The region, already an important transit point in the international drug trade, is being exploited by another group of illegal traffickers who have been able to operate in this part of the world with little risk of detection. It is estimated that in Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately100,000 women and children are exploited annually for sexual purposes.
Local authorities believe 74 illegal immigrants, mostly women, who were arrested in a joint police, army and immigration sting operation at a hotel in Marabella last month, were trafficked into the country to work in local brothels and strip clubs.
While prostitution is illegal in this country, there is a thriving underground sex industry and high demand makes Trinidad and Tobago one of the preferred destinations in the Caribbean for human trafficking..
The 71 women and three men held in the Marabella raid came from known source countries for human trafficking in South America, Africa and Asia. During the exercise, law enforcement officials seized several passports with fraudulent endorsements.
Chief Immigration Officer Herman Browne, who was part of the joint exercise, said most of the passports had no immigration stamps, so it was difficult to determine how long the detainees had been in the country. He said some of the women had been arrested and deported previously but had re-entered the country illegally. A day after that exercise, which Browne claimed had put a dent in the local human trafficking trade, three Colombian women appeared before a San Fernando Magistrate charged with entering the country illegally.
Luz Aida Pulgarin Castillo, 23, Birbany Zapata, 23 and Alexia Juliana Villamizar, 25, were arrested by police and immigration officers at hotels in Marabella and San Fernando on July 13. The women, who all pleaded guilty and apologised to the court, admitted that they had entered the country illegally by boat on May 14, July 7 and July 10 respectively.
They said they came ashore at beaches rather than official ports of entry. The women also admitted that they had come into the country to work as prostitutes at the establishments where they were arrested.
The information given by the women has been corroborated by law enforcement officials who say more and more sex workers are flocking to Trinidad and Tobago. They say many of them are Spanish-speaking women who are being smuggled into the country at illegal points of entry along the south-western coast, including Moruga, Quinam, Icacos, Los Iros, Mosquito Creek and Carli Bay. However, because of limited manpower the authorities have been unable to bring the situation under control.
An investigation by Sunday Newsday revealed that scores of women and girls are trafficked into Trinidad and Tobago every year, mainly to work as prostitutes at illegal brothels. The majority come from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Guyana. However, as the recent raid revealed, some are now being brought in from much further afield.
According to a report by the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Women in Development, this country is among several in the region at the centre of a growing sex tourism industry. Traffickers exploit poverty and political instability in nearby Latin American and Caribbean countries to lure women to Trinidad and Tobago where they become prostitutes and participate in pornography or escort services.
Survivors’ Rights International reports that the region is also becoming a transit point for trafficked women en route to Europe, North America and Australia.
“Disguised as employment agencies, traffickers promise impoverished women and children lucrative jobs abroad. The victims are told they will work as domestic servants, waitresses, cooks, or in other service-related industries.
“Once overseas, however, their passports are taken and they are forced to work under inhumane conditions in order to repay the traffickers’ ‘fee’. Victims are often threatened, beaten and held in seclusion.”
In some destination countries, corruption within government entities is being exploited by human traffickers. Counterfeit passports and visas are issued, or customs and immigration officers accept payoffs to turn a blind eye to trafficking. Police officers accept bribes to allow brothels to operate and also allow traffickers to recruit women for prostitution purposes.
Human trafficking is the third most lucrative illicit trade in the world, experts say, ranking close behind the arms and drug trades. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that organised crime syndicates earn US$7 billion annually from the trade, keeping their profits high and costs low by withholding food, wages, adequate shelter and health care.
Neighbouring Venezuela is one of the region’s major source, transit and destination countries, according to the latest Trafficking in Persons Report put out by the US State Department.
The report states: “Women and children from Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the People’s Republic of China are trafficked to and through Venezuela and subjected to commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour.”
It further reveals that the Venezuelan Government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so”.
Another nearby country, Guyana, is identified as a source country for women and girls who are trafficked for sexual exploitation to Suriname, Barbados, Venezuela, Brazil, the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. Colombia ranks as one of the Western Hemisphere’s major source countries for women and girls trafficked abroad for commercial sexual exploitation.
In Barbados, while there is no evidence of a significant number of trafficking victims, there are “uncorroborated reports that women and girls from Guyana, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands” are being trafficked for sexual exploitation in strip clubs and brothels.
It is believed that some victims “may have been deceived by fraudulent offers of legitimate jobs and placed in debt- bonded prostitution after their travel documents were confiscated”.
Global efforts to crack down on human trafficking are ongoing. In November 2000 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Organised Crime Convention, which contains a protocol on trafficking in persons.
The protocol is the first international instrument to define human trafficking and is widely regarded as the first step in a concerted international effort to combat the illegal activity.
According to official figures, between one and two million people are trafficked worldwide each year.