FORCED LABOUR: An actor poses as a victim of human trafficking in the Colombian capital, Bogota, as part of a public awareness-raising campaign. Picture: Bogota mayor’s office

Across the streets and squares of Colombia’s capital, men and women have started appearing in large glass boxes; some look like sex workers dressed in skimpy outfits, others wear hard hats and hold shovels.
The boxes featuring actors representing different forms of modern-day slavery, including forced prostitution and labour exploitation, are part of a campaign to increase public awareness of the hidden crime in Bogota.

The initiative comes amid government efforts to crack down on human trafficking in the city of 8 million, which has seen three convictions for the crime in the past decade. “We’re showing that human trafficking translates into people being imprisoned in invisible boxes,” deputy mayor Miguel Uribe Turbay said. “People historically have associated human trafficking solely with sexual exploitation, or think it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t happen near them, or that it happens in other parts of the world,” said Uribe, adding that trafficking also includes forced marriage and forced child begging.

An estimated 308200 people are trapped in slavery in Colombia, according to rights group The Walk Free Foundation, the second-highest number in Latin America after Mexico. But Uribe warned that human trafficking is likely to rise in Bogota, and across Colombia, following a peace deal signed last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

“The post-conflict rural to urban displacement to the big cities like Bogota increases the risk of the crime of trafficking,” he said.

Research from countries like Bosnia and Guatemala shows that human trafficking rockets in countries that have recently experienced war, he added.

As illegal armed groups lay down their weapons, they can “reinvent” themselves and turn to other ways to make money, like human trafficking, Uribe said.

The deputy mayor also warned that traffickers were likely to prey on the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans seeking refuge in Colombia from an escalating humanitarian and political crisis at home. “The massive arrival of Venezuelans to Bogota increases the risk of human trafficking because they are people who are vulnerable, and as such are attractive for these trafficking mafias,” Uribe said.

Sex trade

Human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, worth an estimated $150billion a year, according to the International Labour Organisation, with nearly 21 million people victims of forced labour and trafficking.

In Colombia, women and children sold into sex work is the most common form of human trafficking, with women accounting for seven in 10 trafficked victims, Uribe said. He said “mafias” in Bogota target children for forced prostitution and recruiters lure women with false promises of jobs as models and waitresses but then sell them into the sex trade.

However, lesser-known forms of human trafficking also occur in the capital, including children pushed into begging on city streets, forced labour in low-skilled jobs, domestic servitude and forced marriage, Uribe said.

Yet, few trafficking cases come to light. Authorities in Bogota reported 30 cases in 2016, up from six in 2015. So far this year in Bogota, 16 trafficking victims have been rescued and 33 suspected traffickers arrested, Uribe said.

“Unfortunately, we’re aware that there’s under-reporting of cases, and much of that is explained due to a lack of awareness about the issue of human trafficking,” he added.

Uribe said the authorities were on an “active search” for possible victims of trafficking across the city.

Yet only a handful of prosecutors in Bogota are dealing with trafficking cases.

According to the 2015 US State Department report on human trafficking, there was one prosecutor in Bogota overseeing all cases of domestic trafficking in the city.

Uribe said more prosecutors are being trained to increase the conviction rate and ensure victims get justice.

“We’re sure that from this campaign, we’ll have more reports of trafficking, and especially more convictions,” he said. - Thomson Reuters Foundation