A Medellin NGO on Wednesday condemned what they claim is the Colombian government’s negligence in protecting victims and prosecuting criminals in response to the largely unrecognized problem of sex trafficking in the country.
“There isn’t a single program for the victims,” Betty Pedraza, director of Espacios de Mujer, told Colombia reports. “But everything looks good on paper,” she said referring to the U.S. State Department’s classification of Colombia as a tier one country in fighting against human trafficking.
Women from Medellin who have been coercively transported to other parts of the country to be exploited as sex workers for armed groups and who somehow manage to escape are welcomed by Espacios de Mujer for crisis management, medical help, and psychological counseling. The organization also provides aid to prostitutes who operate legally in Colombia.
“There is an invisible line between a prostitute and a victim of human trafficking,” said Pedraza.
Victims often shy away from cooperating with prosecutors, if they are ever found at all. For fear of reprisal, most victims keep their mouths shut, as is the case in many instances of human rights abuses in Colombia. However, in order to receive government aid, a victim must implicate those responsible.
“Care for victims should be independent of the prosecution of criminals,” said the NGO director.
The UN, the U.S. State Department, NGO’s, and others in the international community, have criticized the Colombian government for not adequately funding victims programs, and for their lack of know-how and general awareness when it comes to domestic human trafficking. Much of the work is left to people like Betty Pedraza and her small yet productive team.
All of the funding for Espacios de Mujer comes from international groups. The Colombian government does not subsidize them, which is fine by Pedraza, given that state money comes with strings attached.
The work the NGO does is not easy. They reportedly receive death threats from numerous criminal networks. Pedraza also claims to have been visited by women posing as victims who turn out to be spies for the aforementioned criminals who want to find out what kind of threat Espacios de Mujeres might present.
Yet the most difficult part of their work is the process of reliving the traumas of the victims. “The rage you feel knowing you can’t do anything. It hurts very much,” Pedraza said. Some of the women were tortured for refusing to work or for simply being too sick to receive clients. Many have cigarette burns on the arms and chest, sometimes on their genitals.
“They live in a condition of slavery. They can’t leave, they can’t talk to anyone, they aren’t paid, or if they are, it’s in cocaine,” Pedraza told Colombia Reports.
The incidence of international human trafficking, specifically of women and girls for sex work in different parts of the world is a well-recognized problem with commensurate media coverage. Internal trafficking inside Colombia, however, is severely underreported.
According to Colombia’s Law 985 enacted in 2005, human trafficking is defined as: “the exploitation of a prostitute, other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery, servitude, forced begging, servile marriage, organ removal, sexual tourism and other forms of exploitation.” The consent of a victim to any form of exploitation, however, does not exempt the perpetrator from criminal responsibility.
Accurate statistics about the size of the internal human trafficking problem in Colombia do not exist.
The maps below document the internal human trafficking routes in Colombia. The first represents the origins of the victims. The second represents the destinations. The maps represent the findings of a study conducted in 2008 by Universidad Nacional and the United Nations.
- Interview with Betty Pedraza, director of Espacios de Mujer
- Estudio Nacional Exploratorio Descriptivo sobre el Fenomeno de Trata de Personas en Colombia
- Ley 985 of 2005
- 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report (United States Department of State)