Encountering human trafficking in Bolivia

By Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative in Bolivia

9 June 2008 - When I first served the United Nations in Bolivia (from 1991 to 1994), trafficking in persons was not an issue. Only drug trafficking was discussed. Now, this has definitely changed.

I returned to Bolivia in early 2007 when Evo Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia, had just completed his first year as head of Government. He has made a strong commitment to the elimination of discrimination against the indigenous population.

During 2007, a series of reports appeared in the Bolivian media. These reports told tales of young Bolivian women being exploited sexually in mining camps in neighbouring Peru, children and adolescents being smuggled to Argentina, and a proliferation of bars and brothels in El Alto, a satellite city to La Paz.

Bolivia has some 9 million inhabitants and a diaspora of 2 to 3 million, many of whom in Argentina. For many Bolivians, Argentina - not Spain, Europe or the US - is seen as a paradise. Moreover, in the south of Bolivia, many rural communities migrate to Argentina to earn a living during the agricultural harvest period. Some also stay longer.

While the majority live in Argentina legally, approximately half a million are living and working illegally . Often, these illegal workers live in conditions of exploitation imposed on them by Bolivians looking for cheap labour for their small enterprises and farms.

Between July 2006 and August 2007, 10 children disappeared monthly on the border between Bolivia and Argentina. Earlier this year, I traveled to the border area with the federal police attaché of the Argentine Embassy and a police officer from the Bolivian division for the fight against trafficking in persons. We wanted to find out how border control works, why so many Bolivian children disappear and how this situation might be remedied.

One major problem is that in Bolivia, it is common that parents in rural areas give their children to so-called godfathers or godmothers who pledge to provide the children with food and education in the city. This practice of entrusting children to friends or family is often a covered form of domestic trafficking in persons. 

Another issue is that many children are taken across the border by persons who are not their parents. In such cases, according to Bolivian law, two witnesses can simply sign the required authorization. Last year, it was found that a Judge for Minors had falsified these authorizations and that signatures had been bought. Moreover, many children are taken across the border illegally despite border controls.

Since 2006, Bolivia has had a law which makes trafficking in persons punishable with 8 to 12 years of imprisonment, and special divisions for the fight against this crime have been established in the major cities with some success. For example, in 2007, 32 cases of trafficking in persons were reported at the national level, compared to none in 2005, before the law was passed. However, the vulnerable border area with Argentina is not covered by these special divisions. 

Furthermore, sometimes children or adolescents flee exploitation in Argentina and show up alone on the border without documents. There are no services or shelters available to them until their relatives are identified and come to pick them up. The day we visited Villazon- La Quiaqua, a man from Villa Tunari in the Chapare (Bolivia) simply abandoned two girls on the border when the authorities denied authorization for the girls to leave the country with him. In general, the authorities are committed to quickly restitute these young people. However, they require urgent training to handle such cases. Procedures for restitution of trafficking victims need to be amended and facilities need to be strengthened so that victims receive proper counseling, care and protection.

At the time of my travels, Argentina did not yet have legislation against trafficking in persons. Luckily, this changed on 29 April, when such laws were passed. For the sake of the Bolivian children being trafficked to Argentina, now is the right moment to apply all the provisions of the national laws, and of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, in terms of prosecution, prevention and protection.

Cristina Albertin discusses human trafficking in Bolivia with United Nations Radio (in Spanish)