A collaborative effort by authorities in Uruguay and Spain to dismantle an international sex trafficking network reveals that the South American country remains a source of women trafficked to Europe.
In late February, Uruguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that an Interpol operation had succeeded in dismantling a network that trafficked at least 29 women to Spain since 2017. The women reported being held captive and exploited sexually, according to Interpol.
The operation involved six simultaneous raids across Uruguay and Spain. Three took place at residencies in Montevideo, Uruguay's capital. The other raids took place in Spain: two in the city of Guadalajara and one at an estate in Alcalá de Henares.
Eight people -- five in Spain and three in Uruguay -- have been arrested on charges of participating in the human trafficking network. Four were women and seven were of Uruguayan nationality.
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The women who were trafficked, authorities said, were coerced with false job opportunities in Spain. But once they arrived at the Alcalá de Henares estate, they were forced into prostitution to pay off travel, room and board debts demanded by the traffickers, Europa Press reported. The tactic is a common human trafficking method.
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While Uruguay has traditionally been praised for maintaining some of the region’s lowest crime rates, it has failed to root out human trafficking.
Back in 2010, United Nations representative Joy Ngozi Ezeilo warned that Uruguay had become an origin, transit and destination country for human trafficking. The following year, in 2011, Uruguay issued a publication for all its embassies on how to detect and combat human trafficking.
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While there have been some improvements over the past decade, human trafficking continues to be a challenge for the country, as illustrated by the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report.
In its report, the US State Department once again ranked Uruguay as a Tier 2 country, stating that while the government has demonstrated an effort to combat human trafficking, it still fails to meet the established minimum standards. Among the issues cited are a failure by law enforcement to proactively identify victims, inadequate victim services and a lack of comprehensive data.
In regards to prosecution, the TIP Report recognizes an increase in the conviction rates of traffickers, something Uruguay was criticized for in previous years. In 2019, the Uruguayan government reported convicting eight human traffickers, compared to none the previous year. Meanwhile, between 2014 and 2019, Uruguay only sentenced five people on human trafficking charges, according to the US Embassy in Montevideo. Prior to 2015, Uruguay was on the TIP Tier 2 Watch List, on the brink of falling into the lowest category.
According to Interpol, Uruguay’s location on the Atlantic Coast, makes it particularly attractive to transnational criminal organizations looking to transit people.
Meanwhile, a 2020 report “Owners of People, People with Owners,” published by El Paso, a Uruguyan non-government organization, indicated that structural inequalities and discrimination are also factors that make women in the country vulnerable to victimization.
The El Paso report highlights that 17 percent of Uruguayan human trafficking victims go abroad, primarily to Spain and Italy.