One Mother Versus Modern Slavery
By Nick OlleJune 14, 2012
What do you do when your daughter disappears in a country where young women are frequently abducted and sold into the sex trade, but where people trafficking is not recognised as a crime?
The last thing you see before showing your travel documents and disappearing through to the departure lounges at Buenos Aires' domestic airport are the faces of missing children.
On arrival in Argentina's smallest province, the northern Tucumán, again you see the faces of the vanished, looking out from federal police posters.
Their eyes multiply as you enter the offices of the nongovernmental organisation Fundación María de los Angeles, which works to prevent human trafficking, help the victims and prosecute cases. The building is beautiful — welcoming, even homely — a cruel irony considering the likely circumstances of the scores of young faces looking out from the pictures on its walls.
The foundation takes its name from María "Marita" Verón, who was abducted and sold into the illegal sex trade a decade ago. She is still missing.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 2.4 million trafficked people at any given time, making at least USD32 billion for the traffickers.
While most victims of human trafficking come from South and Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trade in people has become a growing problem in Latin America. Argentina, like other Latin American nations, is a source, transit and destination country for people forced into unpaid labour and the sex trade. Most of the victims are girls or young women like Marita.
I'm waiting with other journalists to meet the foundation's founder — Marita's fearless, inspirational mother Susana Trimarco, 58. Over the next few hours, we catch fleeting glimpses of her as she strides purposefully from room to room, from meeting to interview. When it's my turn she greets me with a kiss on the cheek as she introduces herself and apologises for the delay.
"It's been like this since the trial started," she explains.
The trial she refers to began in February, and involves 13 people accused of kidnapping Marita in April 2002 and selling her into prostitution.
One of the accused is an ex-policeman — "just sitting there as though it's nothing. Such nerve," says Trimarco. All of the defendants were apprehended as the result of her tireless sleuthing, and she insists that many more — including colluding officials — will face justice in the future.
Marita's case has become emblematic in the struggle against human trafficking in Argentina, where as a prosecutable offence it is in its infancy. Human trafficking was not even officially a crime until the passage of Law 26.364 in 2008, which was also in large part attributable to Trimarco's agitating for change.
In the words of lawyer Carlos Garmendia, who is prosecuting Marita's case, Trimarco has "transformed the reality of the country".
"It is incredible what she has done. The human traffic law was sanctioned because of her fight. Human trafficking is seen as a problem in this country because she made us see it as one, and this is at the national level."
Since the law was passed, about 3,100 victims have been freed in more than 1,400 raids. Government figures show that, as of May 18 this year, 1,660 of these rescued victims had been subject to forced labour, while 1,420 had been sexually exploited.
Marita's story has also inspired the country's most popular television soap opera, Taking Lives.
SINCE MARITA, a 23-year-old, married mother of one, went missing on April 3, 2002, Trimarco has dedicated her life to finding her. When she began, she couldn't possibly have imagined the scale of the task ahead.
In the decade since her daughter's disappearance she has infiltrated human trafficking gangs, received countless death threats and survived murder attempts.
"[Ten years ago], no one spoke of trafficking people in Argentina," she says, "I didn't know about it; I learned while looking for my daughter, investigating."
On the day Marita disappeared, Trimarco says maternal instinct told her something was wrong but she was unable to file a report with the police, who insisted that 72 hours had to pass before a person could be considered missing.
With her husband, Daniel, who died in 2010 — "grief, he couldn't stand the pain" — she began searching anyway. They trawled parks, asked at hospitals, and enlisted friends to help comb every likely corner.
The first lead came three days later from an anonymous telephone caller who said Marita had been taken away in a luxury car. Then a hammer blow: While searching with a large group of friends and family, Daniel spoke with a prostitute who identified Marita from a photo he showed her and said she'd seen "that girl" being sold for drugs and taken to La Rioja province for sexual exploitation.
"I didn't believe her, how could it be? We don't know anyone from that world, and we've never had dealings with anyone like that," Trimarco says. "But I came to realise that she was telling the truth."
Months later, with the help of police inspector Jorge Tobar — a friend of Daniel's — they gathered enough information to warrant police raids of suspected brothels in La Rioja. The flaws in this process — "delays, inefficiency" — gave rise to Trimarco's early suspicions of official complicity.
"At the first raid we rescued four girls, one was 23 — the same age as Marita at the time — and the others were minors.
"I asked who was there against their will, and she [the 23-year-old] said, 'Please help me, but don't leave me with the police and the judge because they all work together.' I told her not to worry and that I would take her to my house and help her find her family."
This girl, Anahi, is one of dozens of rescued women and girls Trimarco has taken into her home. As Anahi told her story, she revealed much about the sinister reality of this modern-day slavery — the methods used in the abduction, transit and exploitation of people, and the high-level collusion of authorities.
She'd also seen Marita.
"She told me why I couldn't find Marita. [La Rioja Judge] Moreno, who has been dismissed, thankfully, called the pimps and warned them to move Marita because an investigative team from the Tucumán police was coming.
"They then took Marita and some other girls to Chamical, 200 km away, so we couldn't find her when we arrived.
"These mafias couldn't operate the way they do without the complicity of politicians, members of the justice system and the police."
Using Anahi's information — "names, telephone numbers" — Trimarco infiltrated the trafficking mafias, pretending to be a buyer.
"They took me to a house where they had 12 underage victims locked away in a room with bunk beds, they made them stand up as they told me what each girl was worth," she says.
"I forced myself to act as though I was there for business and arranged to make a payment at another time and place. Obviously I left and passed on the information, which they used to make a raid and rescue these victims."
While prostitution is not a crime in Argentina, brothels are prohibited. Despite this, there are as many as 8,000 such establishments operating in Argentina, according to the feted Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, who is renowned for investigating human trafficking.
Often the businesses are disguised as massage parlours or whiskey bars, though some are operated out of residential apartments. The Argentine Supreme Court judge Eugenio Zaffaroni faces an ethics investigation after it was revealed last year that six properties he owned were being operated as brothels.
TRIMARCO RECEIVES A CONSTANT stream of information — and misinformation — on the whereabouts of her daughter.
In 2003, a girl called Andrea told Trimarco that she had been held captive with Marita in a La Rioja brothel and that the two had made a pact to contact the other's parents if they managed to escape. She said she'd seen Marita with a baby in her arms. Another rescued victim confirmed that Marita had been raped by one of her captors and was forced to have his child.
Others, Trimarco says, tell how all victims are forced to develop a cocaine habit to keep them senseless and compliant as dozens of men pass their bodies each day. Once, Trimarco presented the police with very specific information she'd received about where her supposedly murdered daughter's remains were. It turned out to be false information.
Another tip-off led to an investigation in Spain.
"I received information that Marita had been taken to Spain with false documents," she says.
Her source said that a woman from Tucumán was working in league with a German pimp — "he was in charge of trafficking children, and her the women."
Using information provided by Trimarco, Spanish authorities arrested the female trafficker in Burgos and carried out a series of raids in search of Marita.
"Twenty-five girls were rescued in the raids and 19 of them were Argentine, but Marita was not one of them."
NOT ONCE DOES Trimarco show any sign of vulnerability as she shares these details of the abduction that haunts her family. Her voice remains steady. No breaking of the voice, not even a quiver of the lip. Just steely intensity.
How does she do it?
"I think my daughter is alive. In the depths of my heart, as a mother, I feel she is alive.
"Just the thought that she is in the hands of these depraved criminals gives me strength. I've come to realise that they wait for you to fall down, to get sick, to do nothing — so I refuse to cry."
The frequent threats and attempts on her life, says Trimarco, are proof that she's making a difference.
A more positive measure of her impact comes from the records of her foundation. She set up Fundación María de los Angeles in 2007, to help other victims — past, present and future. "I can't take them all in at my place," she says, smiling for the first time during our interview.
In the past five years the foundation has brought more than 800 exploitation cases before Argentine courts and facilitated the rescue of hundreds of victims. Trimarco has been formally recognised by the US State Department and the United Nations, and this year the Argentine Federation of Legal Associations nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Trimarco's desk is a framed photograph and handwritten note from Argentina's president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Does she want to help? I ask.
"I think so; she knows more about the issue now. Before, they wouldn't let me get near to her, but I expect to meet with her before the end of the trial."
ACROSS THE HALL from Trimarco's office, lawyer Carlos Garmendia motions to a bookshelf full of legal files.
"Those are just some of the documents [pertaining to the current proceedings]," he says. "This is a long trial. There are more than 160 witnesses. The judges made a timetable to finish the trial in two months, but after four months we haven't even got through half of the witnesses."
Taking into account what he calls the stalling tactics of some of the defendants' lawyers, he says it is unlikely the trial will reach a conclusion before October or November.
And there really ought to be considerably more defendants, he says.
"Originally there were 25 people investigated. Twelve were absolved but there are appeals pending against those rulings.
"Of these 12, I think some of them are guilty and that perhaps some of them are not. But I think there are guilty parties who were not even investigated."
In particular, he is referring to a nurse who knew Marita and had arranged a gynaecological visit for her on the day she disappeared.
"I think she is the person who delivered Marita [to the traffickers] and she's not among the 25," Garmendia says.
Trimarco agrees the nurse was involved in her daughter's abduction, saying her role — operating from a position of trust in Marita's life — is indicative of the methods of the trafficking gangs.
"There was nothing casual about what happened to Marita," she says. "These people are intelligent and they meticulously study potential victims and their families before planning the kidnapping."
IN THE CASE OF ANOTHER VICTIM, Fátima Mansilla, 26, her abductors were known to her family. Ten years ago in her native Tucumán, the then 16-year-old approached a car she recognised as belonging to a friend of her mother. As Fátima reached the car window the woman's husband assaulted her from behind. The next thing she recalls is being in the back seat of the car, drugged and immobile.
Fátima spent the next nine months being forced to work as a prostitute.
"They took me to the house where they lived with their son and they kept me locked up. I remember they injected me, and I must have inhaled drugs too because when I escaped my nose was destroyed on the inside," she says.
"I don't remember most of what happened, I'd be lying if I said I did. But I know things happened because I'd wake in the morning and I'd be in pain and there would be semen."
One thing she does remember from her time in captivity is meeting Marita.
"She was wearing a white t-shirt, a short skirt and sneakers. They gave her injections to keep her asleep, drugged."
Fátima escaped with the help of her mother's friend, who she says felt sympathy for her. Now Fátima is testifying, along with other victims, in an ongoing trial involving her kidnappers.
Heavily pregnant with her fourth child, Fátima says she fears the vengeance of her captors.
"People say, 'Don't worry, these people are facing justice,' but they have nothing to lose now. I can't leave the house and walk in the street without this fear.
"If a car pulls up near me or if someone walks behind me for a block, I take it badly. I take photos of the cars and write down the licence plates. It's silly but I want to protect my children.
"[In the trial] you feel that you have all the right in the world to point your finger and say whatever you want to these people because they did you harm, but you can't do it. One of these men kept looking straight at me and I just couldn't speak."
Fátima regularly attends the Fundación María de los Angeles. She meets with the foundation's social workers as well as with Trimarco, who she describes as a "complete woman".
Social worker Maria Elizabeth Saavedra says Fátima has made excellent progress but is still in a very precarious situation. She needs help caring for her children, especially her only daughter, who suffers from an unusual ophthalmic syndrome, as well as from scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and other defects possibly related to Fátima's forced drug intake while she was in captivity.
"[Fátima] has a lot of potential, there are no psychiatric issues with her as there are with some others," Saavedra says, "but she has a lot to deal with. We want to facilitate things for her, to help her to take charge herself."
Without such support, the social worker explains, "A person is rescued and then what? They are vulnerable again, and for the same reasons they were initially targeted. So the aim is [for them] to achieve genuine autonomy."
KATIA DANTAS IS POLICY DIRECTOR for Latin America and The Caribbean at the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), based in Brazil. She agrees, there is a "very significant" problem with human trafficking in the region.
"One of the difficulties is that we have a lot of porous borders across the region. It's hard to control them and it makes it easy to move around children and even women," she says.
Throw in endemic corruption, entrenched male chauvinism, the lack of coordinated resources and information sharing, and the challenge only grows.
"Another problem in many Latin American countries is that you have a decentralisation of authorities, so there may be a level of coordination at the national level but not to the extent where information is consolidated and taskforces are put together," Dantas says.
But advances against the traffickers are being made. For example, Brazil is trialling a new national database with information and photographs of missing persons.
"It's not a silver-bullet solution, of course, but it is a great initiative," Dantas says.
"The registry on its own might not help if you don't have the police trained, collaboration between different agencies, and the community engaged through something like an Amber Alert [A US emergency broadcast program for child-abduction cases]."
And culturally, she adds, it is important to break down "not only the normalisation of the sex trade, but the objectification of women in general".
Trimarco echoes the sentiment: "We have to all work together and provide information and we have to shut down the brothels."
She finishes by vowing, as she must already have done so many times during the past 10 years, that "There will be justice because I am going to make sure of it, for my daughter and for all the other victims".