BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Children rented out by criminal gangs to beg on the streets, indigenous women picking food crops under threat and intimidation, and people working in Colombia’s silver and gold mines with little or no pay.
These are the increasingly common, and almost invisible, ways human trafficking is taking hold in Colombia, a problem the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says is likely to get worse over the next few years.
“Colombians have tended only to associate human trafficking with sexual exploitation, but there are many other forms of human trafficking going on, including labour exploitation,” said Carlos Medina, head of UNODC’s justice and security section in Colombia, which works on human trafficking.
“In Colombia, I think we’ll see in the next few years more evidence and cases of labour exploitation and forced labour – classic slavery,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview at the UNODC’s office in Bogota.
Slavery, also known as forced labour, can involve debt bondage and any type of work or service, including sexual services, which a person is doing against their will and under threat.
Labour exploitation is also a major concern because it can often lead to slavery, such as when wages or identity documents are withheld and when restrictions are placed on a worker’s freedom of movement, the International Labour Organization says.
Labour exploitation often takes place under the guise of legal and contractual work, but the working hours, conditions or pay previously agreed between a worker and employer are not honoured, according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
Medina said there were reports last year of indigenous groups being used as forced labour to pick harvests in the south of the country.
“I also expect to see more children begging, which includes a whole criminal structure behind of people who rent out children to beg on the streets and at traffic lights,” he added.
Human trafficking inside Colombia is a problem that has only come under the radar of local police and judicial authorities in the past five years, Medina said.
Although Colombia has improved its record on people being trafficked out of Colombia – mainly women for sexual exploitation in Asia – it has been less effective in tackling human trafficking within its borders, he said. “This is because the main fight in Colombia for the past 30 years has been the fight against drugs and terrorism.”
LABOUR TRAFFICKING IN MINES
The demand for cheap manual labour in domestic and factory work and in the agriculture, construction, manufacturing and mining sectors, combined with a lack of job opportunities in rural areas, fuels labour trafficking in Colombia as it does worldwide.
There are growing concerns that Colombia’s drug-running criminal groups, known locally as Bacrim, are involved in labour exploitation and forced labour in some gold and silver mining areas of the country, though their exact involvement is unclear.
“There’s a link between Bacrim and labour exploitation taking place in illegal and legal mining areas. But this has yet to be proven. There are indications that in some of Colombia’s mining areas, labour exploitation is taking place, and people are rented out to work in the mines,” Medina said.
Labour trafficking is not only a rising trend in Colombia but across the world, IOM says.
Since 2010, labour trafficking has overtaken sexual exploitation as the main type of trafficking in cases assisted by the IOM, according to a 2012 report by the agency. Prosecutions for human trafficking remain low worldwide, in a global industry the U.N. estimates is worth $32 billion a year.
In Colombia, with a population of 47 million people, there are just two public prosecutors working on human trafficking cases in Colombia.
Last year, Colombia’s interior ministry dealt with 62 cases of external human trafficking, while its intelligence police arrested 25 people in four operations against external human trafficking.
NO TRAFFICKING 'SUPER STRUCTURE'
The involvement of big organised crime networks, such as Mexico’s notorious Zetas drug cartel, in the trafficking of migrants from Central America is well documented.
But in Colombia, following the demise of Colombia’s cocaine cartels in the mid-1990’s, the criminal networks behind the business of human trafficking are fragmented, with diverse groups involved in the many links along the trafficking chain.
“The big drug trafficking structures aren’t here in Colombia like (they) are in Mexico,” Medina said.
“The criminal groups behind human trafficking in Colombia are atomised and not controlled by a super structure. Some are just dedicated to human trafficking, including sexual and labour exploitation, while others are also involved in drug trafficking.
“Some are just involved in recruiting people to be trafficked, others in transporting people and others in selling them on to third parties. Other groups are involved in all the stages. It’s very specialised and dynamic,” Medina said.
Mexico’s drug-running networks began to diversify their business interests to include lucrative human trafficking networks from the late 1990’s onwards.
It’s uncertain whether that could happen in Colombia.
“Some people will tell you that Colombia’s organised crime networks, like the Urabeños, could branch out and get more involved in human trafficking,” Medina said.
“But for crime networks in Colombia, extortion and corruption involving state tenders and contracts are still more profitable.”