Argentina: Women Keep Disappearing

December is a special month in Argentina. On December 10, 1983 a president elected by popular vote took charge of office, bringing an end to the last civil-military dictatorship and thus starting the recovery of democracy. It was the 25th anniversary of that day this December and evaluations of the period were abundant.


Photo by Zula Lucero.

December is a special month in Argentina. On December 10, 1983 a president elected by popular vote took charge of office, bringing an end to the last civil-military dictatorship and thus starting the recovery of democracy. It was the 25th anniversary of that day this December and evaluations of the period were abundant. Many things are still pending to be able to talk of a real democracy, and many analyses put an emphasis on “institutional quality” and the country’s pervading poverty’s misery, which reaches wide areas of the country (there are about 25 daily children deaths related to hunger). But few outside the women’s movement remarked the persistence of a phenomenon that today has different causes than those it had during the dictatorship, but which has a symbolic weight that should be unbearable: the forced disappearance of people.

In 1977, also on December 10, Azucena Villaflor disappeared in Buenos Aires, kidnapped by members of the armed forces. Azucena was the founder of Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Mayo Square), the women who in the middle of the dictatorship organized themselves to force the military to reveal the whereabouts of their daughters and sons. Thousands of women were disappeared or murdered during the dictatorship. Since the recovery of democracy, about 600 women and girls remain disappeared, kidnapped by those who manage the business of slave prostitution in brothels, bars and private apartments where women are kept locked. It is known that many of them are still alive. They are not, like during the dictatorship, popular fighters, guerrilla women, political or social militants. They are young women, most of them poor, most of them from the provinces. They are not kidnapped by military or police forces to obtain information from them. They are kidnapped and deceived by mafia, who are conformed or protected by the police, political power and the judicial courts, in order to make money from them. They are not tortured with cattle prods. They are tortured with forced prostitution, with the commerce of their bodies, with beatings and hunger. As during the dictatorship, captive women are deprived of their own names, they are banned from using it, as another element of psychological torture for breaking their resistance. Victims are moved between provinces or cities, passing from one brothel to another. During the dictatorship, disappeared people were also moved from one torture center to another. This makes the creation of bonds between captives, the knowing of the place and the possibility of identifying the kidnappers more difficult, making a possible escape harder.

Poverty and Human Trafficking

After wild neo-liberalism during the 1990s, structural marks of the economical disaster remained in the country. During the second quarter of 2008 unemployment rates were about 8%, but the most alarming fact was that around 40% of employment is in the informal sector-precarious, badly paid and without any kind of worker’s rights. To have employment is no guarantee of not being poor. According to research published in December by the Argentinean Institute for the Development of Regional Economies, in 8 out of the 24 provinces more than 40% of population is poor (among them, Misiones, Tucumán, Corrientes, Santiago del Estero) and in another 7 more than 30% are poor. So, more than half of the provinces have situations of great social vulnerability. This is the substrate on which prostitution and trafficking in persons take root. Many times, promises of jobs and economic improvement are used to deceive the victims, or money is offered to families for their children.

In Argentina alone, around 400,000 people are victims of trafficking for sexual or labor exploitation, and the situation seems to get worse both in the country and in Latin America. The business is really substantial: in the world, its profits are 32 billion dollars a year, second only to drug trafficking. Human Trafficking consists of recruiting by means of deception or force, transporting and receiving women, girls, boys and men for their exploitation. This can be in the form of slave work (frequent in the textile industries) or of sexual slavery: prostitution, sexual tourism, and pornography. In Argentina, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation represents around 90% of denounced cases. Another much smaller component of human trafficking in the country is linked to the extraction of tissues and organs. Buying and selling babies was left out of a new legal text, although it has considerable dimensions in the country, involving both Argentineans as well as foreigners, especially Europeans.

In the globalised world, goods go where capital wants them to go, while people encounter many physical and legal barriers that prevent them from moving freely. But when people themselves have become goods with “owners”, borders fade again. According to the Study of Human Trafficking in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, written by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) in 2006, Argentina is a country of departure, movement and arrival of women and children for purposes of sexual exploitation. The province of Buenos Aires is above all “a destiny for victims of both national and international traffic." In November, there were 39 police raids in the tourist city of Mar del Plata, and women who where sexually exploited coming from Dominican Republic, Russia, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay were found. Up to 62% of victims of traffic in Paraguay would have been moved to Argentina. The women from the Dominican Republic that have arrived on deception are thousands.

According to IOM, internal trafficking has had a very substantial development in Argentina. Tucumán and Misiones are the provinces with the highest numbers of victims, who are moved to the richest areas of the country or to neighbouring countries, Mexico and Europe. Misiones is in the northeast, neighbouring with Paraguay and Brazil in what is known as the “Triple Border”, a strategic geopolitical location. The United States have been trying to install military bases in the area, citing the alleged presence of Islamic terrorists there. Tucumán is a little province where the repressive machinery left by the dictatorship was never dismantled.

Police participation


Photo by María Luisa Peralta

No illegal business is possible without police participation. When it comes to street prostitution, police harasses women, arbitrarily arresting them as a way of forcing them to pay for “protection." When it comes to slave prostitution, in locked spaces, those who should be searching for the missing women are a very important part of the business.

Marcelo Salomoni is district attorney in Córdoba province and since five years ago he chases pimps and gangs acting in the borders with Santa Fe province. He has publicly said that “In most of the cases we detected a high proportion of the women being prostituted comes from that province…They are gangs that are part of a very profitable business, sometimes there are police or judiciary personnel involved or members of parliament.” Santa Fe, having its two biggest cities with the highest rates of unemployment in the country, is another province with a high number of victims who are usually moved to other provinces. A local source from the judiciary claimed, in relation to the networks that traffic in persons for prostitution, that “In six hours they can move any girl and in 24 they can take her out of the country”. Such speed would be impossible without the complicity of State officials.

There are 32 brothels in the capital city of Tucumán, most of them belonging to policemen and having “legal” city opening licences as bars. When police raids are about to happen to verify the locations, owners are alerted in advance. Moreover, police receive bribes from the owners for not investigating what is taking place there. Justice many times ends up as an accessory, as it was the case in this province when seven women were found to be sexually exploited in a brothel but the owner of the place was charged only with possession of a fire gun.

In Misiones, in the area of the Triple Border, not only the police but Migrations and Gendarmerie personnel are involved, precisely those who should monitor the movement of people across the border. It is an area where sexual tourism receives plenty of promotion, especially “child sex” tourism (included in the price of certain travel packages) and “exotic” sex tourism, of which the victims are indigenous peoples. Exploiters take advantage of the fact that the indigenous nations are present in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and that it is usual for these persons to move from one of these states to another, which makes it more difficult to detect when they are missing in their communities. Many European tourists come to the Triple Border looking for sexual adventures with girls and boys from the original peoples.

In the last months, dozens of brothels were denounced for being arranged with the police headquarters in the city of Buenos Aires. But an extreme case is represented by about twenty brothels that operate in the surroundings of Police Central Department. These brothels would pay $230,000 a month to two police headquarters in the area in exchange for “protection.” Many of them there are girls, boys and teenagers, as well as foreign women. A huge commerce of illegal drugs is also said to take place in the area, under control of international cartels. On the action of the newly created Division of Traffic in Persons of the Federal Police, sources from the Superintendence of Metropolitan Security said: “This is generating a deep uneasiness among chiefs and sheriffs that use pimps as a source of money collection”. The maximum authority of the Federal Police seems to be involved.

A Controversial Law


Photo by Zula Lucero.

Since 2003, the feminist movement and some NGOs have demanded legislation that specifically punishes the offense of human trafficking. Argentina is an abolitionist country since 1949, when it ratified United Nations’ Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Therefore, persons in situation of prostitution should not be prosecuted nor condemned, but rather those responsible for prostituting others should indeed be punished. This law pointed to pimps, who have direct contact with the women they exploit and who were considered as individuals acting on their own. However, there was no law pointing towards the organizations that structure and manage human trafficking, in spite of this being not a recent phenomenon. In the beginning of the 20th century, an organization named Zwig Migdal operated in Argentina. It deceived European women, especially young Jews, with promises of jobs and marriages in Buenos Aires but at their arrival it kept them as sex slaves.

In April 2008, the National Parliament passed a federal Law of Prevention and Punishment of the Traffic in Persons and Assistance to its Victims, to fill in this gap. However, it was not well received by the feminist organizations and some of the NGOs because they wanted human trafficking to be considered a human rights violation, where the States would be responsible by commission (when their agents are part of this networks) and by omission (when they fail to set measures necessary to prevent it). Victims, their assistance and the eradication of the material and cultural conditions that enable, promote and naturalize prostitution should be in the center of public policies. The main criticism is that United States imposed the final design of the law, which interpreted human trafficking as a state and regional security issue. The law is part of a measure inteneded to expand the so-called “war on terror”, putting under suspicion any person found not to be not in his or her country of origin, regardless of how or why she or he had been moved there. According to national deputy Claudio Lozano (economist from the Central of Workers of Argentina), the intention was to make a gesture towards the United States. On April 10, the day after the law was passed, U.S. Undersecretary for Hemispheric Affairs, Tom Shannon, met with President Cristina Fernández and expressed that the Bush Administration welcomed the law. Shannon said that the United States “committed, to trhe extent Argentinean authorities required it and under the cooperation agreements that already existe, their strong support in implementing new law.” The United States had considered Argentina a “country under observation” for not having a federal law punishing trafficking in persons.

That is why the law has an article establishing that in the case of persons over age, it is necessary to demonstrate that the victims were recruited by "deception, fraud, violence, threat or any form of coercion or intimidation, abuse of authority or a situation vulnerability or payments. " Sara Torres, co-coordinator of the Network No to Trafficking and president of the Argentina chapter of the International Coalition Against Trafficking in Persons, also considered that the law was written under the influence of the United States, whose embassy congratulated the government for the law. She completely rejected the need to prove that there was no consent on the side of the victims, since that legitimates the traffic when such proof cannot be offered.

“Any definition of trafficking should clearly say that the offense is committed, even if the victim has given her consent, whichever her age. Pimps and exploiters are criminals by their actions and not by conditions or facts related to the victim. If in addition to that the trader acted through deception, abuse, violence or if victims are less that 18 years old, these conditions should be aggravating the crime but do not constitute the penal figure,” said Torres.

Women’s organizations claim that victims who have been sexually exploited often refuse to testify in trial out of fear of retaliation against themselves or their families. Furthermore, the fact that many victims of prostitution networks spend years in the hands of their captors is often overlooked.

Marita Verón is missing since 2002. Andrea López since 2004. Fernanda Aguirre disappeared in the province of Entre Ríos in 2004, when she was 13 years old. She has yet to re-appear, but on December 18 a 26-years-old woman who had managed to escape from a brothel in Ramallo, in Buenos Aires province, said told Informe Central, from television channel America TV, that she saw Fernanda in that same brothel eight months ago. Fernanda is now 17 years old and the Argentinean State has not found her nor freed her yet. If she is rescued after her next birthday she will be 18 years old, and according to the new law she would have to prove that she is not in the brothel by her own will.

A cruel absurdity.