Andrea Romero is the Project Coordinator for the Marcela Loaiza Foundation, as well as the Chief Content Manager of the Campaign “Conmigo No Hay TraTa.” She creates and implements programs that eliminate human trafficking and provide assistance to survivors.
Marita Veron disappeared from her home in Argentina on April 3, 2002. She was kidnapped and sold to human traffickers for sexual exploitation. Though Marita is still missing, Susana Trimarco’s diligence in the search for her daughter has brought much needed attention to the fight against human trafficking in the region. By the time the case was brought to trial in 2012, dozens of other trafficking victims had been rescued through the search for Marita. Trial testimony came from several of these trafficking victims who were with her in different brothels.
I had the opportunity to be a part of these court hearings in 2012. The women’s individual accounts of survival are impressive, but I was most overwhelmed by the similarity I saw in their accounts and the experiences of many other victims of trafficking.
One of the women, who testified, Alejandra, considered herself a prostitute. She tells her story as if she were simply unlucky. She never considered herself a victim. She thought she had been hired for a waitressing job in the south, but in reality her traffickers brought her there to be a prostitute. She accepted it because, by the time she got there, she was far from home with debts to pay and a family to support. Alejandra never left the brothel system because she didn’t realize the opportunities that were still available to her.
Another woman, Blanca, talked about her attempts to run away after being kidnapped. The first time she escaped, she ran to a local police checkpoint. Instead of helping the police returned her to the brothel. The second time, she escaped by climbing through a bathroom window. A taxi driver told her that he could take her to a brothel where she would be treated better. She was penniless and unable to afford to return home, so she consented. She was alone in an unknown province with nothing but the clothes on her back. She thought the brothel was her only option.
Fatima was captured when she was a minor. Because of her age, the trafficking network was unable to take her to a brothel. Instead her traffickers raped her repeatedly. Years later Fatima was forced back into prostitution in order to support her three children.
This moment, participating in this trial, was very important to them. After so long, they felt empowered as survivors to tell their story. Fatima and Blanca had been with us at Maria de Los Angeles Foundation to prepare for their own cases. They wanted justice for themselves and believed that the legal system could help them too.
But none of their testimony was considered valid evidence by the judges. The judges believed that the women had made poor decisions which discredited their accounts. To Alessandra, Blanca, and Fatima, the judges and prosecutors were like the rest of society, rejecting them and judging them for their perceived mistakes.
On December 11, 2012, all 13 of the defendants in Marita’s case were acquitted. A supreme court later ordered a new trial, after which 10 defendants were convicted for kidnapping and sexual exploitation. Despite the conviction of 10 of the traffickers, the case had a terrible impact on the women who testified. When they realized that these judges did not respect them or value their testimony, they lost the will to work with us. Alejandra, who never considered herself a trafficking survivor, never came back to us and we couldn’t give her the assistance and services that she could have greatly benefitted from.
Many judges within the South American justice system do not understand that the “perfect victim” does not exist. Victims of trafficking may have made a bad decision at some point in their lives – maybe they befriended the wrong people, used an illegal drug or even committed a crime. But making a bad decision does not nullify or justify the exploitation they suffered, it just makes them human.
Victims of trafficking are captured in everyday situations; situations that any of us could find ourselves in. Traffickers are ready and waiting at any time. It is downright painful to see how these women never, not even in the hallowed halls of justice, cease to be judged by the poor decisions they once made. No one told them they were survivors. No one told them they had rights. We need to do better, for these women and for ourselves.
To learn more about different types Labor and Sex Trafficking worldwide, visit the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking website here.