By Edward Fox
InSight: Organized Crime in the Americas
While Mexican drug gangs, particularly the Zetas, are known to have expanded into human trafficking in Mexico, there is little substantive evidence to back recent claims that they are becoming major players in Argentina’s sex trade.
At a presentation of her book “Esclavas del Poder” (Slaves of Power) in Argentina last week, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho claimed that two of Mexico’s most notorious criminal groups, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, had expanded their operations in Argentina and were moving into sex trafficking.
“I have clear evidence of the presence of drug cartels involved in trafficking that are already operating in Argentina … in many cases building links with small impoverished communities … Both the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are already here. These organized criminals have begun to settle and are buying human beings,” Cacho stated.
These declarations once again brought attention Argentina’s sex trade, a topic that has been in the media spotlight in recent years due to high-profile cases such as that of Maria Veron, who was kidnapped in 2002, and apparently sold into prostitution.
Human trafficking in Argentina has grown “alarmingly” over the last decade, according to the NGO La Casa del Encuentro, with young women, and sometimes even girls, being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Cacho underscored the magnitude of the problem, citing figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that say some half a million women are trapped in trafficking networks in the country. The authorities have responded sluggishly to the issue — an anti-trafficking law making abduction and sexual exploitation a federal offence was only created in 2008.
However, an examination of the evidence shows that it is a stretch to claim that Mexican cartels are basing operations in the Southern Cone in order to exploit this thriving industry.
Mexican Cartels and Human Trafficking
Human trafficking is one of the world’s most lucrative illicit trades, as Antonio Mazzitelli of the UNODC stated this week, declaring that organized criminal groups earn $6.6 billion annually in profit from the activity. While this appears to be a conservative estimate — some place the figure even higher, in the tens of billions — the trade undeniably constitutes a major source of financing for criminal groups and is likely the second most profitable illegal business on a global scale after drug trafficking.
Aware of the considerable profits to be made from this industry, the Zetas have expanded their operations to include human trafficking. Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR) has stated that the Zetas control numerous prostitution rings in Mexico, while congresswoman Rosi Orozco said that the group have been the most aggressive in incorporating sex trafficking into their business portfolio. A McClatchy report from last year documented how the Zetas have also used their logistical superiority and brutal tactics to muscle in on migrant trafficking from Central America to the US, in some cases charging as much as $30,000 a head. The group therefore appears to have the necessary experience to replicate such operations elsewhere.
There are fewer reports of the Sinaloa Cartel’s involvement in human trafficking. This does not mean that the group has no ties to prostitution or human trafficking rings. However, their incursion into the industry appears far less pronounced than that of the Zetas, with the Sinaloa remaining focused on their main earner: narcotics.
The Zetas, Sinaloa Cartel and Argentina’s Sex Trade
There have been reports of the presence of both drug gangs in Argentina in recent years, but all have been in relation to the drug trade. What’s more, they have primarily involved the Sinaloa Cartel, with reports of the Zetas’ drug trafficking operations in the country generally minor and less substantiated.
With the Sinaloas less focused on expanding into human trafficking, and the Zetas not having any notable structure in Argentina, the potential for a Mexican incursion into the country’s sex trade appears to be lacking.
Gaining control of sex trafficking networks in Argentina is very different from wresting drug trafficking corridors out of the hands of rival gangs in Mexico. Much of the trade is spread between several small, loosely structured organizations who, according to Cordoba’s Police Commissoner Claudia Flores, while separate, maintain a degree of connectedness. This set-up runs counter to how the Zetas tend to manoeuvre, relying on extreme violence and force to obtain absolute control over illicit trades, rather than negotiating deals to cooperate.
Furthermore, statistics released this year in a joint report by Argentina’s anti-trafficking prosecutor’s office UFASE and the Institute of Comparative Criminal and Social Science (INECIP) (see attached, below) show that not one of the people charged with sex trafficking since Argentina enacted its 2008 law was Mexican. Over 80 percent of those charged were Argentine, with the second biggest nationality being Paraguayan.
UFASE’s chief prosecutor, Marcelo Colombo, told InSight Crime that there are currently no open investigations into whether Mexican gangs are involved in Argentina’s sex trade. He did not rule out that Mexican cartels could be involved in Argentina’s sex trade, but said that so far investigations have not produced evidence suggesting that this is the case.
He added that UFASE are currently trying to contact Cacho in order to determine if there is enough evidence for her claims to open a preliminary investigation into possible Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel operations.
As it stands, Cacho’s comments appear to be overblown. The Sinaloas have centered, and will likely continue to center, their operations on the international narcotics trade, rather than human trafficking. While the Zetas have experience in human smuggling and the sex trade in Mexico, there is little evidence that they have a strong presence in Argentina, making it difficult to imagine that the group has the necessary infrastructure to control sex trafficking in the country. Furthermore, their primary focus will likely continue to be the consolidation of their operations in Central America, instead of spreading themselves thinly in an attempt to push into a secondary industry farther away from their base.
Given the highly profitable nature of the human trafficking trade and its size in Argentina, it is possible that Mexican criminal groups will try and gain control of this business in the future. However, claims that human trafficking networks tied to Mexico’s biggest and most brutal cartels are already in place in the country simply run counter to the evidence.