A leading suspect in a high-profile sex trafficking trial in Argentina has claimed that she too was a victim of forced prostitution, illustrating the difficulties in drawing a sharp line between victims and victimizers in the sex industry.

On April 3, 2002, Susana Trimarco’s daughter Maria Veron was kidnapped in the northeastern Argentine province of Tucuman, where it is believed that she was forced into prostitution. Ever since the disappearance, Trimarco has visited brothels throughout the country in search of her daughter, even going so far as to pose as a pimp to gain access to the seedy underworld of the northwestern province of La Rioja in 2003. “I dressed up and put on makeup and made myself pass for a pimp,” Trimarco told BBC Mundo in a recent interview.

As InSight Crime has reported, her efforts to find her daughter earned Trimarco a reputation as a tireless campaigner against the sex trafficking industry. In 2007 she set up the Fundacion Maria de los Angeles, an organization which has liberated hundreds of women from conditions of sexual slavery and works to raise awareness of the issue nationwide.

After 10 years, however, Trimarco is finally seeing a measure of justice in her daughter’s case. Since February, 13 suspects — seven men and six women — involved in Veron’s disappearance have been put on trial on charges of sexual exploitation and kidnapping. According to testimony of rescued women, all of the suspects had contact with Veron in brothels in the north of the country.

The focus of the case is a woman named Daniela Milhein (pictured). With the help of her partner Alejandro Gonzalez, Milhein ran a sex trafficking ring out of a house in Tucuman. They also sent young women to work in brothels in the distant city of Rio Gallegos, located in the far southern province of Santa Cruz.

In her defense, Daniela Milhein has blurred the lines between victim and villain in sex trafficking. In addition to denying that she had any part in Veron’s disappearance or captivity, Milhein claims that she herself was the victim of forced prostitution. At the age of 16, she says she found herself working for a pimp named Ruben Ale, who has not been named as a suspect in the case. “For six years I was forced to work for him without receiving a single cent, because he kept all the money,” Milhein said.

This illustrates a relatively common feature of the commercial sex trade. With age, women who have spent much of their lives in the business sometimes find themselves rising through the ranks to become madams, thus perpetuating a cycle of abuse. According to the United Nations’ 2009 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, sex trafficking in 30 percent of the countries surveyed is run primarily by women. “In some parts of the world,” notes the report, “women trafficking women is the norm.”

While the stereotypical image of those running the sex industry is a physically abusive male, the March 29 testimony of one of Milhein’s victims described a more subtle method of control. Fatima Mansilla, who told the court that she witnessed Veron being held captive by Milhein in 2002, said that the madam manipulated her emotionally and mentally. “She tried to convince me that I was there of my own free will. She told me that no one was going to do me any harm,” said Mansilla. The other girls were told similar things, but all found themselves trapped into feeling obligated to their captors. “She promised them that they would make a lot of money … [but] they had to send a certain amount to Milhein as thanks for obtaining the work.”

Because women like Mansilla are told that they are making their own decisions (despite facing implicit and explicit threats), they sometimes believe that they are in control of their situation. Such manipulation is a common method of control in sex trafficking, and accounts for the difficulties in distinguishing trafficking victims from women who voluntarily become prostitutes, which is legal in Argentina. This is why some womens’ groups in the country argue that the distinction is artificial, and are fighting to outlaw prostitution altogether.

While the case has sparked a national dialogue on sex trafficking in the country, Veron’s location remains a mystery. Some claim she may have left the country for Spain, while others believe she is likely dead. Her mother, however, has vowed to continue her search.

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