Panama’s Human Trafficking Story

By: Izzy Ullmann

The human trafficking story in Panama is one I have heard before, but never officially: human trafficking does not exist. According to Jenise Lawrence*, an American attorney working to combat human trafficking in Panama, this is the story that the government puts out.

And yet, the US 2015 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report reports Panama as a source, transit, and destination country for primarily sex, but also labor trafficking.

I sat down with Jenise Lawrence* in Panama City to learn about the dynamics that she has noted working on this issue (almost solely in the country). As she explained, prostitution in Panama is legal above the age of 18, thus easing traffickers’ ability to sell their victims. About 80% of those trafficked into the sex trade are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many are brought through a specific visa program, called alternadora, which the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs explains specifically allows foreign national women to work in entertainment establishments [Read more here]. In a leaked report of the US Trafficking in Persons Office’s visit to Panama in 2006, Attorney General Ana Matilde Gomez emphatically stated her distaste for what she deemed, “the alternadora visa for prostitutes,” and wished to speak to the president about abolishing the visa program.  According to Lawrence, however, 12 years later the visa is still being used rampantly.

As Lawrence explained, different mafias control much of the sex industry, which serves as one of the primary reasons that the government is paralyzingly tentative to intervene. She mapped out for me the domains of mafia- controlled prostitution.

Venezuelans and Columbians exert a great degree of control over the sex industry in Panama City and the Colón Free Trade Zone. In the Chinese community, there are a few families with concentrated power. These families go to China and bring back people who are willing to be indentured servants. They are then brought to work in Chinito stores for no pay and are provided housing above or behind the shops, subject to debt bondage. As the Russian embassy has gained in power in Panama, there has additionally been an increased presence of the Russian mafia bringing eastern European girls to the country for trafficked prostitution.

As she described it, human trafficking exists as a pretty well organized criminal network. The industry has been working to improve its sex-tourism, and has coordinated taxi drivers and hotel managers and staff to direct wealthy businessmen to prostitutes, all the while making a cut of the profits.

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Child Trafficking campaign poster in Tocumen International Airport, Panama City

In 2014, Panama’s Ministry of Tourism launched a measly effort to raise awareness about human trafficking with posters in the airport, but this was the extent of the campaign. It was catalyzed by a scandal in which a Columbian couple was caught kidnapping children, killing them, and selling their organs. This enraged people in Panama City where the scandal occurred, and provided fuel for the campaign, but the charges “mysteriously” were dropped and neither of the couple was prosecuted.

This reflects a much larger issue that Panama faces of a debauched legal system. Due process is typically nonexistent and according to several locals, the corrupt police force accept bribes for most crimes. Lawrence explained that along the Columbian border, the Panamanian guards are being constantly paid off by the Columbian traffickers to ensure that they do not expose the criminals.

 

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Immigrant sleeping in shelter, Darien Province, Panama

Another issue that feeds into the exploitation of humans is Panama’s identity as a destination and transit country for immigration. Because of its relatively stable economy, the World Bank calculated the net migration to Panama in 2012 as about 28,105, which (factoring in those that are emigrating from the country) comes to about 100 people immigrating into Panama per day.  According to Lawrence, about 60% of them plan to stay, while 40% are headed towards Mexico or the United States. Despite this high number of incomers, Lawrence explains that Panama only has two official shelters for incoming migrants: one which hosts 25 women, and another which holds 65 men. When these shelters reach capacity, government officials drive immigrants in cattle trucks to a central location where they  are dumped and told they have 48 hours to leave the country. According to Lawrence, “The problem is so overwhelming to the government.” She continued, “[Immigrants] are not allowed to settle. They are all illegal but the country does not know what to do. The people do not have papers for Panama, they are not allowed to go into Costa Rica or any other country that would allow them transit through Panama or to stay in Panama, and Panama does not have the resources to send them back to their country of origin.” And few people do leave immediately. Many of these people are expertly linked into underground networks of trafficking, especially for sex.

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Container ship, Panama Canal

With limited border patrol, trafficking a person into the country is fairly easy. Lawrence explained that people are trafficked over the Columbian border, through the airports, and in cargo ships through the Panama Canal. She described a survivor from Malaysia who she’d met in an orphanage who had escaped her container on a ship and swam to the edge of the Canal to freedom.

But it is not just foreign nationals; Panamanians are being trafficked too. Lawrence told me a story about two indigenous girls who were simply riding in a taxi one day and were kidnapped by their taxi driver, taken to the border where they were raped and drugged and then forced to work in a push button hotel [essentially a secret room with a menu of women who you can purchase at an hourly rate].  Below is a pretty gross video about push buttons.

 

While the US Trafficking in Persons Report for the past 10 or so years has placed Panama as Tier 2, and commended it for some steps towards combatting trafficking, Lawrence explains how each of Panama’s supposed efforts are moot. The 2015 TIP report says that in 2014, “authorities investigated 11 new trafficking cases, four for sex trafficking and seven for labor trafficking,” and has reported back similar numbers in the 2008, 2011, and 2014 reports, but according to Lawrence, “not one person has been prosecuted.” She explained that the judicial system and enforcement of component of law enforcement is essentially nonexistent. This sentiment was reinforced by many people I spoke to in Panama. The 2015 report also details a “dedicated helpline for reporting human trafficking cases,” but Lawrence counters that, “in reality, there is no phone number or anyone dedicated to the hotline, and if there was, I am sure they were not trained correctly.”

But underlying this slew of issues, Lawrence explains that there is a general apathy about human trafficking. Most people do not know it exists, and those that do are are plagued by the its-not-my-problem mentality. This blockades the serious action needed.

From mafia-controlled areas of the country to an overwhelming immigration problem to an uncoordinated and corrupt justice system to an apathetic public, Panama sure has a lot of issues on its hands. But they do seem solvable. Awareness needs to be raised more fully, especially in schools so that students know about the potential risks that could befall them. And the judicial and legal systems need to be made more accountable, through police trainings, crackdowns on corruption, and instilling an attitude of responsibility among law enforcement and justice officials.

Contrary to public knowledge, human trafficking exists in Panama. Foreigners like Lawrence could continue to enter the country and try to determine ways of combatting the human slavery, but the Panamanian people ultimately need to figure out how to improve their own system to eradicate this problem and protect their citizens and immigrants.

 

Read more about Panama’s human trafficking via The Protection Project’s report. 

 

*name has been changed for anonymity to allow her to maintain legal status in the country

 

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The Moments After

The Freedom Exhibit– a Post- Reflection

August 3,  2013  12:00 AM

I am high off of the excitement of advocacy. There is so much power in talking to people about the things that drive me, and having them care. I felt the sparks of awareness flying tonight. I feel as if I have lowered a rope into a pit of ignorance and hoisted some people out of it. I think I may have even flung some of those people from the flat ground of awareness into the realms of action.
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 Over the last couple months, I have become more and more competent in my abilities to discuss human trafficking with people that share the same passions. I preach to the choir like a pro– I have had many a car conversation, many a dinner table education with my parents. But when I try to talk to people who don’t share my passion, I have felt tongue tied. I haven’t known how to breach the topic, and once I do, I don’t know where to start. Tonight, that changed.
I completely overwhelmed the first woman I talked to. I overloaded her with way too much information about every organization I could describe on our “Learn” table. I could see the stars coating her eyes, the confusion clouding her vision. When she stopped me and asked, “Wait… what is human trafficking?” I knew I had to take a different approach. I had spewed word vomit all over her, and really not brought her any closer to an understanding of human trafficking.
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That was when I realized that I could use the scene I had created as a presentation tool. My art piece provided me with a catapult to educate, something I had really been lacking. I brought people in, at first one on one, and then as groups and told them this:
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~ First look at this mattress, this graffiti, these papers. What do you see? What do they make you think about?
Now when people think about human trafficking, their minds immediately jump to sex. People know about brothels, about people being trafficked across borders in other nations to provide sex to customers. But human trafficking is truly a multifaceted issue. This bed could be the bed in a brothel, but it could be inhabited by so many different people.
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This is the bed of a boy, who is arisen every morning, thrown into a van with six other guys, handed a couple dozen crates of strawberries, and dropped off at a street corner. He is told he has to sell all of the strawberries or be beaten. He goes out, selling strawberries all day. You have seen this boy, sometimes outside Costco, sometimes outside Safeway. You may even have bought strawberries from this boy. In the evening, he is picked up in the van by his pimp. He has not had a lunch break. He has not been able to go to the bathroom. Today, he hasn’t even sold all of his strawberries. In punishment, after handing the money he has made to his pimp,  he is raped. This is the bed he goes back to and cries in.
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Or this is the bed of a girl whose family is abusive. Her parents are drug abusers or they beat her. Maybe she doesn’t have parents at home at all. She runs away from home, and while walking the streets is picked up by a boy. He takes her in; he gives her gifts. He tells her he loves her. He fills a gap that has been empty; he makes her feel special. She falls in love with him. He calls her his girlfriend. After a little while, though, he tells her she needs to make up her share of the income. He tells her she can’t just sit home all day. So he drops her off on the streets to pick up customers. This is the bed that she brings five, ten, fifteen men a night to, selling her body to make money for her “boyfriend”.
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Or is this is the bed of a woman who has just immigrated to America from Cambodia. She wants to start a new life in the land of opportunity. She is offered a job at a nail salon, but is told that instead of payment, they will give her a room in the back. She is not allowed to leave the salon unsupervised. The only time she is allowed out of this room, is when she is painting nails. She doesn’t know her rights. She doesn’t know she is entitled to more than this. This is the room that she spends her days and nights in.
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This bed represents the millions of people stuck in human trafficking today. And splayed across it are diary entries, prayers, poems. On the walls are cries for help, all scribbled across the oppressive graffiti that surrounds the people contained within its walls. These are written pleas for help, because so many of these people do not have the use of their voices to ask for help. They are scared. Women do not want to be arrested for prostitution. Girls are so in love with their pimps, that they do not realize that they are being manipulated. Their emotions are so toyed with, so disjointed that they do not know who to trust or where to turn for affection. Illegal immigrants trafficked in the agricultural industry don’t want to be deported. Legal immigrants do not know their rights. People who have been trafficked into the US do not realize that they have rights to trafficking visas. People are blocked by language barriers, trust barriers, emotional barriers.
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And it starts so young. The average age of a trafficking victim in the US is 12, but people are weaned into it from even earlier. Children are burdened by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. They are neglected by their parents. They are not raised with a sense of self- worth or confidence in their abilities. They seek love anywhere they can find it.
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The system is so skewed. There are more people in slavery now, in 2013, than there were during the entire length of the transatlantic slave trade combined. And back then, slavery was legal. It was in the public eye. It was contested by some, but accepted by most. Now, it is an underground criminal industry. Not just any criminal industry, but a particularly profitable one– the 2nd most profitable criminal industry, netting about $32 billion a year. Once a person sells a gun, that gun is gone. But a person can sell a girl again and again and again and again. A person pimping four girls can make about $600,000 a year. There is a demand for it. It is consumed in mass quantities. With inflation calculated in, a slave back in the 1800s was worth about $30,000. Now, a slave can be bought for $90. Our sense of human worth seems to have plummeted by a long shot. And this is just the beginning of the story. ~
Now, I talked and people listened… really listened. People asked questions… good questions. They started recognizing the signs. People told me about situations that had before not seemed odd, but now seemed like signs of human trafficking. They disclosed information about family, neighbors, friends who had been involved in the issue. They wanted to know how to pinpoint the indicators, how to act, what to look for, and how they could get involved. They wanted to know about the children, about the laws, about the numbers, about the history; I could tell them.  I have done so much research- speaking to people, listening to stories, watching documentaries-  that I was able to truly advocate. I was able to back up my fictional  (yet completely plausible) pieces with hard numbers.

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And I was not alone in my advocacy. I was joined by two truly inspiring women. Julia Wood, the girl who had kickstarted the concept of an art exhibit and collected the art pieces, and I worked off of each other with the most collaborative chemistry. People would ask questions, and we were able to teach together, to fill in each others’ gaps in knowledge, and to combine our separate insight into a truly comprehensive understanding of human trafficking. Most notably, I was joined by Regina Evans, a survivor of the Life, who has since channeled her complex emotions into poetry and a one woman play.
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She shared her story, her passion, her pain, and her love. She lured people into the back room with the bed setup and performed a rhythmic telling of her story… She started with an almost abstract poetic description of a girl being raped, abused, sold on the streets. “She’s somebody’s baby. She’s somebody’s child,” was her haunting refrain. But as her tale escalated, the pronoun turned personal, and the audience was drawn further into her tortured eyes, and her trembling hands. “I’m somebody’s baby,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “I’m somebody’s child.” At the end of her performance, she turned to the numbers, warning of the 300,000 children at risk of trafficking in the US alone. She called people to action. She appealed to them to stand by no longer. As people walked out of that room, the reactions were chilling. Some simply stared ahead in a horrified trance. Some had red eyes, wet with teardrops. Some had hands clasped in fists of anger. I knew that we had changed these people.
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People don’t know, and quite honestly don’t WANT to know about human trafficking. The information is too hard to handle; the reality too repulsive. It is much easier to distance oneself, than to contemplate the truth. With this event, I strove to awaken people to the world around them, bit by bit, so that more people will join their voices in combatting the crime. And I feel as if we accomplished that goal.

Broken People

“I have the same thoughts now as I did back then. I wish I’d never been born. I’d be better off dead than living like this.” Living like this meant living in a brothel, treated like some sort of cheap commodity day in and day out. Having been taken from her home in Moldova when she was only 18 years old, Jenea was lured to “Moscow” with the promise of a cleaning job. She would be making $200 a month, indescribable riches compared to the measly sum she was making in the fields. With the permission of her parents, she left her hometown. Little did she know, she would never return.

In the airport, she realized that “Moscow” was really Turkey. Warned that if she went to the police, she would have to pay back her own travel expenses, the documents and ticket costs, Jenea realized that she was trapped. And in debt.

Jenea is one among millions of women who are essentially modern day slaves- sold from traffickers to pimps to eager clients from around the world. Initially, these women are locked into the brothels by their debts from travel, but quickly those debts multiply with steady ferociousness. Each action is accounted for– room and board, showers, clothing– and not a single dollar that they earn reaches their pockets.

More than just debt keeps them in the brothels. They are trapped in. They are beaten and raped to the point of utter submission. They are threatened with death. They are put on drugs so that even in the rare situation of escape, many return on account of withdrawals. As documentary filmmaker, Mimi Chakarova puts it, “They’ve been broken and believe there is no other choice.”

The issue of human trafficking, however, goes deeper than Jenea, feelings trapped and degraded as a human being. It goes deeper than the boys forced to pound clay into bricks for hours on end to pay off an unpayable debt. It goes right down to the way we view the human beings around us, not as people, but as potentials for profit. Humans are used across the globe to boost status, to boost power, to boost wealth.

Though human slavery is illegal worldwide, it is looked over so frequently, because those with the power to stop it have vested interest in its continuation. Police officers make money off of bribes from pimps. Government officials frequent brothels as customers. Products can be made much more cheaply, when the workers ARE NOT PAYED for their labor.

But not only do the people with political or economic clout keep such a system going; so do the consumers. We have created an industry for human trafficking. In our purchases, we endorse the forcing of children into factories where they lose their childhood, their opportunity for education, and sometimes, even their fingers; we applaud the debt bondage of men, chained to their jobs in mines and fields as the only way to pay off a constantly growing debt; we condone the system in which harvesters never see more than a couple of dollars of their sales. Each time we buy a top from Forever 21 or a tablet from Kindle or a pair of shoes from Lacoste, we are supporting the exploitation of human labor.

Quotes from The Price of Sex, a chilling documentary by Mimi Chakarova. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9eBkIy4Uag

The Seemingly Unexpected Survivor

When we think about human trafficking, our minds jump to people in the ghetto. We think of poor children in Africa and Cambodia. We think about overly sexualized women in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. We think about the kids sitting in the back of the room, with bruises and welts, who are failing out of their classes.

But we don’t think of San Jose natives. We don’t think of that girl who’s at the top of her high school class. We don’t think of the qualified student, going on to UC Berkeley. We don’t think of fathers selling their only child for sex. We don’t think of mothers taking photos of their daughter for advertising.

When we think about human trafficking, we don’t think about girls like Minh Dang. But she had to think about human trafficking her entire life.

Hunger for the Meat of Women

Walking in the door,
The initial shock of meat,
The tender flesh of exposed breasts,
Those red and swollen arms undulating.

The girls in the window,
Illuminated in red,
Displayed like mannequins,
As if they are showing off purses to be sold.

But what are they selling?
They are selling their bodies,
Their dreams, their desires,
Their worth and their dignity.

And for what?
For incessant beatings,
For looks of hunger and greed
Coming from clients who just want that meat.

They have to serve them diligently,
Despite hunger, discomfort, pain.
Have to relinquish power over their own bodies,
Give over to these paying customers.

But who gets the money?
Not the girls, no, not them at all.
It goes to the pimps, to bribing the cops,
So that the brothel will forever stay in business.

Their eyes are haunted,
Their lips are shut,
Except for when they are forced open.
Their bodies convulse with the –

-pain, overcoming, overbearing,
Dominating every moment of their lives.
No hope for a day off,
For some moments of peace.

Every moment is a working one

In the red light district.

Very Young Girls

ImageVery young girls enter the sex trade all over the United States. And by very young, I mean VERY YOUNG. The average age is 13… but there are girls being pimped from the age of 12 and younger. It is impossible to say there is a single reason, because there isn’t one.For Shaneiqua**, a mere 12 years old, being flirted with by an older man felt flattering. She was walking alone at night. A car was following her. A guy called her sexy… she FELT sexy. She felt good. It was cool to have an older man be interested in her. It escalated. She spent time with him, they went to movies together, had sex. He told her loved her. She believed him. She wanted that love. She craved that love. So when he told her that he would love her more if she started bringing in some money, if she starting prostituting, she couldn’t say no. She protested, but there was no going back. After the first time, she says “my whole body just felt dead.”And that was only the beginning. Soon enough, she got fed up with it… with “the life”.  She just wanted to be a kid, to live her OWN life, not this one of subjugation and sexual exploitation. She tried running away, but he found her. “You’re shitty. You’re a bitch,” she was told before he raped her anally. It was at this moment when she released her hope and her perception that she could have a better life than this. “At this point in time I felt this was his body,” Shaneiqua says, “whatever he felt like should go inside it or happen to it would.” She makes money, but it all goes to him. She cannot carry a quarter in her pocket without him knowing.

This girl is like so many others. She is called a prostitute. She is called a slut, a whore, a hoe. She is not recognized as a victim, but as a parasite on her society. She is arrested for her actions. She is incarcerated for selling her body on the street, when, in fact, her actions are so intrinsically influenced by the pressure of her pimp. He is a man she has grown to love. She does not think she can leave him. She feels indebted to him. She yearns to satisfy him and to please him. Her story is repeated across America.

Slavery was not ended by the Emancipation Proclamation signed 150 years ago. It is not restricted to Thailand or Cambodia or Amsterdam or Croatia or Africa. Slavery exists around the corner. It exists on the streets around your sport’s stadium. It exists in that club on the outskirts of town. It exists in that ‘shabby’ hotel. It exists in the local nail salon and in that restaurant you love. It exists in the fields where your strawberries came from and in the factory where your shirt was produced. Slavery is everywhere. And it needs to be stopped.

**Shaneiqua is a girl whose story was highlighted in the documentary, Very Young Girls about the commercial sexual exploitation in New York City.