Human trafficking persists to affect the lives of millions in Central America. With economic instability and widespread violence, there are several populations at risk for trafficking. Current obstacles to its combatting include lack of transnational initiative and high corruption. In particular, women and children are frequently targeted for exploitation, and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A major way traffickers lure victims is through the exploitation of migrants. With 118 million Latin American women living in poverty, several are willing to take risks for a more secure future. The trek from Central America to the US can be as a great as 2000 miles, and migrants are at risk for sex, labor, and organ trafficking. Traffickers target women and girls with promises of a better life, and they send recruiters to Central America to distribute these promises to potential victims.
Once the victim is obtained, they can be subject to all types of exploitation. They may be sent to other nations, with bars, clubs, and cantinas being hotspots for victims in the US. Additionally, many women are targeted at the Guatemala-Mexico border for prostitution, pornography, and stripping. On the other hand, gangs in El Salvador focus on women who have been deported from the US, as well as undocumented immigrants.
While traffickers focus on migrants, they use other tactics to reach vulnerable populations. Street children are often led into sex trafficking, while indigenous girls are forced into begging. Other children may work in mining and agriculture, and the US Department of Labor found evidence of child trafficking in the production of goods from South America, including coffee and sugarcane. In addition to this, gangs may practice illegal adoption and recruit kids for criminal activities.
COVID-19 only created more problems for counter-trafficking of persons in Central America. With even more financial problems, many women sold their bodies, or were forced to do so by partners. Traffickers used digital means to target women and girls, creating fake modeling agencies and requiring girls to explicitly perform on camera. The demand for sexual digital content grew, and online child sex trafficking was spotlighted. Shelters no longer had money or resources to support victims, but Catholic organizations and churches led the fight by providing for vulnerable populations.
In February, Guatemala increased the legal penalties for trafficking. Previously, traffickers could receive a sentence of 2-5 years, but now it is 10-30 years. Additionally, the punishment is two-thirds times greater if the victim is a minor or a pregnant woman. This provides a glimmer of hope amidst the prevalence of trafficking in Central America.
While corruption, violence, and financial problems produce a population full of potential trafficking victims, every challenge is an opportunity. As we continue to see other nations support Central American countries with anti-trafficking efforts, we can look forward to a future where people are no longer commodities to be bought and sold, but as humans who can succeed and be celebrated.