Would you ever visit Bolivia

The lost children of Bolivia

By Jürgen Schübelin, Head of the Department for Latin America and the Caribbean

Much has changed for the better in Bolivia in the past few years: The number of children suffering from poverty and extreme poverty is lower today than at the beginning of the presidency of President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo - Movement to Socialism). Since the state took natural gas production into its own hands and taxed mining companies much more appropriately, spending on education, health, social affairs and infrastructure has risen significantly. Children's rights have had constitutional status in Bolivia since 2008. All elements of the UN child rights and child protection system have been ratified by the parliament in La Paz. And yet in what is still the poorest country on the South American continent, a new problem is spreading like a cancerous tumor, the dimensions of which take the breath away from even experts: kidnapping and trafficking in children - especially with the aim of sexual enslavement.

You have to look closely, otherwise you will miss them: small, partly handwritten notes on bus stations stuck on the wall, a bad black and white copy on a door of El Alto airport, a blurred face, enlarged out of a photo of a school class in the middle of the Bulletin board of a non-governmental organization: The lost children of Bolivia have a hard time staying in the consciousness of their fellow human beings. Hundreds of girls and boys disappeared in La Paz, El Alto, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba last year: "But these are only the official police figures - and only those of the four largest cities," says Susana Aillón, psychologist at Kindernothilfe- Partner Fundación La Paz and one of the most profound Bolivian experts in matters trata - Organized human trafficking with the aim of sexual or slave-like exploitation of the victims. "We all know this is just the tip of the iceberg."

La Paz: Hundreds of children disappear here every year without a trace.

14-year-old Viviana from distrito 1 in El Alto has been missing for a month. In the tiny photo that her mother distributes in shops and at non-governmental organizations, the girl looks serious and proud. She wears a sash around her neck, apparently from an event at school. "In such cases, every day counts," says Susana Aillón from her many years of experience, "once the children have crossed the border, there is practically no chance of ever being able to bring them back."

Bolivia - one of the most important "export countries" for children

Virtually unnoticed by the global public, Bolivia has developed within a few years into one of the most important Latin American "export countries" for children. It is no longer young women who - as they did a few years ago - form the main target group for human trafficking gangs, explains Susana Aillón, now it is about children, especially girls from the age of five, for whom there is an international market with an apparently insatiable demand gives. Marianela Paco, MP and member of the human rights committee of the Bolivian House of Representatives, shocked the professional public in 2012 with data from police statistics, according to which the number of children and young people abducted from Bolivia by criminal organizations has practically doubled over the past ten years.

For the Fundación La Paz team, the nightmare trata has developed into an involuntary and extremely dangerous focus of work within a short time: Originally the foundation, which has been supported by Kindernothilfe since it was founded in 1996, focused on educational and social work with street children in the Bolivian capital. Model projects such as Sarantañani, a three-stage rehabilitation offer for boys, some of whom had lived on the street for years, or Oqharikuna, the counterpart for girls and young women, set international standards with their sophisticated strategies and cleverly thought-out concepts. "But the problem of the children who used to live on the streets and squares of La Paz during the day and slept under bridges at night is different today," explains Raúl Velasco, the educator responsible for Sarantañani.

Street children are pushed into cheap accommodation

Sarantañani - a model project for former street children.

Because in the Bolivian capital - as in almost all Latin American metropolises - a breathtaking gentrification process has taken place in the past few years. The city government invested considerable funds in creating squares and green spaces. Real estate speculators and major investors filleted and changed the cityscape of La Paz rapidly. Apartment prices exploded. Tens of thousands of the poorer residents lost their domiciles and were pushed to the periphery of the city, especially to El Alto. And old, uninhabited houses, ruins and sleeping places disappeared under bridges that could provide shelter for the children. The brutal repression of the police did the rest to at least not let the children spend the nights on the streets.

Completely new business models emerged, so-called telos (abbreviated from hotelitos), cheap accommodation, extremely precarious, extremely dirty, into which groups of children can rent at night. They have to earn the money for this during the day, as the crier and companion of the tiny minibuses, which are used for most of the local public transport in La Paz, as porters, car washers, parking lot attendants, through theft and sexual services. "The children have become much more vulnerable because of the telos," says Raúl Velasco with certainty, "here they are invisible - and absolutely defenseless at the mercy of anything horrible": drug dealers looking for new dealers and customers, uninhibited Violence and sexual abuse by adults or older youths, but also by the youth gangs that emerged in La Paz and El Alto, who, following the example of the Central American maras, are now terrorizing entire neighborhoods and - at the top of this perverse hierarchy - those criminal organizations that deal with trata, dealing with human trafficking - to be more precise - with child trafficking.

Kidnapping often begins with small gifts

Normally children are not just kidnapped from the street, explains Fundación La Paz director and psychologist Dr. Jorge Domic. In most of the reconstructable cases, the children's "disappearances" were carefully planned and began with creeping corruption. First of all, small gifts: a cola, a visit to a fast-food restaurant, a lipstick, sweets. Sometimes it is women who gain the children's trust. Then comes the invitation to go on a trip, to ride in a fancy car. And one day the kids are gone. "My friend was offered a job in a restaurant," reports one of the girls. Where? No idea. Since when? No idea. Who did she go away with? No idea...

“These children have no one to report their disappearance. And ”, adds Susana Aillón bitterly,“ there is no one who would be interested in her disappearance. ”What follows after that is done by the network of Bolivian organizations dealing with trata (Observatorio de la trata), as with trying to put together a gigantic puzzle piece by piece, indication by indication: Because ever larger amounts of money are circulating in the country, which are earned through cocaine production and drug trafficking, the demand for children as sexual objects is also growing. There is almost no stopping the perpetrators: These criminal structures are in a position to infiltrate state institutions at will, to buy police officers, the military, public prosecutors, judges, members of parliament and government officials. There were ten arrests in Bolivia last year for human trafficking. But in no single case, as the national network against trata documents, was there an indictment or even a conviction.

"The truck routes across Bolivia pose a very special problem," explains Susana Aillón. "Wherever truck drivers stop, there is alcohol, coca and commercial sexual violence against children". The powerful association of truck drivers and owners of Bolivia has so far shown itself to be completely resistant to any kind of attempt to get into conversation with the organizations from the network against trata.

Most of the kidnapped children end up in Brazil ...

Brazil: the end of the line for many children.

A large number of the missing children will sooner or later be taken abroad by their tormentors. The routes lead through Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and Chile. The “green” border with Paraguay stretches over 700 kilometers, practically impossible to control by anyone or anything. Or the border river Río Bermejo between Bolivia and Argentina: Here the locals speak of espaldas mojadas, wet shoulders when children are carried to the other bank by people smuggled with the help of rubber tires. There is also an easier way: “The border with Brazil in Cobija can also be crossed on normal roads with practically no control or registration,” explains Susana Aillón, “we fear that a large number of the missing children will be deported to Brazil on this route Sometimes it's the end of the line in the neighboring country: in brothels, at pedophile rings. "Or with individual customers," says Jorge Domic, "who order a child by responding to relevant advertisements such as 'Offer 30 kilograms of fresh meat'."

After all, at the end of July a judge signed arrest warrants for three judicial employees from Puerto Suárez, the border post on the main route over to the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul and from there to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They are under the urgent suspicion that they helped to abort over 60 children and young people with the aim of sexual slavery. However, the police only managed to free three of the girls on Bolivian territory.

... others are deported to Europe

But there are also documented cases in which the trail in Europe, the Gulf States or even China is lost. According to research by the Bolivian anti-human trafficking network, the children are often transported in the cargo hold of the aircraft, drugged and anesthetized, hidden in containers and larger pieces of luggage. "We had to learn that doctors often lend themselves to this business," reports Susana Aillón, "and of course we also know that children are sometimes brought to Europe to steal their organs."

All of this is about gigantic profits for the criminal networks behind the kidnappings: At the end of 2012, the Organization of American States (OEA) calculated that trata would earn 6.6 billion US dollars a year in Latin America alone. According to experts from the alliance, trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation has become the third most profitable business area in the world after arms and drug trafficking.

It is very rare for individual girls and boys to find their way back. Jeanette Pérez, psychologist and program director of the organizations Maya Paya Kimsa, has been very successfully involved in social work with street children in El Alto for over ten years. She describes the fate of a girl from this project who was kidnapped to Brazil and then suddenly reappeared in Maya Paya Kimsa after a long time - seriously ill: “She was only a shadow of herself. She had been raped so often in a brothel, that she caught a severe abdominal infection that was never treated and therefore affected the stomach and intestines. ”In this case, any help came too late: Although Jeanette and her team tried everything to organize hospital treatment, the girl died afterwards a few weeks from her sepsis.

Social workers practice with children to recognize the danger in good time

Poster for a prevention workshop for children against violence.

Given this unequal struggle, is there any chance for non-governmental organizations to be able to achieve something for the children and young people affected? Susana Aillón sees it very soberly: “Trata is a social problem in Bolivia.” Criminal, mafia-like organizations have little to fear if their victims do not come from the upper class or from the new political elite. That is why the Fundación La Paz is first of all to inform the broadest possible public, to shake them up and to persuade them to resist. As part of a project developed jointly with Kindernothilfe, which is also supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), psychologists and social workers systematically train children from risk groups on how to recognize the risk of becoming victims of disappearances in good time. But it is also practiced to escape the tormentors again as soon as there is even the slightest chance to do so.

In three therapeutic centers, the Fundación La Paz teams work with children who have already been victims of sexual violence in all its forms. The main aim here is to stabilize highly traumatized, injured children, to offer them espacios seguros, safe spaces and a way back to their own self-esteem. In the therapies there is a lot of dancing, working with the method of psycho-drama and trying, wherever possible, to identify and include family support systems: "It's like a very arduous reconstruction work - after the previous, almost complete destruction," describes Gisela Campo, the project manager for this part of the Fundación La Paz work, did her job. And then there is RIBUTRA - el rincón del buen trato, the place where people treat each other well. RIBUTRA is the successful violence prevention project of the Fundación La Paz, which has been tried and tested for years, with children and adolescents that thousands of girls and boys from the Bolivian capital now know - and that in this David versus Goliath dispute against commercial sexual violence and the cancerous tumor of the trata plays an indispensable role.

A great success: the law against child trafficking

One of the very important successes of the Fundación La Paz team is that, together with the other network partners, they have finally achieved a national law against trata and human trafficking in Bolivia. At the beginning of this year, the implementing provisions for this Ley 263 (Law 263) were passed. Susana Aillón and her colleagues even managed to get the Andean Parliament based in Bogotá, Colombia, to deal with the problem of missing children for the first time. And as part of the Fundación La Paz-Kindernothilfe-BMZ project, together with the Bolivian school authorities, there will be a revision of all curricula with the aim of dealing with trata and human trafficking, but also the problem of sexual violence against children in detail in the classroom. "We know that we are still at the beginning of this conflict," says Susana Aillón, "but we are getting more and more from month to month who simply cannot come to terms with these crimes against children!"

Susana Aillón and her colleagues from the Fundación La Paz cannot complain that they are not properly noticed by their worst enemies: their latest book with a study of commercial sexual violence and trafficking of children as victims - Existimos Sin Existir ( We exist without being) - was not yet out of the printing press when elegantly dressed individuals presented themselves in the headquarters of the Fundación, who absolutely wanted to buy the publication, which at that time had not yet been publicly announced anywhere. And at the same time, Jorge Domic received a letter from a senior official from the Bolivian Ministry of the Interior, urging the Fundación in a harsh tone to disclose all of its sources and contacts relating to the research on this book and to make them accessible to this official. “When we discreetly inquired at the ministry how we should deal with this request,” Domic remembers, “several employees who know our work urgently advised us not to disclose anything to this man, or anything of our information.”


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The lost children of Bolivia

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