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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia needs to train more prosecutors to identify and investigate human trafficking cases, boost low conviction rates and tackle a problem that remains largely invisible, the country’s top watchdog said.
Colombian adults and children are trafficked for sex outside and within the country, mainly in tourist cities along the Caribbean coast. It is also a source and destination for forced labor, including domestic workers and those in mining and agriculture.
So far this year, the interior ministry has handled 41 cases of external human trafficking, including Colombian women forced into sexual exploitation in Mexico, Indonesia and China.
However, this is only the tip of the iceberg as fear of reprisal, lengthy police investigations, and a lack of awareness prevent victims reporting the crimes to authorities, said Martha Diaz, the head of the government’s anti-trafficking group at the interior ministry.
“Some people don’t know they’ve been victims of trafficking; others have been recruited and trafficked by family members, who can also be victims of trafficking, so sometimes victims don’t want to get involved in judicial investigations,” Diaz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“One of the difficulties facing Colombia and other countries is that it takes a long time to investigate and prosecute transnational human trafficking. It requires cooperation between different countries, which have different laws on trafficking.”
Prosecutions for human trafficking remain low in Colombia and worldwide, in a global industry the United Nations estimates is worth $32 billion a year and ranks as the third largest source of income for organized crime after drugs and arms trafficking.
In 2013, Colombia's justice system handed down only 11 convictions for human trafficking, with prison sentences of up to 10 years. So far this year not a single person has been convicted of trafficking crimes in Colombia, Diaz said.
“Our judicial authorities need to have more knowledge about human trafficking because there are many different trafficking crimes, but they can be confused with - and are sometimes identified - as other types of crimes such as sexual exploitation and abuse of children or pimping,” she said.
Poor, uneducated and unemployed women and girls are most vulnerable to recruiters’ false promises of money and a better life.
“Many victims are single mothers who had children at a young age and are the sole carers for their families,” Carolina Lopez, head of the anti-trafficking program at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Colombia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While most victims are women shipped abroad for sex, few Colombians are aware of cases at home.
"They don’t know about other forms of trafficking like forced begging and forced labor of children and even old people. Human trafficking is not just about sex work and women," Lopez said.
Colombia set up a free national anti-trafficking hotline in 2011, and a public awareness campaign highlighting how criminals are increasingly luring victims through fictitious job advertisements online.
In recent years, the government has trained hundreds of prosecutors, judicial officials, police, and consular officials in its embassies abroad on how to spot trafficking cases, Diaz said.
Despite these efforts, there is an acute lack of state prosecutors, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 report on trafficking.
As in previous years, in 2013 one prosecutor handled all transnational trafficking cases for Colombia – a country with 46 million people. In addition, the government assigned only one prosecutor to oversee cases of internal trafficking in Bogota, the report noted.
(The story corrects to clarify Colombia's justice system handed down convictions in paragraph 8.)
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Alisa Tang