Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in the world. Although sexual exploitation accounts for just over half of all detected human trafficking victims globally, statistics are lacking on how many of those victims are children.
In Guatemala, however, trafficking children for sexual exploitation is something of a crisis, with 57 percent of victims under the age of 18, according to a new U.N. report.
The shocking proportion of children amounts to nearly 30,000 of the total 48,500 Guatemalans who are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, a business whose profits amounted to $1.6 billion a year, according to the report by UNICEF and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
“It is outrageous that this occurs under the indifference of society and the lack of state action,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative Mariko Kagoshima in an interview with the Mexican newspaper Noticias de Chiapas.
Poverty is one of the biggest drivers of sex trafficking in the central American country, where three in five people live on less than $3.10 a day, according to the UNICEF report.
Traffickers often target poor, uneducated and unemployed women and girls, luring them with false promises of earning money as a waitress or model. The system is also fueled by widespread sexual abuse in the home, low levels of education, having few opportunities for economic growth and a family history of domestic violence.
In some cases, precarious economic conditions drive mothers to sell their own daughters for sexual exploitation. In the report, an unnamed expert on victims of trafficking assistance explained how a situation like this may transpire:
“[…] the mother thinks: “She is the right age to be with this man; he will give her five hundred quetzales for her virginity.” Some girls have been known to say: “Mom, this man will give me a mobile phone for doing this and that,” to which the mother replies: “No, girl, don’t ask only for a mobile phone, ask for more.”
This is why we say it is a matter of social paradigms and ignorance; ignorance of what it means for their lives.”
To address the problem, it’s important to understand what’s driving mothers to such deplorable situations. Guatemala’s cycle of exploitation carries through generations: Girls living in poverty and abusive conditions abandon their homes and their studies, become vulnerable to traffickers and are recruited for sexual exploitation. Then, when they become mothers themselves, they in turn subject their daughters to exploitation.
The severity of Guatemala’s sex trafficking system is even more difficult to swallow when considering that, according to the U.N. report, there are just two prosecutors working on sex trafficking cases across the country. Unsurprisingly, the number of trafficking convictions in Guatemala remains low.
The report offers a host of recommendations, among them increased control of the detection, prosecution and punishment of officials who tolerate or promote human trafficking for sexual exploitation, as well as the creation of social audit mechanisms to guarantee that authorities effectively close down sexual exploitation centers and prosecute traffickers.
Guatemala has already introduced several initiatives and laws to tackle human trafficking, Reuters reports. These include a 2009 anti-trafficking law, a protocol implemented in 2014 to guide officials when assisting victims and greater focus on combating the online child sex trade.