A major player in human trafficking tries to improve its image

By — September 26, 2016

Within the first few days after Sandra Moreno’s daughter, Ana Paula, disappeared in 2009, Moreno reached out to a TV crew a few blocks from her home in the lower-middle-class neighborhood of Carapicuíba, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo.

Moreno approached the van and told the producer her daughter was missing. Behind his bifocals, empty eyes stared at her blankly: “To tell the truth, miss, your daughter is only important to you,” she says the producer told her. “She isn’t relevant to the TV station—she won’t give us ratings. I’m sorry.”

As Moreno recalls the story, her tired brown eyes reveal that she hasn’t slept in days, and for good reason: Ana Paula may not be just a missing person. Her mother believes she may be a victim of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, according to the United Nations, affects 2.4 million people around the world and is almost as profitable as the international underground economy of drug and weapon sales, earning traffickers about $32 billion a year. Two-thirds of human trafficking victims are women, UN data show, and the majority of traffickers are men. Nearly 80 percent of victims become sex slaves, while 18 percent work in forced labor, including agriculture, construction, the food industry.

Brazil is a major player in this industry, with what scholars say are 110 internal and 131 external routes that take trafficking victims to China, South Korea, Spain, Netherlands, Venezuela, Italy, Portugal, Paraguay, and Switzerland. According to the justice ministry of Brazil, 254 individuals were victims of human trafficking in 2013. But this number, activists say, is much lower than the reality.

For Brazilian anthropologist Laura Lowenkron, a University of Campinas, São Paolo, researcher who specializes in sexualized violence against women and children, a victim’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality doesn’t necessarily “make someone more or less vulnerable to this crime.” She says these “vulnerability factors” in human trafficking have been used globally to justify the control of immigrants’ travel from poorer regions of the world instead of protecting them from real violations or guaranteeing their rights, especially while in transit.

Sandra Moreno and her daughter, Ana Paula, who disappeared in 2009. (Courtesy Sandra Moreno)

The blue-eyed, blonde, biracial Ana Paula Moreno was a 23-year-old student studying art when she disappeared. At 5:30 a.m. on October 3, 2009, she saw her mother for the last time as she left the house to catch a bus. Moreno later discovered that her daughter hadn’t used her São Paulo bus card that day, according to transit records, and Ana Paula wasn’t carrying any cash on her, she says.

After that day, Moreno quit her job and, feeling dismissed by the authorities, began the long search for her daughter, entirely on her own.

Trying to figure out the problem's scope

Compiling statistical data on victims of human trafficking can be challenging, particularly in Brazil, which often confuses victims of trafficking with women who make a choice to do sex work. In Brazil, Lowenkron says, there are two definitions of trafficking: one based on what is known as the Palermo Protocol and the other in the country’s penal code.

The Palermo Protocol, which was adopted and ratified by the UN in 2000, says that the crime of human trafficking is defined by “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

This protocol is backed up by Brazilian law enforcement and the country’s 2006 National Plan to Fight Against Human Trafficking, or Plano Nacional de Enfrentamento ao Tráfico de Pessoas. But the Brazilian justice system’s interpretation exclusively addresses the facilitation of national and international transportation of people for the purposes of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, independently of coercion. “Many campaigns call attention to the fact that human trafficking is a ‘hidden’ crime and the numbers are not properly accounted for in the majority of cases,” Lowenkron says. But it is important to note, she says, that many of those officially documented and defined as human trafficking victims are not necessarily subject to human rights violations.

Because of the country’s dependence on these two separate definitions (the Brazilian Penal Code and the Palermo Protocol), Brazilian authorities act in contradictory ways when identifying who is a victim of trafficking vs. prostitution, Lowenkron says. To add to the confusion, Brazil’s rule of law isn’t homogenous across all of the country’s 26 states and its federal district—laws governing regional and local criminal activities also influence the distinct responses used to combat human trafficking.

Ariel Dulitzky, a lawyer for the UN, is part of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), which works with the UN’s Division for Human Trafficking to combat the complicated web of organized crime and state corruption. He says that governments can collaborate to solve cases of disappearance—or, perversely, actually encourage them.

For instance, in June, according to Interpol, 2,700 people were rescued after a human trafficking operation in Latin America that used three airports in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. The effort to bring down the trafficking ring had the cooperative force of 25 countries. Among the victims were 27 teenagers who were being smuggled into the sex industry or to slave-like working conditions.

But, Dulitzky says, in some countries, cases point to a connection between human trafficking, forced disappearances, and the use of state agents as accomplices. During the 1970s and 1980s, when there were U.S.-backed dictatorships across South America, there was the infamous Operation Condor, a terror campaign of murder and kidnapping meant to suppress left-wing opposition. Supported by the United States, the members of the operation were Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Together they are thought to have killed about 60,000 people and disappeared many more.

A country with an image problem

Through her nongovernmental organization Mães da Sé (Mothers of Sé), Ivanise Esperidião says she has helped thousands of mothers find their children—but she is still looking for her own Fabiana, who vanished in 1995. Praça da Sé is in the heart of São Paulo, where a group of mothers regularly meet in front of the city’s cathedral with posters of their missing loved ones.

When Esperidião comes across evidence that points to human trafficking, she turns to the authorities—especially São Paulo’s state prosecutor Eliana Vendramini. Vendramini heads the PLID (Programa de Localização e Identificação de Desaparecidos, or the Program of Localization and Identification of Missing Persons), which maintains a register of missing persons integrated with data from police stations and various morgues. PLID also posts billboards and posters throughout train stations to raise awareness of cases. Esperidião considers Vendramini a valuable ally, explaining that the prosecutor is constantly battling with authorities to improve search methods.

A missing poster for Ana Paula Moreno. (Courtesy Sandra Moreno)

Like Sandra Moreno, Esperidião is another middle-aged woman who barely smiles. With her worn-out voice, she tells me that in Brazil, human trafficking is only recently beginning to be taken seriously, as the cops previously “believed it to be an urban legend.”

Yet while some still consider trafficking an “urban legend,” the crime has made it to primetime Brazilian TV. In 2012, the soap opera “Salve Jorge” on TV Globo aired an episode that featured a woman who becomes a victim of a human-trafficking ring, elevating the problem to national awareness. Esperidião’s fight was depicted in soap operas as well. Even so, the subject of missing people is new to the country’s political and social agenda.

Human trafficking only began to be discussed in Brazil, says Lowenkron, after foreign intervention and partnerships formed between national organizations and their northern hemisphere counterparts. The world’s view of Brazil matters to the government, says Lowenkron. And being considered a hub of human trafficking “isn’t favorable to the country’s image in the outside world,” she says. So she views Brazil’s marred image as a motivating factor for the government to enact and follow policies against trafficking. Beyond that though, the motivations are more complicated.

“There was an interest in controlling the migration of poor Brazilians—especially those that engage in sex work—to Europe,” she says. She also sees the move against trafficking as park of a xenophobic streak that has emerged from the global refugee crisis, in that Brazilian authorities have started to worry openly about the migration of poor foreigners to its soil.

Right now, Brazil has a chance to burnish its image on the global stage, Lowenkron says: “It is an opportunity to build a more favorable image of the Brazilian state in the international community, showing that the country is capable of following agreements made in international human rights treaties it has signed.” 

As for Sandra Moreno, she is working on the issue on a much more personal level. In her grief, she has found an outlet, creating a nonprofit group called Instituto Ímpar (Unpaired Institute), which gives support to families who’ve had a member disappear. And while at this point, Moreno feels that the chances of finding Ana Paula are dim, she still believes that every possible clue is “a ray of hope.” It’s how she keeps going.