Our group met with Oscar Guadalupe and Ana Lucia Hurtado of Asociación Huarayo, an organization based in Puerto Maldonado that specializes in children’s development in Madre de Dios. The topic of discussion was human trafficking (modern slavery) related to the illegal gold mining trade in the region.
Human trafficking is not perceived as a major issue in Peru. According to a recent public opinion poll on organized crime that they cited, more than half of Peruvian respondents were deeply concerned about issues such as assassination and corruption, but only 16 percent believed human trafficking was a major issue for the country. Yet, 0.22 percent of the Peruvian population — about 66,300 people — are estimated to be currently enslaved. Of those trapped in modern slavery, approximately 79.6 percent are women (as of 2009). Although specific figures are unknown, the presenters noted that young girls from rural Andean mountain communities tend to be among the most common targets.
These girls, often as young as 12-15 years old, are told that they will be working in Puerto Maldonado as cooks, waitresses, and sales clerks. But when the car comes to pick them up, they are instead taken away to gold mining communities in the region. Once there, these young girls are forced to work at brothels that service illegal gold miners. A small amount of money is sent to their families each month to maintain the impression that they’re working in Puerto Maldonado. In the brothels, they essentially have no rights, and are forced (at risk of monetary punishment) to follow a number of “rules” regarding their behavior with clients and other prostitutes, as well as their sleeping and eating schedules.
Oscar and Ana talked at length about the efforts undertaken to stop child sex trafficking in Puerto Maldonado. From 2009 to 2013, the local police worked on 173 cases related to this issue. Yet, they also suggested that such efforts were largely ineffective in stopping the child sex trade — in many cases the clients and managers of these brothels were arrested but received minimal to no punishment (it was implied that the police were probably bribed or coerced). In several of the particular cases that we discussed, the girls — now several years older — were eventually reunited with their families. This is in large thanks to the Asociación Huarayo, which, among other activities, operates something akin to a “halfway house” for minors in the region, and has been able to identify victims sex trafficking that pass through it.
Not surprisingly, the mood in the room was rather subdued during this meeting. Our group had read a few articles on this issue before departing for Peru, but actually being there in person, talking with Oscar and Ana about their experiences in fighting to stop the child sex trade in the region was very overwhelming.
We asked a lot questions — pointed but respectful — about the supply side of the issue: didn’t these families know what they were doing; why were they okay with sending their young daughters off with complete strangers; and don’t families that have experienced this warn other families? Oscar and Ana’s responses were articulate, but nevertheless left some of our group deeply upset: these families are poor and desperate for work; members of these families are often disabled and most are completely uneducated; and communication is limited due to poor infrastructure and the extreme geography of the Andes. One upside, Oscar noted, is that some families are now accompanying their children to Puerto Maldonado to ensure that their employment is as advertised.
Our group didn’t get around to asking many questions about the demand side of the issue: the audacity of the miners using these services; the evil of the managers running this horrid industry; and the easy coercion of the local police and government. Aren’t these the real people responsible for these children’s suffering? Perhaps it doesn’t matter — there is nothing Oscar and Ana could say that would make us feel better about why people would allow this industry to prosper. Evil is difficult to explain. Meanwhile, accusing the girl’s parents of some amount of ignorance or wrong-doing is an easy scapegoat that gives us some sense of relief, even if it is a bit misguided…
Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to this issue. Child sex trafficking is a wicked problem wrapped within another wicked problem (illegal gold mining). Any long-term solution to this issue will require stronger efforts by the state and local governments, although most of our speakers agreed that Peruvian government has long been in a state of disarray. In the meantime, the best option we have is to support organizations like Asociación Huarayo who are doing their best to spread awareness and affect local change, saving one child at a time.
– Peter Tierney