Trafficking poster with police

SAO PAULO, Brazil (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s 9 p.m. and a young woman in a short black skirt buttons up her fake fur-collared jacket, on her way out the door of the Partenon Flats Hotel. In her black stiletto heels, she carefully navigates the sidewalks of the trendy Sao Paulo suburb of Pinheiros.

Waiting for fares outside the hotel, taxi driver Rogerio Crisostomo shakes his head. "You see that girl? She’s one of the girls from the program, the ones who sell their bodies. It’s really common here in Brazil. They start here; then get sent to Spain."

The program Crisostomo is referring to isn’t a popular TV show, but the widely active trafficking rings that trap women into prostitution and sex slavery, putting them to work in Brazil before sending them off to work in European countries such as Spain.

There’s a good reason for the widespread interest in human trafficking in Brazil. The country–where prostitution is legal, but international trafficking is not–is the largest supplier of female sex slaves in Latin America, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The Brazilian government has begun actively addressing the problem, passing laws against trafficking and targeting funds to break up prostitution rings and help women trapped in sex slavery build new lives.

Although the Brazilian government has no official numbers, the United Nations and the Helsinki International Federation for Human Rights say 75,000 Brazilian women are being forced to work as prostitutes in the European Union. Another 5,000 are in Latin America. In the United States, an annual congressional report has estimated it as low as 900 per year.

John Miller, the director of the U.S. federal Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says the largest category of slavery is sex slavery.

"Information on slavery is very inexact, but we believe that the majority of slave victims, in the neighborhood of 80 percent, are of the female gender, and that around 50 percent are children," Miller said last year after the release of the 2004 Trafficking in Persons Annual Report.

Caught in Prostitution Rings

While many of the people taken out of Brazil are men seeking work, Brazilian police say most of the women end up in prostitution rings.

"Recruiters convince poor, humble women to go abroad with false promises," says Paulo Marchins da Cunha, chief of the policing section of Sao Paulo’s Federal Highway Police, charged with intercepting women being smuggled across Brazil’s borders. "They are usually made promises of work and riches from a job abroad, sometimes even promises of marriage. But when they arrive, they’re made to work in the sex trade."

While some women are duped, da Cunha says others sneak out of the country on their own and turn to prostitution because they lack documentation for other work. Some know they will be prostituted, but don’t realize the extent.

"We’ve seen cases where women have been imprisoned in a house abroad for years, without even knowing what street it was on," says da Cunha. "That’s what makes this different from regular prostitution. That’s why we characterize it as sexual slavery."

Government Starts Attacking Problem

The government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva–now facing its worst crisis as it undergoes a congressional probe following accusations of bribery in state firms and the ruling party–began dealing with the problem on a number of fronts last October.

It began by allocating close to $125,000, plus an additional $275,000 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, to be used over two years.

Since then Brazilian police have teamed up with foreign agencies to enact several international sting operations of human-trafficking that, with annual proceeds estimated at between $7 billion and $10 billion, is the third most lucrative crime in the world, trailing only drugs and the arms trade.

So far those efforts have produced three busts of major trafficking networks in Europe.

In March, the government passed a law that expands the definition of international trafficking and makes trafficking in minors and teens a crime within Brazil, giving police more resources to make arrests and urging judges to apply the maximum penalties of up to 12 years in jail.

This month, the government will wind up a project to train 360 law enforcement officials and civil servants–including diplomats and consular officials–to recognize human trafficking networks and protect potential victims. For instance, highway police are being trained to read body language and ask women traveling across the border whether they are related to the people driving the vehicle, then to ask for supporting documents.

A new distance-training course, which involves some class work and correspondence by phone, mail, fax and Internet, has also been set up by the government with the University of Brasilia, to train another 600 professionals by the end of 2005.

Public Awareness Campaign Trail

The government initiatives started off with a public-awareness campaign, launched last October, that includes media, posters, and folders handed out in passports by airport agents to potential victims.

One poster, which is displayed nationally and at border crossings and airports, has writing on a woman’s bare back that reads: "If someone offers you lodging, food, clean clothes, etc. . . . abroad, be wary."

In 2003, the government also began a victim support hotline for youth, which it expanded to focus specifically on trafficking. It is preparing a database to track how many women are involved in trafficking circles and how many end up returning to work as prostitutes.

Trafficking warning poster

Victim reception programs will soon be financed as the last part of this multi-pronged approach. So far, the government has invested almost the equivalent of $100,000 and says that plans are underway to put more money into new centers in the coming months.

The Association for the Defense of Women and Youth, a nongovernmental organization based in Guarulhos that counsels former sex slaves and tries to prevent women from being seduced into the trade, was one of the main advocacy groups that galvanized the government into the fight against sex slavery.

The organization, which has counseled over 150 women in that past two years, provides plane tickets to send women back to their homes in often distant rural parts of Brazil and helps victims file charges and get into police protection programs. But founder Dalila Figueiredo says she’s constantly frustrated to see the majority of women return.

"Sometimes we pick up the same woman from the airport twice," she says. "I’d say 9 in 10 try to go back, because when they do, they get paid. It’s more than they’d be making in Brazil and they can even send money home."

Figuereido says what’s missing is a more aggressive effort to address the source of the problem; Brazil’s poverty and social inequality. "While investments in social problems are helping, there’s still a long way to go to create conditions that would stop Brazilians from taking such risks in the first place."

Jen Ross is a Chilean-based freelance journalist who covers social issues across the region.



For more information:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: