[Originally published in LatinTRENDS Magazine Issue #84; December 2011.
Grammy-winning rap duo Calle 13 joined the efforts of UNICEF in a campaign to raise awareness about child trafficking and exploitation in Latin America. “We want to cooperate on any campaign that helps the development of young people and Latin American countries. For me, it’s very important. Latin America worries me because for us, we’re comfortable in the United States and Puerto Rico…(but) there it’s uncomfortable,” singer-songwriter Rene Perez, known as “Residente,” said.
The MTV Latin America and Tr3s networks recently presented the documentary “Esclavos invisibles” (Invisible slaves) produced with UNICEF and directed by Perez and musical partner Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra, about how this problem is affecting Latin America.
“We’ve traveled practically all through Latin America and we know about this and other problems. So, I worked on the number “Cancion para un niño en la calle’ along with Mercedes Sosa, which speaks about children who are exploited sexually, at work, who wind up addicted to drugs,” Perez said.
Human trafficking in Latin America – where mostly children are tempted with promises of a better life in foreign lands, such as the U.S., only to be used covertly in slave labor – is an ongoing problem in the 21st century. The International Labor Organization has estimated that around 2.4 million people worldwide have become trafficking victims. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, more than 550,000 children have been trafficked.
Trafficking primarily involves exploitation, which comes in many forms: forcing victims into prostitution, subjecting victims to involuntarily labor or servitude, compelling victims to commit sex acts for the purposes of creating pornography, and/or misleading victims into debt bondage.
“Human trafficking is the slavery of the 21st century,” said Perez, “and its victims are primarily kids.”
He’s right: around half of trafficking victims in the world are under the age of 18, and more than 2/3 of sex trafficked children suffer additional abuse at the hands of their traffickers.
According to some estimates, approximately 80% of trafficking involves sexual exploitation, and 19% involves labor exploitation. What’s even more frightening is, as many as 30% of human trafficking victims will come across a healthcare professional during their time in slavery…but, according to Doctors at War, virtually NONE of them will be recognized as slaves by the healthcare provider.
“In Latin America, millions of kids are looking for a chance,” said Visitante, “but many are deceived, or forced, into this situation by criminals who turn them into slaves.”
Visitante’s point is well-taken: according to Doctors at War, more often than not, human trafficking is run by members of organized crime.
Trafficked children are significantly more likely to develop mental health problems, abuse substances, engage in prostitution as adults, and either commit or be victimized by violent crimes later in life. Women who have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation experience have a significantly higher rate of HIV and other STD’s, tuberculosis, and permanent damage to their reproductive systems.
And while there are 27 million adults – and 13 million children – trapped in trafficking, there is only one shelter in the U.S. designed specifically to meet the needs of trafficking victims, and it currently only houses a total of seven to nine victims.
“Are we just going to sit back and do nothing?” asked an outraged Perez.
“While it is hard to quickly change these underlying causes of trafficking or exploitation, [we are] trying to install more knowledge and awareness around the issue,” Perez said. “Young people are looking for opportunities overseas for study or work and this is how [others] can exploit them. This is one of the most pressing issues drawing young people in and we need to educate them to have a better understanding of situations to avoid and how to prevent themselves from being exposed.”
While both members of Calle 13 feel passionately about the issue, Cabra’s reasonings for his passion are more personal than those of the more militant, outspoken Perez: Cabra has a young daughter. “If I can see her worth,” he said, “I can almost guarantee that the traffickers can see it, as well. And that scares me.”
“As a parent I want the best for my daughter. We were really touched…and so, here we are – spreading the word, trying to capitalize on the work we have done, in order to support this fantastic campaign and condemn the things that are wrong.”
“MTV Exit” started in 2004 to raise consciousness among students through TV programs, online exposure and live events. It is “a campaign about freedom – about our rights as human beings to choose where to live, where we work, who our friends are, and who we love,” according to the project website.
Program efforts primarily focused on the Asia-Pacific region, with its main office in Bangkok, Thailand. Calle 13’s partnership is intended to broaden its reach to Latin America, where human trafficking is prevalent.
Precise data on human trafficking is hard to gather because of the covert nature of the crime, according to UNICEF. However, a 2005 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 2.4 million people were subjected to forced labor as a result of human trafficking. Between 980,000 and 1.2 million of those were children. The highest numbers were found in Asia, with some 9.4 million. Latin America and the Caribbean followed with some 1.3 million.
The documentary and music video aired on Tr3s and MTV Latin America on November 29th. The campaign will expand in Latin America through television shows, interactive online content, and local events and activities involving children and adolescents.
“MTV and Calle 13 are cultural references for all young people throughout Latin America and we believe that through this new partnership, we will be able to reach millions of young people with information and messages about all the risks involved in being a young person on the move,” said Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Director, in a public statement.” Behind each case of a young person being trafficked, there is a distinct story but very often these stories begin with poverty, discrimination, abuse, domestic violence and too few opportunities to conclude a meaningful education.”
“The young people are key to the development of any country and instead of being in school they are in the street, often on drugs,” Perez said. “If they start on that path it only creates more problems for the countries they are in.”
Today, human trafficking is the third most profitable criminal activity in the world after illegal drugs and arms trade, generating over 16 billion dollars in revenue annually. But with the charisma and commitment of Calle 13, and their direct connection with youth, UNICEF and MTV are hoping to build channels for communication that will create a long lasting impact on the situation.