A pedestrian crosses from Paraguay to Brazil.

CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay (WOMENSENEWS)–The central business district of this border city is lined with stalls selling counterfeit goods. Shopping centers offer seemingly everything and at the right price to a constant stream of shoppers from Brazil and Argentina and tourists on their way to the magnificent nearby Iguazu Falls.

One dollar buys a bus ticket from Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, through Foz da Iguazu in Brazil, and into Ciudad del Este in Paraguay.

After leaving Argentina there are no further customs or passport checks. From the center of Ciudad del Este, a rickety bus–boarded at every stop by children selling bananas, socks or tissues–takes you to a wealthier part of town, marked by a McDonald’s restaurant and security guards with huge guns outside half-constructed houses.

At the end of an unevenly cobbled street, facing a deserted park, is a small outfit with a long name: the Office of the Center for Awareness, Prevention and Companionship for Children and Adolescents in Situations of Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

Seventy percent of the cases that the children’s charity, set up in 2003, assists are trafficking victims. Seventy percent of those have been trafficked internationally. All the children there are female.

Inside the building–which serves as an office as well as a temporary home for survivors with nowhere else to go–female teens take turns washing one another’s hair. Two have young children crawling on the floor; a third is heavily pregnant. A volunteer is teaching them the basics of working in a beauty salon.

An important part of the charity’s work is teaching skills to replace prostitution, says Celina Figueredo, director of the charity.

Notorious Hub

Ciudad del Este’s surrounding Tri Border Area–where Paraguay meets Brazil and Argentina–has over the past five years attracted notoriety as a major hub in international people-trafficking.

Eighty-five percent of trafficking in Paraguay is for sexual exploitation, the International Organization of Migration estimates.

"Women are the victims," says Martha, who doesn’t want her name mentioned. She says she has received anonymous death-threats for her anti-trafficking work in Paraguay and the wider region. "More than 90 percent of the victims are women, and more than 90 percent of the exploiters are men."

Martha says that after women are sexually exploited some are used to carry drugs "until they are caught or killed or whatever."

The region attracts women from the outlying countryside, mostly from Paraguay where almost half of the population scrape out a subsistence living from agriculture. Over a third of the population earns less than $1 a day each.

False Promises, Financial Desperation

Some of the young women who wind up being trafficked have come to the region following promises of work as domestic employees. Some are from local families desperate for any form of income.

In Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, Marcelina Antunez, a program coordinator with the anti-trafficking organization Light of Infancy, pulls out some examples from a thick file of case studies and press clippings about who gets trafficked.

Most are between 10 and 20 and were offered work in restaurants, as salespeople or in domestic service. Initially, many cooperate with traffickers and accept false documents to cross borders or lie to their parents about the work they are expected to do.

In some cases, the captive girls and young women choose to stay so they can earn small amounts of money and send it back to their families. But many are subject to isolation, starvation and violence. Many are introduced to drugs and alcohol–especially cheap cocaine derivatives similar to crack–and forced to work in prostitution.

"With birth control proscribed by the Catholic Church, it is common to find families of eight children all under 18, exacerbated by teenage pregnancies at the age of 13 or 14," says Figueredo. "Many of the families make the problem worse by making the children responsible for providing for the family. They have to go out onto the street and bring back money; it doesn’t matter how. Often they get exploited so they can bring back money, or sometimes in exchange for goods, clothes, fruit or vegetables."

Grimly Realistic

Figueredo is grimly realistic about what her group can hope to achieve. "It’s not a question of getting back to normal, which is impossible, but to regain some self-esteem and to find a way to live," she says.

Aside from the barely controlled movement of people over borders in the region, another growth factor in prostitution and trafficking hub is the recent influx of sex tourists drawn to the hotels and commercial districts around the monumental Iguazu.

"Brazil is taking steps to shore up the border," says Martha. "But their interest is mainly economic and doesn’t take the social aspect into consideration. The truth is that for the traffickers the borders don’t really exist. No one will ask who the child traveling with you is."

But while the border is porous for traffickers advocates says it’s tough for anti-trafficking efforts because the area requires triple-nation cooperation.

"There are so many different officials to deal with on three levels–the local, regional and national–in three countries and in three different languages," says Martha. In addition to Spanish and Portuguese, advocates also need to understand Jopara, the mixture of Spanish and the indigenous language, Guarani, used in Paraguay. "If the area was one country it would be possible to control it much more easily, but we are trying to get the different authorities to work with each other when they don’t even speak the same language."

Nonetheless, there are signs of progress.

In September the International Office of Migration–an intergovernmental agency of 122 countries, established in 1951–opened an office in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, to focus, among other issues, on the outflow of its citizenry.

There is also a widespread publicity campaign–now on radio, on posters and on bus tickets–about the dangers of trafficking.

"The problem is that we’re working like tortoises and there’s an enormous network out there," says Figueredo. "Some of the people involved are very high up and untouchable. It’s on a very big scale."

Andy Footner is a freelance writer and editor based in Buenos Aires.

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"Brazil Tries to Stem Tide of Sex Slavery":

International Office for Migration:

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