Peru is rich in culture, history, and biodiversity; however, it has been ranked Tier 2 in human trafficking since 2017 according to the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. In recent years, economic growth and rising living standards have overshadowed the fact that Peru’s 34 million citizens grapple with widespread human trafficking in four major sectors: domestic servitude, logging, mining, and commercial sex.
It ought to be acknowledged that some progress has been made over the past year since the country adopted the National Policy Against Human Trafficking and its Forms of Exploitation and expanded the anti-trafficking hotline to accommodate Quechua speakers. Nonetheless, legislation and enforcement remain insufficient.
While the constitution and penal code prohibit “slavery, servitude, and trafficking of human beings in all its forms,” major challenges exist, such as inadequate funding, deeply embedded corruption, and an inability to implement comprehensive policies across remote regions. Authorities found complicit in trafficking rarely face conviction, police units experience frequent turnover, and the widespread practice of bribery convolutes investigations. For the third year in a row, the government has cut anti-human trafficking funds to a mere 0.00006% of the annual budget, demonstrating a tepid approach to the crisis.
The most prominent cause of human trafficking is rampant poverty. Prepandemic stats reported that 20.5% of the population lived on less than $5.50 a day, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness and unemployment have risen, making the population especially vulnerable to exploitation. It is pertinent to establish that no individual is capable of consenting to servitude, as all victims are forced, by manipulation or necessity, into human trafficking due to complex economic and social pressure. To better understand the nature of human trafficking in Peru, let us investigate four of its industries, beginning with domestic servitude.
The practice of domestic servitude deepens inequality between rural and urban communities as wealthy families hire or purchase underprivileged children under false promises of fair pay, education, and housing. It is estimated that 110,000 Peruvian children are forced to work as domestic servants entailing agricultural labor, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children from dawn to dusk. A study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that servants worked an average of 12 hours per day while 21% had never received time off. It was also discovered that children under 14 were treated significantly worse and made to perform more intense labor because they were “less likely to complain.” Denied a childhood and proper education, domestic servants are subject to overworking and outright abuse.
Furthermore, servants have no leverage over the terms of their agreement; verbal and written contracts are standard, but rarely honored. Employers are known to monitor workers’ communications and whereabouts, and even confiscate legal documents, leaving the child no opportunity to escape. Those who run away or are caught without papers are immediately returned since host families are widely considered to be the servant’s rightful guardians.
If permitted an education, domestic servants must attend night classes, which also serve as underground recruitment hubs for sex traffickers. The ILO reported that an astonishing 70% of Peruvian women in prostitution were introduced to ‘the life’ through someone they met at or near night classes; this startling reality demonstrates that traffickers purposefully poach students in evening classes since they are typically traveling alone, estranged from their families, and susceptible to false promises of a better life.
Increased global demand for luxurious hardwoods has contributed to the growth of illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon, which generates 75 million dollars annually and involves over 33,000 workers. Logging operations take place in distant regions such as Madre de Dios, Pucallpa, and Puerto Maldonado, where indigenous communities and native lands are consistently exploited. Illegal logging companies depend on two main strategies: the first is the employment of communities and their land, and the second is the contracting of seasonal workers who are trafficked to private logging camps.
Under the first model, logging companies bind natives into cycles of debt by offering enticing benefits such as goods, housing, hospitals, schools, and cash payments in exchange for labor and timber. To circumvent original agreements, logging companies will raise the costs of tools to 3-5 times the market price and claim that the value of the natives’ timber has decreased. This cruel tactic of deception banks on the fact that indigenous peoples lack leverage and context in negotiations. As a result, entire communities are forced to strip their land of timber while enslaved by insurmountable debt.
The second model involves recruiting, or in extreme cases, kidnapping natives to forcibly work in private camps, where they work under precarious conditions under the promise of fair pay at the end of every season. The days are grueling; work includes clearing land, operating heavy machinery, and climbing into trees as tall as 80 feet. Without medical assistance available, many suffer from serious injury, malnutrition, and illness. Efforts at escape are pointless and rescue is unlikely. The remote compounds, accessible only by boat or motorcycle, are patrolled by heavily armed guards, and workers who make it out are killed or tortured as an example for others.
Peru is the seventh-largest global producer of gold. Weighing in at 155.4 tons per year, the country’s illegal gold mining operations contribute to 15% of national gold exports. This has created a high demand for laborers in what is referred to as the ‘artisanal’ mining industry; such off-the-books operations depend on the most rudimentary of practices while employing an estimated 50,000 Peruvian children who live and work in the mines without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Unfortunately, the youngest children are given the most dangerous of jobs since they are small and agile; this includes setting explosives and extracting gold deposits. Due to years of hard labor, the children are exposed to mercury poisoning, polluted air, hearing impairments, unstable rubble, amputations, and high cancer rates. Such conditions are no place for a child but remain the only option available for families isolated from economic opportunity, formal education, and proper housing.
Commercial Sexual Exploitation
A lack of opportunity and increased demand for sex work has forced what the health ministry estimates to be 67,800 Peruvian citizens into commercial sexual exploitation. Significant challenges include the reality that prostitution is legal for those over the age of 18 and sex rings operate in distant logging and mining towns out of reach of the authorities.
Specific segments of the population, including women and indigenous peoples, are coerced into prostitution because it offers one of the few feasible means of financial support. Individuals relegated to bottom-tier jobs make under $137 per month, putting them at high risk of exploitation given that sex work offers an alternative of $600 per month. For those supporting a family or struggling in destitution, survival sex may seem like the only path forward. Indigenous women, who face fetishization and are often victims of sex tourism, are also a high-risk population.
It follows that the increasing demand for sex work correlates to the growth of illegal logging and mining towns. Existing as no more than a series of dirt roads with a collection of bars, nightclubs, and hostels, the towns cropped up in an effort to cater to the constant influx of laborers. As a result, thousands of sex workers are trafficked to these lawless towns where they are forced to live in captivity and sell their bodies as entertainment.
Many victims are lured in by friends or family, ads in the papers, or online marriage sites which promise them relationships or well-paid work as waitresses and nannies, often without mention of a definitive destination. After the initial contact, victims are taken on a lengthy expedition where they must travel through the rainforest by bus, car, boat, and motorcycle along confusing routes used to disorient travelers.
Upon arrival, victims are isolated and abused; any documentation is confiscated, contact with outsiders is prohibited, and sleeping arrangements place several workers in tight makeshift corridors held together by leftover wood and tarps. The victims are charged for their transport, bed, food, and supplies, launching them into the beginnings of debt bondage. Anyone who refuses or disobeys orders will be fined or beaten, leaving the victims little to no option to protest. Fineable actions include minor offenses such as leaving a location without permission, going to bed early, and arguing with coworkers.
The unsanitary nature of the work puts victims at increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, enduring physical violence, and experiencing forcible intoxication. Out of the reach of the authorities, the bars and clubs openly operate the back rooms which are separated by no more than “plastic sheeting, each with a mattress on the floor that customers use for 10 minutes at a time.” The workers are then trapped with highly inebriated patrons and no measures of security, protection, or return home.
Peruvian officials claim there is little they can do to stop these practices as prostitution is legal and many brothels are up to date on taxes and documentation. However, the unlawful act of transporting and coercing people in order to benefit from their work or service, no matter their age, is a punishable crime.
- Expand funding for shelters and programs to specifically assist child victims of labor and sexual exploitation with a combination of legal, medical, educational, and psychological services. Shelters ought to operate inclusively by catering to all ages and gender identities.
- Integrate remote logging and mining communities into the nation by building roads, trains, schools, and housing to develop their local economies and attract business investment. Regulate the logging and mining industries with strict permitting laws, proof of ethical production, and the expansion of oversight committees. Create programs to teach communities about safe mining practices and pass legislation to legitimize and regulate artisanal mining operations.
- Pass legislation to criminalize prostitution for individuals of all ages.
- Create a gender quota in higher education to ensure that more women receive schooling and the opportunity to access high-paying jobs.
- Allocate funds into police units specifically aimed at addressing human trafficking with experts on the payroll for increments of 5 years at a time. Units must operate independently of regular authorities to prevent the spread of information and maintain the secrecy of raids. Authorities ought to be equipped with advanced technology such as aerial cameras and drones to investigate remote parts of the rainforest. Those found to be complicit in protecting traffickers ought to be reported in national newspapers to increase accountability and transparency.
- Develop research on the causes of human trafficking and launch national training to educate teachers, medical professionals, and government officials about the complex nature of labor and sex trafficking. Initiatives should provide materials through online platforms, television and radio programs, as well as extracurricular clubs. Aside from educating civil society, all state workers ought to participate in annual briefings on the seriousness of human trafficking, which would help to cohere national efforts and provide collective direction.