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Puerto Rico: Human trafficking not recognized as a crime on island

By Natalia A. Bonilla-Berrios


SAN JUAN — He sold drugs and robbed people of their social security checks. He dropped out of school after earning from $80 to $120 dollars a day — as a victim of human trafficking. The problem was he didn’t even know he was a victim. How could he? He was only 12-years-old.

SETRATA.jpgIn Puerto Rico, this case is not isolated. Hundreds occur nowadays, but it’s hard to help victims like the 12-year-old because the state government does not officially recognize human trafficking as a crime.

L-R) Dr. Cesar Rey, Mrs. Anna Rodriguez and Agent Yuani Fernandez share their insights on human trafficking at the Human Trafficking in Puerto Rico seminar. (Photo: Katherine M. Márquez)
Dr. Cesar Rey, president of the board of directors of the Ricky Martin Foundation (RMF), professor of sociology at the University of Puerto Rico Piedras Campus and one of the speakers at the recent “Human Trafficking in Puerto Rico” seminar, conducted a three-year investigation into human trafficking on the island and discovered disturbing attitudes by law enforcement.

“We interviewed agency officials and they all said they did not see a pattern,” Dr. Rey explained. “When they checked the cases that couldn’t be categorized in groups, we found those were the human trafficking ones.”

It is a constant challenge that Dr. Rey and other advocates who want to eradicate human trafficking in Puerto Rico face, and which was outlined in a report, based on Dr. Rey’s investigation and released in February, titled “Trafficking Persons in Puerto Rico: An Invisible Challenge.”

Human trafficking is the third most lucrative illegal business in the world, generating over $32 million annually. Yet, half the battle in combating it is fighting the ignorance of people.

According to the Palermo Protocol, human trafficking involves “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud“.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 – 800,000 persons are trafficked each year across borders internationally and now, with the publication of the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, the nation recognizes itself as a destiny where this practice happens.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to detect a human trafficking situation. It’s important to understand that the traffickers not only can kidnap the victims — who are generally women and children — but they also recruit them with great job offers such as modeling or entering the United States in search of the American dream. But once they have them, they coerce them into prostitution, exotic dancing and working in massage parlors, as well as, performing domestic labor.

During this whole time of forced employment, they make sure to “destroy them physically, psychologically and emotionally,” said Mrs. Anna Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.


“These persons don’t give any meaning to the term human being”, she added.

Federal Agent Yuany Fernandez of the the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Division of Puerto Rico, said, “Human traffickers do not see the human part of the victim, they just see them as property.”

Although in the U.S., Congress is constantly renewing and amending the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, in Puerto Rico the trouble lies with local authorities who do not follow up on those put under house arrest or those sites identified where children are being used as drug dealers or prostitutes.

Puerto Rico is often referred to as a transit destiny but what the RMF study discovered is that it’s also a destination for sexual tourism. Mrs. Rodriguez warned the authorities to be on alert for any illegal business during the upcoming Central American and Caribbean Games starting on July 17th 2010.

“Most times, the traffickers are of the same nationality or they have a social position or education far more superior than their victims,” Rodriguez said while explaining there’s not a single stereotype of who could be a human trafficking recruiter.

However, Agent Fernandez reminded conference attendees, “Today, we do not have in Puerto Rico one single case open on human trafficking.”

The implication is that all the cases are being handled by the State Department of Justice or Department of Family which categorize human trafficking cases as another type of crime. Furthermore, because human trafficking is not recognized as a crime, the victims cannot be offered any official protection or benefits.

Due to the present efforts of Dr. Rey and the RMF to create an interagency plan to fight this practice, the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Puerto Rico, Ms. Jennifer Gonzalez, expressed her interest in proposing a resolution against human trafficking on the island.

However to this day, nothing has been presented to address this issue.

The RMF will be conducting a series of 20 workshops to diverse government, NGO’s, schools and community groups on the island to heighten awareness about this crime, and especially to put a name to the unsolved or closed cases of what should have been recognized as human trafficking.



Learn more about Natalia


Natalia A. Bonilla Berrios is a junior at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) majoring in Journalism and minoring in Political Science, International Relations. Natalia has a 3.90 GPA.

She was the former president of the UPR student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a member of the National Society of Collegiates and Scholars and was selected for the ‘Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges’ program, during her freshman year.

In addition, she has worked as an intern reporter for Diálogo Digital, Puerto Rican Center of Investigative Journalism, served as a staff writer for Paréntesis newspaper, and as a volunteer reporter for IDentidad magazine.

Bonilla has served as student representative for the Freedom of the Press Center of Puerto Rico and has been selected as one of the UWIRE’s Top 100 Student Journalists of 2009.



She was selected for the Student Camp at Unity 2008, the quadrennial Journalists of Color Convention and also, as a volunteer for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.



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