffickers identify these situations and offer those who may be most vulnerable a “good deal,” which may include travel, housing, and a well-paying job. They have an ear to the ground and take advantage of economic and emotional needs, identified by a network of agents that can reach the victims directly, from extended family relations to friends and acquaintances.
Is there any data available regarding human trafficking in Venezuela?
Unfortunately, there is no official data. Also, grassroots organizations don’t have the resources to carry out a study to determine the number of victims and the reach of the trafficking networks. Cedesex [women’s rights organization] released a preliminary report that gives an overview of the problem, but we are all in the dark when it comes to actual numbers. Aimee Zambrano is also monitoring the number of disappeared girls and women, and her work will shed some light on the scope of human trafficking.
In any case, our on-the-ground work accompanying gender-based violence victims has opened a window into this situation, and the panorama is very grim. In the past few years, and particularly since 2017-18, the number of girls and women falling prey to trafficking has gone up dramatically. The destination of the victims is often Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Trinidad & Tobago, and many of them are forced into prostitution. But I should add something else: we are finding cases of human trafficking within Venezuela as well.
What is your evaluation of the Venezuelan legal framework when it comes to human trafficking?
Venezuela’s Constitution is a human rights-oriented text, and this means that the state’s institutions are required to investigate, prosecute, and punish any person who infringes on the human rights of another person.
When it comes to the matter of human trafficking, there are several laws that are relevant. We have the “Law for the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence” and the “Law Against Organized Crime.” Additionally, the “Law for the Protection of Victims and Witnesses” is also relevant. Finally, the Maduro government recently announced that it had a plan to fight human trafficking, but we haven’t been able to get our hands on it.
Additionally, Venezuela is a signatory of international agreements such as the Palermo Protocol, which binds the states to cooperate in matters relating to human trafficking.
It would seem like the legal framework is robust, so what is the bottleneck when it comes to actually combatting human trafficking?
We have the legal instruments, and we have an institution that is in charge of prosecuting such cases, which is the Attorney General’s Office, but there is no clear roadmap for addressing human trafficking. What does this mean? The police and other security institutions are not trained to identify this kind of trafficking, which can present itself in many different forms. In other words, there aren’t effective procedures in place to dismantle networks effectively. Basically, all this boils down to a lack of training.
As it is right now, within police forces, patriarchal logics prevail, so one will hear things such as: “She went to Colombia to prostitute herself because she wanted to.” In fact, society as a whole tends to revictimize the victims. Additionally, the victim herself is sometimes unaware that she is being submitted to sexual slavery because she is trapped in a psycho-emotional relationship with her kidnapper or pimp.
Every case is different, and it requires different tools. From my perspective, human trafficking cases are not addressed adequately right now, and the situation is frankly an emergency.
We have the laws, but the procedures and the training are not in place. What are the consequences of this situation, particularly when it comes to the victims?
Beyond the fact that human trafficking networks often go undetected, one of our main concerns is what happens to the victims and their loved ones when a network is actually dismantled. When a human trafficking network is identified, the state will prosecute, but there is no mechanism to protect the victim, who is often revictimized by society.
Victims of human trafficking require protection. The state must develop a protocol offering, when needed, a change of identity for the victim, relocation, access to work, and medical and psychological attention.
Does the Venezuelan state implement campaigns on this matter?
There have been some campaigns, but few and far between, and they have had a limited scope. Human traffickers are very agile and their actions are not immediately identifiable as dangerous. Nowadays, most of the campaigns are carried out by feminist organizations, but our resources are limited and our reach is small.
The situation is critical, so it is necessary to promote a nationwide campaign now. The traffickers are so agile that can turn practically anybody into a target: a young woman from Petare [working-class barrio in Caracas] may get an offer to go work in a restaurant in Bogotá or a doctor may get an offer to go work in a hospital in Germany. What are the red flags?
When it comes to human trafficking, a large-scale, nationwide campaign should also promote a cultural shift: instead of revictimizing the victims, communities should be encouraged to build caring networks to protect their own.