Content warning: The following story includes references to sexual violence and assault.
A growing number of Venezuelan women who are fleeing the country are being trafficked during their migration. Reports have revealed trafficking rings in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador that exploit Venezuelan women, and advocates say authorities are not adequately handling the crisis.
According to the United Nations, more than 4 million people have fled Venezuela due to the man-made humanitarian crisis there. Some of those fleeing have been coerced by traffickers, lured by promises of well-paying work and then forced into prostitution.
According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Interior, 80 girls and women were rescued in trafficking raids in 2018. A quarter of them were minors. “These victims are the tip of a very large iceberg. Most will never be in touch with authorities,” says Veronica Supliguicha, an anti-trafficking advocate and program manager at Fundación Alas de Colibrí, an CARE Ecuador partner, which rescues and rehabilitates girls 12 to 17 years of age who have experienced exploitation and trafficking.
“The gravest and most severe thing of this migrant crisis is how invisible human trafficking is, and how difficult it is to identify these cases in a clear way,” she says.
Veronica explains how Venezuela’s migrant and refugee crisis is fueling human trafficking. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you give examples of how people are being trafficked through borders?
There is a 13-year-old girl I spoke with who fled Venezuela alone and in Colombia, she made friends with a woman who was a sex worker. This woman told the girl they could travel to Peru together. When they were at the border, she claimed to be the girl’s aunt, but something she said made the border agent realize this wasn’t true and when she was questioned about it, she quickly disappeared. It’s likely the girl was being transported to be exploited. They retained the girl at the border and sent her back to her father, who said his daughter went missing and he didn’t know she was with this woman.
Once, I was training border crossing agents to make them aware of human trafficking. An agent told me about a girl who was crossing the border but begged him not to let her in. This is likely because she was in the process of being trafficked. If agents are trained, they can detect things like this, but it’s difficult. They work long days, evenings, and weekends for the same salary they were paid before the migrant crisis, and they are truly exhausted. Sometimes they don’t realize when trafficking is happening; they just want to let people in the country. Also, the system hasn’t changed to respond to trafficking. Offices that handle trafficking cases still have the same resources and staff, even though there has been an increase in the number of [human trafficking] cases.
Is there a profile of the type of person who’s more easily targeted by traffickers?
The main vulnerability factors among girls and women who are trafficked are that they travel alone without documentation, have often previously experienced abuse or sexual violence, and do not have a long-term plan of what they’re going to do when they migrate.
Where do these trafficked women and girls typically end up?
There are a lot of brothels near the borders filled with Venezuelan women who have been trafficked. In these brothels, there are false walls and trafficked women are kept behind them. Customers are taken to different rooms, depending on whether or not they can be trusted to know about these women.
In one instance, the Ministry of Interior supported us in coordinating a brothel raid. A trafficked woman who escaped made a drawing of where the false walls were and took it to the police. The police officers couldn’t find the wall, so they said she was lying. Then she accompanied them to check the walls and realized there was fresh cement. The owners had changed the structure after she fled, suspecting she might report them. She tried to persuade the police officers to believe her but they did not. As they were leaving, one officer took a final look at the place said loudly, “Since there is nobody here, let’s just knock down the walls.” At that moment, there were two women behind the wall who spoke up out of fear. These trafficked women were rescued, but even after all this, no one was prosecuted.
How do these brothels operate?
Usually, the mechanism is that there is a group of sex workers in the brothel with better working conditions, and then there are the trafficked women. This helps create a facade to hide the trafficking.
There are customers who seek trafficked women. The women tell me they need to be on drugs in order to be capable of providing sexual services. I think there’s a type of customer who gets pleasure from that power dynamic, and that’s what these brothels sell by offering trafficked women alongside the regular sex workers.
people have fled Venezuela due to the man-made economic and humanitarian crisis
What are the challenges in rescuing the trafficked and prosecuting traffickers?
Everywhere we work, at the north and south borders, the brothels are full of Venezuelan women. The conditions they are in are exploitative, but these women don’t speak out. They are fearful because they don’t have paperwork and don’t know how to navigate the system. They also don’t see it as a crime. Women often think of it as poor work conditions, but they don’t think of it as exploitation or trafficking.
There have been police raids in Ecuadorian brothels and trafficking cases were found, but the owners have ties to the police, so the judicial system hasn’t been able to do anything. I spoke with a 19-year-old who fled from a brothel and was suicidal because of the abuse she experienced. The owner of the brothel gave police officers free services so the trafficked women felt they could never seek help. When this woman escaped, she was too fearful of police to take legal action.
The big issue here is because they’re in transit, the victims don’t enter the judicial system. The judicial system is also very long and they don’t guarantee that victims will be protected.
Is this all a result of the humanitarian crisis?
Human trafficking is a result of economic exclusion and gender-based violence. So if we’re going to prevent trafficking, we need to address economic issues. The solution is not just putting a few people in jail that have trafficked human beings. The problem is much larger.
Trafficking has a deep connection with patriarchal systems that look at women as consumption. It’s also the result of a capitalistic system that trades human beings. In Ecuador, we’ve had several migration waves due to humanitarian crises. First, it was Colombian women, and brothels were filled with them, then it was Cuban and Haitian women, and now it’s Venezuelan woman that fill the brothels. Unfortunately, this shows we live in a society that exploits humanitarian situations in a horrific way. It’s not only the traffickers that exploit them, it’s society that allows this to happen and all the people who frequent brothels are part of the system. The exploitation that we see from human trafficking shows a much deeper social system that normalizes this exploitation and allows it to happen.
Is there any hope the situation may improve?
The good news is that as of last month, you no longer need a criminal record check to cross the border into Ecuador. When there are restrictions, people are more vulnerable and there may be transactional sex in order to cross borders, so it’s a good thing when movement is freer and borders are open.