Challenging the Invisibility of Smuggling and Trafficking Persons in Puerto Rico

Challenging the Invisibility of Smuggling and Trafficking Persons in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a destination for sex tourism and a transit point for women and children from other Caribbean islands and from the interior of the Island for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Cases have also been reported of foreigners, both men and women, who cross the ocean and are used for labor exploitation. Besides the crossing of borders,

Puerto Rico is a destination for sex tourism and a transit point for women and children from other Caribbean islands and from the interior of the Island for the purpose of sexual exploitation.  Cases have also been reported of foreigners, both men and women, who cross the ocean and are used for labor exploitation. Besides the crossing of borders, trafficking and domestic slavery of Puerto Rican children seem to be the most evident occurrence on the Island. Some of the activities for which minors are used are the distribution and sale of drugs, work as “mules”, prostitution and pornography, and other illegal activities.  Often the exploiter is a family member, a member of a foster family in a foster home, and/or a neighbor, particularly when the case includes prostitution and other sexual activities.

Smuggling and trafficking in persons are serious crimes that must be confronted and combated because of the profound impact they have on society; any response to this problem must include the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and members of civil society. 

Although precise statistics on human trafficking in Puerto Rico do not exist, the significant number of children living in foster homes or foster care, the high number of families living in poverty, and the Island’s immigration levels, together with gender discrimination, suggest that there may be a serious human trafficking problem in Puerto Rico.

Based on the interviews conducted with various officials from public as well as non-governmental organizations, it is possible to conclude that there is a conceptual limitation in clarifying and defining the problem of human trafficking and slavery.  This limitation prevents the classification of the problem as such, making it impossible to reach the necessary consensus to establish a public policy and the appropriate legislation to safeguard the interests and the human rights of the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Although human trafficking exists throughout the Island, there is a lack of literature and there are neither investigations nor studies to explain the phenomenon.

There is also an overall absence of news coverage on trafficking in persons, whether by the NGO’s, civil society and/or the mass media; and though there is a large number of NGO’s working on behalf of women and children’s rights, none of them focus specifically on the problem of human trafficking.

Our investigation was aim to explain the human trafficking phenomenon in general and the domestic trafficking of children in particular. Emphasis will be placed on individual trafficking as a form of exploitation of women and children in Puerto Rico, which is perpetrated mainly by relatives, caregivers and neighbors.


Human trafficking and slavery is a crime that threatens people’s human rights and dignity. This phenomenon affects matters related to breaking the law and violating the unalienable rights of people, regardless of their condition.  As we have indicated above, although specific statistics on this matter do not exist and there is no coherence among the agencies to identify the problem of human trafficking and slavery, the high number of minors living in “upbringing” (crianza) or foster homes (close to 9,000), the almost half of families — 48 percent — that are living in poverty, and the high levels of immigration to the Island, together with gender discrimination, suggest a problem that could begin to show signs of trafficking and slavery in Puerto Rico. We should also state that Puerto Rico is the third country in Latin America to have more unjust wealth distribution among the Americas, after Paraguay and Brazil. (EL Nuevo Dia, Nov.12, 2009)

Based on this premise, this investigation explores the various methods of human trafficking in Puerto Rico, particularly woman and children. Our investigation had four main objectives: first, to understand the overall problem of trafficking and smuggling in our region of the Caribbean; second, to examine the problem in the context of Puerto Rico; third, to identify agencies and relevant organizations to the development of anti-trafficking measures and initiatives; and fourth, to recommend public policies aimed at appropriate anti-trafficking interventions.             

For this purpose, our team conducted a comprehensive review of the literature on human trafficking, including documents of worldwide relevance, which focused on existing analysis of this subject in general and, more specifically sexual exploitation, mistreatment, legislation, policy and regulations.  Interviews were conducted with officials from various governmental agencies, such as the Department of Family Services, the Department of Justice, the Department of Tourism, the Puerto Rican Police Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); as well as with leaders of various NGOs, and a focus group study was carried out with those leaders to corroborate and exchange information. Finally, an analysis of the existing legislation and the literature related to the problem of slavery and trafficking in persons was conducted, with special focus on Puerto Rico.

Perspective on the Phenomenon

Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are among the principal social problems facing our world today.  Initially, the problem of human trafficking was considered to be a phenomenon limited to South Asia; however, trafficking in persons has spread at alarming levels throughout Europe, Latin America and the United States, accounting for 5 to 7 billion dollars of the informal economy worldwide (Naim, 2006).

Studies published by the United States Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Female Juvenile Prostitution: Problem and Response, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis and Prostitution of Children and Child-Sex Tourism (1999), discuss the hardships that many trafficking victims endure, such as rape, beating, murder, health problems, psychological disorders, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), sexually transmitted diseases (STD), unwanted pregnancies and abuse of controlled substances, among others. Include recent study TIP Report 2008.

This crime has awakened the interest of the general public and has been brought to the discussion table in international to raise awareness of the problem’s magnitude to better prevent and combat it.  Despite great efforts in this direction, it is still difficult to accurately estimate the magnitude of human trafficking and even harder to identify its victims.  The human trafficking industry operates with large, organized and sophisticated systems, with transactions conducted illicitly and in secret, making the crimes difficult to detect.  The study Prostitution of Children and Child Sex Tourism (1999) indicates that in the United States there is no reliable estimate of the children involved in prostitution, since the phenomenon has not been accurately defined, making it difficult to measure.   Include a recent study or delete.

A study presented by Isis International/UNIFEM (1998) explained that Latin American countries have proven to be fertile ground for these crimes because they do not have specific legislation to prevent and/or penalize them.  According to the United States Department of State, “approximately 100,000 people from Latin America and the Caribbean are subject to slavery every year”  (UNFPA, 2006). The limited legislation that exists and the lack of funds allocated make it difficult to implement a public policy on this matter.

Human trafficking is rated as the second most lucrative illegal activity in the world, producing almost 96 billion dollars per year.  This is without taking into account estimates of the amounts earned when the victims arrive to the country of destination, which, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), produces an additional 32 billion dollars per year.

 The Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, Moisés Naím (2006) describes how human trafficking is a traditional illegal commercial activity that has been “revitalized” with the transformation of the structure of the trafficking networks and the flexibility of the majority of its operations. It appears that globalization has created a paradox in that it has granted illegal businesses an economic and political boost while restricting legitimate trade, which has consequently resulting in incentive and demand for illegal trade; similarly, national borders have limited the actions of the states, while representing great opportunities for criminals.

Human Trafficking in the Context of Puerto Rico

The problem of human trafficking is a global phenomenon that affects the population worldwide, thus requiring international collaboration for its successful eradication. In Puerto Rico, this problem lacks conceptual understanding among government agencies and the general public because many deny the problem’s existence, as we have been able to corroborate.  Therefore, in order to proceed with coherent anti-trafficking legislation and policy, one must first clarify the scope of the problem.

Given the political relationship of Puerto Rico with the United States and the Island’s strategic location, Puerto Rico is used as a transit country for foreigners from other Caribbean islands and/or other countries to travel to the United States or to stay in the country.  For example, a report published by the newspaper El Nuevo Día (January 2006) indicated that Hondurans, Dominicans and Chinese were transported illegally to Puerto Rico and were found on the EureKa shrimp-processing farm in the town of Dorado, where they were held captive for labor.

Our investigation revealed that some of the authorities are aware that Puerto Rican children residing in the interior of the Island have been relocated to hotels in the metropolitan area to satisfy the demand of the sex tourism industry. There have also been reports on the Island of several boys and girls who have disappeared, and authorities suggest that they may have been the victims of illegal trafficking of minors for labor exploitation, sexual exploitation and/or for the sale of organs.  Furthermore, many of these exploited minors do not have to be physically transported somewhere else for the exploitation to take place, as it is occurring in the center of the Island.

Human trafficking and slavery in Puerto Rico is an imperceptible undertaking, and it seems like it still goes unnoticed by many authorities as well as by many citizens of this “Sympathy Island” (“Isla de la simpatia”). as the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, winner of Nobel Prize in Literature, called it. Puerto Rico is a society that has historically built its social identity on parameters of trust and, to a certain extent, with large doses of social naiveté, which sometimes challenges our best interests.

In fact, our study showed different parts of this complex, unfinished and dissimilar structure that feeds the fusion of our communities, which forms a backdrop of an illegal economy, a dehumanizing crime and a social project parallel to the social fabric of our own traditions.  This, which seemed like a distant phenomenon of the Pacific or of Central Europe, is now in our home.

One of the first matters that we must clarify in terms of the results of this study is that migration is not a sine qua non condition of this crime. In other words, our work proved that the nature of human trafficking and slavery in Puerto Rico embodies different activities, and it has a domestic market, apparently finding support at the points where drugs are sold, among other centers of operation. Although it is true that there are human traffickers in the Caribbean region, it is also true that this activity is linked to other types of markets such as the illegal drugs and illegal arms markets, in connection with the illegality within this border.  It is within this context that some migrant merchants can enter.

Nevertheless, it became evident through our investigation that the dimension of exploitation by way of human trafficking and/or slavery has some very national surroundings.  Surely these cases are not isolated from possible international mafias, but, from what we can infer from this study, the market feeds itself with Puerto Rican children.

Another finding that we believe is important to mention is the fact that the fragmented information that we recovered in this study leads us to assume that there are valid reasons to do an in-depth study of the incidents that the authorities have occasionally worked on as isolated facts and that seem to suggest that there is a structure of child exploitation that goes anywhere from child cyber-pornography to extreme situations such as sexual exploitation surrounding drug sale centers, child prostitution and child labor exploitation.

In the past few years, part of this activity has centered, among other places, on the so-called “massage parlors” that have a legal commercial facade, but that have underground activity behind them that could even be hiding minors.  These centers abound in Puerto Rico, and, according to testimony from the security authorities of this country, this is a very lucrative activity.  Supervision as well as prosecution of these cases is full of subterfuges that evade justice.  The truth is that enclaves continue to reign in our cities, covering up some pimps and exploited women, as part of this human trafficking.

Likewise, other expressions of this exploitation may include minors when we refer to mistreatment and exploitation of foreign migrants working in domestic service.  In our work, we discovered pieces of information that disclose specific situations where victims of this type of exploitation did not dare file complaints, and thus continued to have oppressive and servile relationships for indefinite periods of time.

One of these cases is the one we described of a government official with a minor from the Philippines that he kept captive for several months and used as a prostitute for himself and his friends.  Arranged marriages and child pornography are expressions of this underground world of exploitation that, due to subtle marketing and cover-up, sometimes occurs with the complicity of some government authorities, particularly security personnel, who are part of this exploitation market.

If the foregoing is serious, even worse is our finding of still hidden dimensions that in our country there are cases of incest between blood relatives and in foster homes prevailing even more frequently than one would image.  As an attorney of the Department of Justice in charge of this type of crime stated, the situation is so serious that it forced him to quit working with those cases because he found them repulsive.

Likewise, it is worrisome that there is a large number of biological parents that abuse their children in sexual work, prostituting them or mistreating them physically and mentally.  In fact, the incidence of general mistreatment is not dealt with in this study, but because of its seriousness, it helps us understand the overall deterioration of the situation of children and young people in this country.               

As we recommended in the previous section, there are three nerve clusters in our work that require immediate attention from the authorities concerned.  These are: foster homes and the lack of supervision that exists, which we understand are affecting the strict fulfillment of the law and the healthy living of the children in the homes included in our study. This laxity causes problems such as those described in our study.

Another important factor is the lack of effective legislation to counteract this activity in a coordinated manner together with the Federal agencies in charge of handling this type of crime, such as Homeland Security.

Finally, it is important and necessary to revise the nomenclature used by the different agencies involved in controlling these crimes.  We found that there is a lack of communication among the different agencies and, until very recently, there was no protocol that would indicate how to act in a synchronized manner.  This protocol has to be tested and will only be effective if it is reinforced with legislation and with a public policy that has an effect on the nature of this social deterioration picture.

This article originally appeared in Información al Desnudo.

César A. Rey-Hernández, Ph.D., a former Secretary of Education for the Government of Puerto Rico,  is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public Administration, and Luisa Hernández-Angueira, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, both at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campaus. Dr. Rey-Hernandez is Director and Principal Investigator, and Dr. Hernández-Angueira is Co-Investigator of the study, Human Trafficking in Puerto Rico: An Invisible Challenge (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ricky Martin Foundation, January 2010) and its second phase study just published as La Trata de Personas : Una Forma Moderna de Esclavitud en Puerto Rico. Dr. Rey-Hernández can be reached at