The dismantling of a large transnational human trafficking network in the Dominican Republic has revealed how dozens of women from Colombia and Venezuela continue to be lured to the island before being forced into sexual labor.
This week, over 16 people, including active police and former military personnel, have been charged with running a sex trafficking network, which exploited at least 80 Venezuelan and Colombian women.
The women, all between 18 and 23 years old, were recruited in their home countries with offers to work as waitresses in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic's most significant tourist resort town. But once in the country, they were told they had to pay off debts of between $3,000-4,000 and forced into prostitution.
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The network offered the women to clients through catalogs promoted through messaging services such as WhatsApp, according to the country's special prosecutor against human trafficking (Procuraduría Especializada Contra el Tráfico Ilícito de Migrantes y la Trata de Personas - PETT). Clients would pay hundreds of dollars for a night and would often be brought to the women by local children. Half the money would go to the traffickers and the other half toward paying off the debt, according to the Dominican newspaper Diario Libre. However, this debt was difficult to pay off entirely as the women would be forced to consume alcohol and drugs, the cost of which was arbitrarily added to what they owed.
If the women refused to cooperate, they were told they would be turned over to authorities or that their families back home would be harmed.
The Dominican Republic’s idyllic beaches attract millions of people every year, making it the most popular destination in the Caribbean. It is, however, also a major destination for sex tourists, primarily from North America and Europe.
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While Dominican authorities are trying to increase their fight against sex trafficking, these efforts are undermined by corrupt officials who facilitate such networks.
In Operation Cattleya, as the investigation is known, authorities rescued more victims of sex trafficking than they did in all of 2021, when just 29 victims were identified. In 2020, this number was 82.
Nonetheless, the Dominican Republic “does not fully meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so,” according to the US State Department's 2022 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report. The country was placed at Tier 2 on the report's three-tier ranking.
A significant issue in combatting such networks is the involvement of security forces. A police sergeant was in charge of promoting the Cattleya network, and former military was also indicted, although it is unclear what their exact roles were.
The soldiers were in charge of moving the victims from place to place to avoid scrutiny, according to Diario Libre, citing the indictment.
“Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year,” the TIP report concluded. Police complicity is involved in child sex trafficking, the report also stated.
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Operation Cattleya furthermore illustrates how tourism businesses often facilitate human trafficking operations. The women were held at the Coco Real Residency in Punta Cana and Hotel Caribe in Santo Domingo, according to the PETT.
Also, the fact that the women were offered to clients online through social networks and messaging services like WhatsApp makes the job of authorities even harder.
Before the pandemic, the services of trafficked women were often offered in bars or on city streets. During the pandemic this all moved online, becoming less visible to authorities. While COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are no longer in place in the Dominican Republic, staying online allows traffickers to reach a larger audience and lowers the risk of getting caught.