An investigation in Bolivia has found that human trafficking goes largely unchecked throughout the country, highlighting the government’s need to address ineffective regulations and a lack of resources to help victims.
Bolivia’s Ombudsman's Office said in a January report that over 71 percent of human trafficking victims had not received attention or protection from the government over the last two years, putting them at risk of falling victim to further exploitation in the future.
Last year, authorities registered 299 cases of human trafficking, a drop from the 465 in 2018, according to the report.
A disproportionate number of victims are poor, indigenous and live in rural areas. Most of them were lured into sex trafficking or forced labor in the mining, agricultural and livestock sectors, the report said. Sex trafficking—especially of women and young girls—is common on a domestic scale but can sometimes extend to an international network with Chile, Brazil and countries overseas.
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There have been some attempts at international cooperation. In January, the Attorney General's Office requested help from the Malaysian government while investigating a Bolivian woman who had been forced to travel there. "I didn’t want to come," she texted her mother, "they brought me, they told me if I didn’t come they would kill me."
After having spent years on the US State Department’s “watch list,” Bolivia was downgraded to the “black list” in 2018 with 21 other countries that had failed to meet the minimum international standards of fighting human trafficking.
In 2019, it was re-upgraded to the “watch list” after making some basic strides in investigating and convicting traffickers.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent report from the Ombudsman's Office demonstrates that Bolivia continues to fail to help human trafficking victims for three key reasons.
First, although the country has nearly two dozen laws in place to fight various forms of trafficking, experts say they are poorly implemented and even forgotten. For example, each of Bolivia’s nine departments are required to create a human trafficking action plan. But La Paz and Pando don’t have one.
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Meanwhile, other laws are written so vaguely that they are difficult to follow. Local media outlet Pagina Siete pointed out that one law fails to specify whether it is the government or the aggressors who are responsible for victim reparations, or whether the reparations should come in the form of direct payment or compensation of psychological services.
Second, Bolivia offers few resources to victims of human trafficking, making it easier for them to re-enter situations of exploitation in the future. Currently, the country only has six help centers for victims. In its report, the Ombudsman recommended that officials work on opening more in underserved areas of the country.
Third, human trafficking is one of the most difficult crimes to enforce and prosecute, in part because it takes so many forms and occurs to the most vulnerable, voiceless parts of the population. Often, victims are unaware that they are victims, or worry that reporting the crime will result in retaliation from the people exploiting them.
Because Bolivia is considered a "transit country" with widespread rural areas that lack government presence, these basic challenges are only exacerbated and require that officials improve the measures currently in place.