San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Officials Target Human Trafficking

JACO, Puntarenas – Nubia Ordóñez never planned to sell her body to pay off debt. Nor did she plan on having to escape from a brothel in Toronto, Canada.

They had told her she would be able to shed her mundane, underpaid life as a San José factory worker and find a new one in Canada, painting houses. But when she arrived in the frigid country up north, the friend she had met in a San José bottling factory who paid for her plane ticket told her the painting job had fallen through.

He took her to a hotel whose name she still doesn’t know, on an unidentified street. He put her to work as a prostitute to pay off the debt she unknowingly assumed by flying to Canada. She was 20.

“I was afraid I’d never get out,” she recently told The Tico Times. They stole her passport. No phone calls allowed. “The owner never said how long I’d be there.” It was only once that she worked up the nerve to tell a client of hers what had happened.

He didn’t believe her.

Ordóñez was swept away into a trade that is everywhere, but investigators can’t seem to find here. It’s a $12 billion annual industry, according to the United Nations, and has silently become the second most lucrative black market business after trafficking drugs: trafficking of humans.

Often confused with human smuggling, human trafficking involves more than just illegally transporting people across international borders.

According to a 2003 United Nations protocol Costa Rica signed, human trafficking is the exploitation of humans by means of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception or abuse of power. Though the most common form of trafficking is, as in Ordóñez’s case, sexual exploitation, it can also be for other ends, including slave-like labor.

Such as the 21-year-old Nicaraguan who came to Costa Rica to be a housekeeper. Her employer took her passport and didn’t let her leave the house or make phone calls. She, too, was to work off her debt. Or the group of Vietnamese peons who came to Costa Rica and worked as fishermen for $20 a month. One of them reported he was beaten for not preparing his boss’s eggs how he wanted them.

“Trafficking is a new form of slavery,” said International Organization of Migration (OIM) human trafficking expert Agueda Marín.

Estimates put the number of trafficking victims as high as two million a year, though human trafficking stats are to be taken with a chubby grain of salt, due to problems with reporting, enforcement, education and the nature of the crime. But one thing is for certain: Costa Rica is right in the middle of it.

“Trafficking in Central America is high. Principally because we’re a bridge between South and North America as well as between the Caribbean and all other immigration headed north,” Marín said, who was at a seminar on human trafficking at the Jacó Best Western hotel Sept. 5-6.

Despite the fact that Costa Rica has had a human trafficking law on the books for eight years, no one has been punished for the crime. A mystery in a place that the U.S. State Department fingers each year in its annual human trafficking report as a country of origin, transport as well as a destination for human trafficking victims. That means victims like Ordóñez are not only plucked from this part of the Central American isthmus and trafficked elsewhere, but victims are also brought here to be exploited, or trafficked through. Like the recent case of a Romanian told she’d work as a secretary in Panama, but was instead taken to a private house in Costa Rica where she serviced as many as eight men a day, according to Marín.

The short-haired Marín sighs deeply before she recants each victim’s story – the OIM brings about 60 trafficking victims back to the region each year, about a dozen to Costa Rica.

The OIM was founded after World War II to help repatriate war refugees, but has since taken on an equally treacherous task, monitoring immigration flows in the globalized world. Marín has become the expert in trafficking, training NGOs around the country and making sure victims get home safely.

Almost all leave the country they were trafficked to before their cases are prosecuted.

A world map of immigration flows put together by U.S. university Johns Hopkins is a bunch of arrows originating from Asia, Africa and South America, and heading northward into Europe and the United States.Most of the arrows that end up in the United States first funnel through Central America and Mexico.

“It’s in those immigration flows that traffickers operate,” Marín said, adding that immigrants are “fertile terrain” for traffickers, since they’ve already left everything behind in pursuit of a dream. Exploiting that dream is what a trafficker does.

Nonetheless, Marín says, you rarely hear about human trafficking in Costa Rica, a place where a fifth of the population are immigrants, another fifth live in poverty and prostitution is legal for those over 18. Rarely in places like Jacó, a beach town whose investment boom has been accompanied by a deluge of foreigners, a flourishing local sex tourism industry and increasingly privatized lifestyles marked by high-rise condos. Rarely in San José, where strip joints and sex tourism establishments are at the heart of the city’s nightlife.

Not in the coffee fields,where a labor shortage has meant increased reliance upon immigrant labor to reap the season’s harvest, many who live and work in unsavory conditions.


“Cases are very difficult to investigate,” said Judicial Branch spokesman Fabian Barrantes.

This year’s U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons said the Costa Rican government doesn’t comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, though it acknowledged the country is “making significant efforts to do so.”

Since August 2006, five investigations have been launched into trafficking cases, though none have resulted in convictions yet.

In one particularly notorious case earlier this year, authorities thwarted bribe attempts from an alleged Chinese trafficking ring that brought Chinese here and forced them to work for free (TT, Jan 19.) Authorities arrested eight of the alleged ring members who are still being investigated.

Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese met with Chinese Ambassador to Costa Rica Wang Xiaoyuan Wednesday at the court in San José to coordinate an agreement to fight organized crime and human trafficking. The agreement would involve dedicating an attaché position at the newly established Chinese embassy to assist investigations into trafficking and other crimes.

“It’s true there’s a weakness” in investigating human trafficking, Dall’Anese told The Tico Times.

The U.S. report applauded such highprofile cases for helping “confront public complicity” on the issue, and lauded recent prevention efforts in Costa Rica led by pop singer Ricky Martin (TT, Feb. 27).

Still, Marín and the report point out, no case has resulted in a conviction, there is no shelter for trafficking victims, and laws here don’t include penalties for trafficking of adults. The State Department report urged Costa Rica to pass immigration reform that would extend the law.Marín said Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office should have an office dedicated to human trafficking, as do other countries like Nicaragua. In the one human trafficking case prosecuted here, the conviction was overturned because the trafficker was found to be a victim.

Human trafficking investigations “need a lot of time, follow-up, paying people to go undercover, digital cameras, tremendous intelligence,” Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) agent Marcial Torres, told The Tico Times. Torres is director of OIJ’s Puntarenas region, which experts like Marín describe as one of the biggest destinations for traffickers in Costa Rica. He says the OIJ already has a tight budget for the 45 different types of crimes they investigate here.

“They say it’s going on in Costa Rica, but I haven’t noticed. It goes on unperceived. No one denounces it and no one investigates it.” Someone is trying to investigate it, though, against all odds.

Back in his San José office, OIJ agent Oscar Acosta points to a pile of papers on his desk.

“Hopefully one of my cases will be the first,” said Acosta. He’s one of six investigators who round out the OIJ’s 2-year-old, San José-based human trafficking unit.

Dalll’Anese said the OIJ is making internal reforms to gear up against human trafficking.

In the meantime, victims like Ordóñez continue to be mere self-proclaimed victims, not victims under the law. After three months in the Toronto brothel, a coworker of Ordóñez was able to leave the hotel, and contacted the Costa Rican Consulate in Toronto. A consulate worker rescued her from the place.

Standing in La Sala, a shelter for sex workers in downtown San José where she found work upon returning to Costa Rica, Ordoñez, now 46, is quick to count her blessings.

“I was lucky.My clients never abused me. A hotel worker beat one of my coworkers, but not me,” she said.


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