Ciudad del Este makes its way into few guide books. It is overlooked for good reason. I arrived earlier this week in the Paraguayan border town in a torrential deluge. The lashing rain and muddy streets confirmed the image I had of gritty frontier life.
Located on the border with Brazil and Argentina, Ciudad del Este acts as the staging post for a fair percentage of the region’s flow of contraband. After drugs and guns, human trafficking is now the third most profitable criminal activity in the world. The United Nations estimates that the trade in people – for work, sexual exploitation or the sale of organs – is worth around $20 billion per year.
I had come to Ciudad del Este to try and understand a little more about this gruesome industry. My first port of call was the regional office of the UN-backed International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
In a freshly painted office rented from the municipal government on the edge of the town I met with Cynthia Bendlin, IOM’s new director for the area. She filled me in on the situation: “The border is very permeable. There is very little control. Unless you are carrying a package of some kind, you won’t be stopped. You can cross with a child and no-one will ask a thing”
The sexual exploitation of minors in the Triple Frontera – the name given to the trans-border no-man’s land between Ciudad del Este and the border towns of Foz del Iguazú in Brazil and Puerto Iguazú in Argentina – persists thanks to slack border control.
The factors driving the trade in human trafficking are more complex. However, international tourism is known to play a big part. The region is home to the largest waterfalls in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
“The Triple Frontera is the Bangkok of Latin America”, Cynthia explains, “After the Tsunami, many sex tourists started coming here instead of Asia.”
Local tour operators have done little to stop the trade. Indeed, non-profits groups working to combat the exploitation of at-risk children claim travel agencies incorporate the option of sexual services into the packages they offer. The hotels are equally complicit.
On the global stage, some leading businesses are working to help stamp out the trade in illegal trafficking. Over 300 companies have so far signed up to the Athens Ethical Principles [www.gcwdp.org].
Agreed earlier this year, the accord commits signatories to agree to seven management principles. These include: contributing to awareness raising, sharing information on best practice, lobbying governments and demonstrating their own “zero tolerance” to the trade.
As many as 3,500 children are believed to be involved in, or at risk of, the cross-border trafficking trade in the Triple Frontera. Most are exploited locally, but some end up being trafficked through Argentina and then to Europe and the US.
The police and local government clearly need to tighten control. But if the tour operators and hotel chains were to take initiatives like the Athens Ethical Principles seriously, it would dramatically reduce the number of trafficked children over night.
Oliver Balch, Latin America Editor