presentation by Adam Blackwell, DC Bar, April 5 2011







Washington DC, April 5, 2011

Globalization affects society in different ways throughout the Americas. It promotes international free trade, the flow of short term capital and direct foreign investment. It also influences migratory trends and the ever developing channels of instant communication technology and their cultural effects.

Unfortunately it also results in the abandonment of children, forcing adolescents and young people into the labor market, and increasing female single parent households. It contributes to high migration mobility linked to the insecurity and scarcity of employment.

These factors have driven many members of our societies from their place of origin in search of a stable labor environment elsewhere. We have observed the increasing proportion of female migrants, leaving women and children all the more vulnerable to fall victims to human trafficking.

Countries in the Americas may be characterized as origin, transit and destination in relation to trafficking in persons. Many, however, occupy two or even all three categories.

Human Trafficking is instigated by criminal networks, friends and even family members who source potential victims and then recruit them, exploiting their vulnerability. Victims are often recruited by coercive or deceitful means, lured by the false promise of a brighter future. Many female victims desperately aspire to provide a better way of life for themselves and their family. Generally speaking, this is the point of vulnerability that leads to exploitation by their traffickers, be it sexual or labor exploitation.


The illicit industries into which victims are introduced can range from forced begging and domestic servitude to sex tourism and the recruitment of minors into illegal armed groups. In its most disturbing form, this crime can also include the harvesting of internal organs for trafficking.

According to various studies, trafficking in persons is understood to be the third most lucrative source of transnational organized crime, after drugs and arms trafficking. Unfortunately, unlike punishments for the illegal trafficking of drugs and arms, punishments for trafficking of human beings is still lenient in most countries, often classified as ‘irregular migration’ or prostitution, and the awareness of its criminal scope and impact may be poor.

There is still confusion and misconception surrounding the criteria for and the definition of trafficking in persons. The smuggling of migrants and/or irregular migration is often incorrectly termed as ‘trafficking’. This is partly due to the many “gray-areas” involving this phenomenon. Often a case that begins as smuggling of migrants turns into an exploitative situation, – it becomes a case of trafficking of persons. It is not the same to deport a person who has illegally crossed an international border as it is to repatriate a victim whose human rights have been violated. However, the lack of knowledge, awareness and clarity on how governments and institutions should address this issue, gives way to vague public policies, unstable legal frameworks, and ambiguous instruments that are attempting to prosecute traffickers and protect its victims. In turn, failure of governments, law enforcement and society to identify victims of trafficking in persons often results in their improper placement and treatment.  “Misidentification occurs when victims are labeled as illegal immigrants, juvenile delinquents, drug mules forced to commit crimes while being trafficked. The lack of clear conceptualization of trafficking in persons criminalizes victims by condemning them to incarceration –and in the international arena- to deportation, impeding victims’ access to social services and legal aid”. [1]

Given its clandestine nature, there are no exact statistics to report on trafficking in persons. Actual statistics are often unavailable, and some may be contradictory due to the covert nature of the crime, the invisibility of victims and high levels of under-reporting. Further obstacles include inconsistent definitions of trafficking, reluctance of governments to share data, lack of funding for and standardization of data collection. Additionally, many traffickers create fraudulent employment contracts to deceive victims and obtain false travel documents through corrupt authorities.

In 2008 however, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released trafficking in persons data, estimating that around the world, 2,440,000 people are being trafficked for the purpose of labor exploitation. Of these, 250,000 cases are in Latin America and the Caribbean. These figures however, (based on the information presented by the US NGO, “Free the Slaves”) could be as high as 27 million victims of human trafficking. This large number of potential cases translates, according to the ILO in “The Global Alliance against Forced Labor of 2005”, to a 32 billion dollar industry of which 15.5 billion is accounted for by industrialized countries.

Because deceit is an underlying common characteristic of trafficking in persons, victims are usually unaware that they have fallen into the hands of a criminal network until it is too late. Once in the trafficking destination, all forms of identification are confiscated so victims rarely turn to authorities for fear of deportation or imprisonment. Victims are also reluctant to come forward for fear of violence against their families or relatives as well as the shame that could be brought about in their home communities.

A person could travel voluntarily from one place to another, both within or outside their country of origin in search for work opportunities, and involuntarily fall victim to some form of exploitation. The victim will often voluntarily accept employment that appears to be reasonable; however after acceptance of the offer, the position becomes exploitative. Fraud, force and coercion are used as tools to control the victim.

In the Americas there are push and pull factors that contribute to the vulnerability of potential victims: unemployment, domestic violence, cultural norms, gender discrimination, lack of access to education, poverty, violence, natural disasters, lack of opportunities for legal migration and lack of adequate birth or identification registries are considered push factors. Pull factors include the expectations of employment, financial reward, demand for cheap labor and the sex industry. Demand exists for commercial sex and cheap labor in many countries. These issues are often not being adequately addressed by governments, allowing traffickers and their facilitators to operate within and across their borders.

For trafficking in persons to thrive, many different actors, such as various types of businesses and corrupt or negligent officials, and some governments must be complicit. For example, some hotels –with poor management and passivity- are complicit in sex trafficking by allowing women and children, (mainly, though men have been known to fall victims) to be exploited on their premises. Some governments facilitate sex trafficking through negligence by failing to impose regulations on all sectors of the commercial sex industry, such as escort services where trafficking victims are hidden from view. “Failure to prioritize prosecution of the traffickers and buyers make negligent authorities and officials facilitators of trafficking”.[2] For example, government officials may ignore the presence of trafficking because it supplies a market which “benefits” the city’s economy; -being the case of sex tourism.

As the multilateral forum for strengthening democracy, promoting development, and addressing the challenges of insecurity in the Western Hemisphere, the OAS has been working to combat trafficking in persons since 2001, when the UN instrument for Transnational Organized Crime (The Palermo Convention) was set before Member States for ratification. Of specific importance is its Protocol to Prevent, Protect and Prosecute Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

The OAS considers trafficking in persons to be part of the wider issue of Transnational Organized Crime and therefore it entails a security threat to all Member States. As such, in March 2006 and 2009, Venezuela and Argentina (respectively) summoned the First and Second Meetings of National Authorities on the issue of Trafficking in Persons. Results included guidelines for model legislation and the promotion of training programs aimed to prevent this crime and protect and assist victims. The need for statistical data collection was also addressed, as well as the need to further enhance communication and cooperation among countries of origin, transit and destination.

Worth noting is that fact that as a result of the Second Meeting of National Authorities, OAS Member States approved Resolution 2551 entitled “Work Plan against Trafficking in Persons in the Western Hemisphere”, which provides an impact-driven framework aimed at promoting, facilitating and coordinating cooperation among Member States, towards the development and strengthening of institutional capacities to combat trafficking in persons. On the prevention side, Member States have emphasized on the need to design and implement legislation, policies, plans of action, campaigns, as well as the strengthening of cooperation among social sectors. They have also stressed the importance of identifying vulnerable groups, paying closer attention to travel agents and job recruiters, as well as looking at the demand side of trafficking in persons.

On the prosecution side, particular attention is being given to judicial cooperation, extradition, confiscation of proceeds, creation of law enforcement units, training, establishing agreements at the bilateral or multilateral levels, and the promotion of special investigative techniques.

Lastly, on protection, Member States have devoted attention especially to the creation of shelters for victims of trafficking in persons, the protection of victims, witnesses, and children, the promotion of consular services, legal advice and the strengthening of States’ cooperation and compliance to UN instruments.

The OAS has developed materials and provided anti-trafficking in persons capacity-building trainings to over 10,000 peacekeeping officials, consular officers, judges, prosecutors, police, customs and migration officers, and civil society members in the last five years. These programs are ongoing and an impact-assessment of their results will soon be put in place.

However, the challenge that our authorities face in regards to this form of transnational organized crime is such that further integration of efforts and creativity are in order. The OAS wishes to reach out to other multilateral agencies, government and non governmental institutions, and the academy in order to bring about wider reaching, higher impact responses to the security needs of our citizens.

By identifying national advancements, such as the drafting and passing of comprehensive law initiatives, for example, in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Mexico and Peru, we hope to provide other Member States with best practices that may facilitate their public policy and decision-making processes. National programs to prevent and punish trafficking in persons such as the one issued recently by Mexico, or the Protocol for the Repatriation of Victims of Trafficking adopted by Guatemala, and Chile’s passing of the law to combat trafficking of minors and adults are also examples to be put forward.

Only by prioritizing the needs and recognizing the strengths of Member States will we be able to facilitate knowledge-sharing and provide the technical assistance required to combat this horrendous crime. Based on principles of ownership, alignment and harmonization, and with a results-driven approach, the OAS hopes to contribute by bolstering efforts already being made by national authorities. In this endeavor, we understand the fight against all forms of transnational organized crime to be a shared responsibility and invite all of you to join us in doing our part.

Thank you very much.



[1] Demand, a Comparative Examination of Sex Tourism and Trafficking in Jamaica, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States, Sharedhope International, 2007. p.p. 3

[2] Ibid

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