June 5, 2019 / 5:27 PM / 5 months ago

'They're linked': Mexican prosecutor sets sights on trafficking gangs

TOLUCA, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A veteran Mexican prosecutor has vowed to crack down on gangs forcing people into exploitative work, saying her team is gathering more evidence of links between organized crime and human trafficking.

Guillermina Cabrera, the State of Mexico’s human trafficking prosecutor since 2013, said officers had stepped up their use of techniques such as phone tapping, allowing them to detect more trafficking cases involving criminal groups.

“First you see the person and you think they’re acting alone, but now we’re getting this information and realizing that they’re not,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at her office in the state capital Toluca.

“The people that offer the girls are linked, so here we’re working on it,” she added, referring to groups of sex traffickers operating together.

Human trafficking takes multiple forms in Mexico, from girls lured to the United States into prostitution, to domestic workers tricked into slave-like conditions and young men threatened into working for drug cartels.

The country is an origin, transit and destination country for victims, but relatively little is publicly understood about the involvement of organised criminals in human trafficking, despite the global notoriety of its drug cartels.

Mexico is suffering record levels of violence, with murder rates soaring, some of which is the result of criminal groups fighting for territory to operate or sell drugs. 

The State of Mexico is the country’s most populous, home to more than 16 million people, and some municipalities are among the most dangerous in the country for women.

Since 2010, about 70 percent of trafficking convictions in the state have been for sexual exploitation cases.

Under Mexico’s human trafficking laws, cases that involve organised criminals are handled by federal prosecutors.

But Cabrera, who spent 18 months as Mexico’s federal drug trafficking prosecutor, said her team had identified such cases on the ground, and was receiving specialised training to help them spot gang activity.

In one case taken over by federal prosecutors, victims had to be picked up by the military because members of a drug cartel were suspected to be involved, said Cabrera.

“[The women] were captured in different municipalities and forced to work for them as cooks, clean for them, wash for them, as their employees but forced,” she said.

She cautioned, though, that she would need to see more proof to say definitively that the country’s major drug cartels were engaged in widespread people trafficking.

STATE DISPARITIES

Most of Mexico’s human trafficking cases are handled at the state level, but regional performance varies significantly.

In 2017, two-thirds of state human trafficking cases that reached a judgment were in just four of Mexico’s 32 regions: Mexico City, Chiapas, State of Mexico and Puebla.

Some states took just one trafficking case to a final judgment that year, according to the data from the Inter-Ministerial Commission Against Human Trafficking.

Cabrera said one of the challenges was that it took time for victims to be willing to speak out.

“It’s a titanic effort from getting the complaint, how to put the case together,” she said. “Sometimes these practices are normalized for them and they don’t understand it’s a crime,” she added, referring to victims.

An estimated 25 million people around the world are trapped in forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group.

Though most of those are thought to be in private industries such as agriculture and construction, prosecutors in Mexico and elsewhere have focused mostly on sexual exploitation, which accounts for about one in five victims.

Cabrera’s office has done some forced labor cases involving families obligating children to sell items on the street, but she said they could do more in coordination with other government agencies.

“To go into the companies we would have to work with the Labor Ministry to do inspections,” she said. “I think that all of that can be done.”

Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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