San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Bill Targets Traffickers

When the U.S. Department of State listed Costa Rica as a “second tier” country last week in its annual global ranking of compliance with human trafficking standards, it wasn’t because Costa Rica doesn’t attend to those who are rescued.

Costa Rica offers refuge to rescued captives found here. The state provides housing, food and protection to these victims, and draws on the services of governmental and non-governmental programs and organizations dedicated to helping the exploited to recover.

Nor was the runner-up status due to a lack of regulations that define and penalize trafficking.

Costa Rica’s Penal Code, its Organized Crime Law and its new Immigration Law all contain language that prohibits trade in humans and proposes fines or jail time for those convicted of trafficking.

Also, in 2005 the government decreed the creation of the National Coalition against Illicit Immigration and Human Trafficking and Trade to coordinate the battle against the crime and to look after victims and witnesses.

The alliance is under the oversight of the Public Security Ministry.

Rather, it was Costa Rica’s inability to aggressively pursue traffickers that kept it off the A-team.

The U.S. report ranks the most compliant countries as “Tier 1” and those least compliant as “Tier 3” according to standards established in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It concluded that Cost Rica “has no proactive efforts to search for trafficking victims,” and recommended that the country “intensify efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses.”

Luis Fernando Centeno, a criminal lawyer who specializes in human trafficking, agrees. “We need much better detection,” he said. “There are two facets to dealing with human trafficking. One is the rescue and attention ofvictims and the other is criminal investigation. More investigation is what we lack.”

The Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) designated a team of agents this year to investigate human trafficking, but the team is young and inexperienced. And because the initiative is not mandated by law, it lacks permanency.

In times of tight budgeting or after a change in OIJ command, the group could be eliminated just as easily as it was established, Centeno fears.

“It exists today, but it might not exist tomorrow,” Centeno said. “This happens with all these administrative organisms, and that’s no secret.”

In an effort to help boost Costa Rica’s position in the eyes of their big brother to the north, Centeno and the International Organization for Migration proposed a bill to the Legislative Assembly on June 3 that would formalize many of the country’s efforts to combat human trafficking.

The bill would create a National Institute against Human Trafficking, a permanent fixture to replace the existing coalition. The institute would be comprised mostly of coalition members, but would have more authority.

The institute would be able to accept donations and manage funds, something the coalition has difficulty doing because it lacks the legal status to do so. These donations will be used in part to support a permanent investigation unit.

Other funds for the institute will come from the Security Ministry’s annual budget.

The bill’s drafters are also considering the possibility of tacking one dollar onto the country’s exit tax (currently $26) to help with funding, as well as allowing the institute to use funds generated from confiscations in criminal cases.

This national institute, Centeno hopes, will centralize the duties of the existing coalition and bring much needed organization and visibility to this arm of the Public Security Ministry. In a recent phone call with The Tico Times, press officials from the Security Ministry were not even aware that a national coalition against human trafficking existed.

And further contributing to the country’s shortfall in meeting the standards the U.S. uses for its annual ranking is the scattered way in which it has formulated its regulations regarding human trafficking.

“With one legal provision here and another there you can’t successfully address the issue,” Centeno said.

The bill under discussion defines the various types of trafficking and assigns sanctions accordingly. Proprietors or administrators of businesses who knowingly allow trafficking or who turn a blind eye to those who promote or assist with trafficking are among those who will be punishable if the bill passes.

The bill would also assign specific responsibilities to government institutions to fight human trafficking.

For example, the National Institute for Women (INAMU) would be in charge of assisting female victims and the Child Welfare Office (PANI) would treat children.

The new bill outlines training guidelines and goals for government ministries and police officers. Such training would include information on the conditions and traits typical of trafficking victims in order to increase the number of detections.

“Officials will know about the issue and when they know about it, they can detect it,” he said. “When a doctor from the Caja sees a sick patient, he can say, ‘This is a trafficking victim.’”


How Serious Is the Problem?


During the first half of 2009, Costa Rica rescued 30 victims of human trafficking. During the first half of this year, 50 victims have been discovered, although experts believe that the majority of cases remain undetected.

The U.S. report cites female sex slavery as the leading form of human trafficking in Costa Rica, but that statement may not be accurate.

The number of men and women being forced to work in construction, agriculture and fishing has been growing, Centeno said.

Of the 50 victims found so far in 2010, 32 were Asian slaves forced to work for no pay on a fishing boat in the Pacific. Two others were Nicaraguan girls forced to work in harsh conditions in a house in Heredia.

“The thing with forced labor is that we don’t always see it,” he said. “We don’t see it because the laborer might be paid very little. No one questions his low wages and it goes undetected, even though it is exploitative.”

The new bill against human trafficking has a ways to go before lawmakers approve the text, but a recent presentation of the bill to the legislature encouraged Centeno.

“They seemed open and had a lot of questions, and that is good,” he said. “If the country wants to be seriously prepared to combat organized crime, passing this bill is essential.”

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