San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica lags in sex-trafficking fight

“Mariel” fears that she will be kidnapped again. 

At 17, she was lured into human trafficking by an acquaintance with the promise of work. Her captor used false documents to take her from Costa Rica across the border to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

For two months, he repeatedly raped and beat Mariel (not her real name) and threatened to kill her family if she tried to escape. Terrified and without money, she felt hopeless and wanted to die. At one point, she put a knife to her throat, but couldn’t kill herself. 

Mariel feigned illness and her captor brought her to the hospital. Once there, she confided in a doctor who called police. 

Although Mariel is fortunate to have escaped, she suffers physical and emotional pain, and during her ordeal, she became pregnant. She is raising her captor’s son.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery in which people are forced into sex or labor. Its victims are most often women and children.

It is difficult to get accurate figures on the number of people who are trafficked each year, due to the hidden and illegal nature of the crime, but the United Nations estimates the number to be close to 2.5 million. Experts claim that human trafficking is the fastest-growing source of income after drugs and arms trafficking. 

Mariliana Morales, director of Rahab Foundation, a nongovernmental organization in Costa Rica that works to improve the quality of life for individuals and families associated with the sex trade, said that the same organized criminal networks involved in the drugs and arms trade are also heavily involved in the sex industry. Unlike drugs, a person can be sold again and again, making it a lucrative business.

Morales said that prostitution is the main cause of trafficking women. Prostitution isn’t illegal in Costa Rica, it falls within a gray zone where it’s been accepted over the past several years. 

In Costa Rica, the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is often misunderstood by law enforcement, experts say. Article 172 of the Costa Rica Penal Code calls for prison terms for those involved in trafficking, but according to the U.N. Global Report on Human Trafficking, in 2006 (the latest figures available), a total of four men and two women were arrested and convicted for trafficking in minors, and it was for the purpose of illegal adoption. 

As a destination for sex tourists, the sex industry in Costa Rica has become very sophisticated, elegant and perverse. “Anything can be bought with money. It’s a question of power and money,” Morales said. “With the Internet, sex trafficking has become a closed community that is harder to track.”

Often, human traffickers prey on those who are most vulnerable. Many victims are lured into the trade with the promise of a better job. Some girls get involved in prostitution at a young age to escape violence and abuse at home. Others are misled by mothers or aunts who work in the trade. According to the International Organization for Migration Counter-Trafficking Database, victims know their recruiters in 46 percent of cases.

“The Latin American machismo culture means we have a legacy of patriarchy where many times women won’t have rights,” Morales said. “The man often sees kids as his property.” 

Morales said she has seen cases where fathers have sold their children for money or drugs. Sex clubs, online escorts and short-term hotels throughout Costa Rica reveal the size of the sex industry in the country. Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, is one of the “hot zones” on both a national and international level, in terms of both sex and labor trafficking, she said. 

“We have found a large number of foreign women from Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic in Jacó,” Morales said. “Many of the women come to earn money, but oftentimes when they arrive there are no jobs. The women are subjected to debt bondage and they incur debt, which they’ll never stop paying.” 

The U.S. State Department 2010 Trafficking of Persons report identifies Costa Rica as a country of origin, transit and destination for men, women and children who are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and labor. 

For the past year, Rahab Foundation has been working with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) to tackle human trafficking.

“We have been accompanying the OIJ on operations all around the country, to nightclubs, bars and wherever there are trafficking victims,” Morales said. “We are a good team. Much of our work involves linking information and identifying trafficking networks.”

When the police discovered a workshop that was being used for trafficking women, they immediately called Rahab Foundation. Inside, they discovered 23 trafficking victims.

Due to the success of the partnership, Rahab is also training Municipal Police to act in partnership with them.   

Many victims, even after being rescued, are reluctant to cooperate with authorities. Victims are nervous and scared of being captured again. Morales said it is worse when victims return to a criminal organization. 

“This is a lot of money that these criminal organizations are losing. The mafia doesn’t like to lose money, and they also don’t like organizations who take money away from them,” Morales said.

At Rahab Foundation, sex-trafficking victims have a place to go for help. The women arrive depressed and traumatized after their experiences. Initially, Rahab focuses on restoring the mind, body and soul. 

Morales said that most of the women have tried to commit suicide at least three times, and many are fighting alcohol and drug addition. Like Mariel, the majority of trafficking victims have kids. 

Rahab Foundation, founded in November 1997, was named after a prostitute in the Bible. Women receive individual, group and spiritu counseling, in addition to education and computer classes on an outpatient basis. The center also offers bakery, sewing and beauty classes and Bible study. 

Rahab is a two-year program. After about a year, Morales said victims become conscientious of life and want to live again. Step by step, they study and learn a skill or a profession. Morales said there are currently eight women who are opening their own businesses. 

This year, Rahab Foundation is helping 150 people.

Mariel continues to face sleepless nights. She imagines something worse is going to happen to her. Her trafficker has not faced any charges and remains free. 

According to the U.S. State Department report, Costa Rican law enforcement efforts lag with respect to holding trafficking offenders accountable for their crimes and in adequately addressing domestic cases of human trafficking.

 “Although laws exist, the government doesn’t have any resources to put them in action,” Morales said. 

Rahab is promoting a new anti-trafficking law in the Costa Rica Legislative Assembly that imposes harsher penalties for trafficking crimes.

How to Help

If you would like to help human trafficking victims, you can make a tax-deductible donation to Fundación Rahab at Banco Nacional: In colones, 0950000143-4; in dollars, 095002327-4.

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