By Sister Susan Leslie, OP
Dominican Sister of Peace, Susan M. Leslie, OP, relays the story of her encounter with the face of human trafficking in Peru.
From Nov. 6–18, I had the opportunity to travel to the southern Amazon jungle of Peru. I was part of a delegation of four women religious from four different congregations, and from four different countries, all currently living in Peru. We are members of the Red Kawsay. “Red” is Spanish for network. “Kawsay” is Quechua and means life in all its fullness. This network is a daughter network of Talitha Kum, a project of the International Union of General Superiors. Talitha Kum and the Red Kawsay (RK) work toward a society without human trafficking. The RK falls under the auspices of the National Conference of Religious in Peru (CONFER or CRP).
Our mission was the third in 2014 to the same general area. For two of us, it was our first.
Pastoral Presence with a Prisoner
From Nov. 12–17, we were in Encrucijada. (This is a fictional name used to protect people in this account; it means “Crossroads.)
In a relatively short period of time, we had a number of interesting synchronicities happen. One evening, as we left the local church, two of us found ourselves unexpectedly intervening in a situation in which a young mother was accused of scalding her 11-year-old daughter that morning. A Peruvian Good Shepherd Sister, Chabu, who is the coordinator of the Red Kawsay, talked with the woman while I talked with the police officer who was escorting her to another pueblo across the river. They were traveling there because there is no fiscal (a District Attorney) in their pueblo. They had to stay in the pueblo where we were because it is too dangerous to cross the river at night.
Eventually, Chabu asked me to talk with the woman so that I could do some energy work with her to help her to recover from what seemed to be a state of shock. She claimed it was an accident. The police officer claimed it was on purpose. Interestingly, he decided to take her to the church so that she could “pray and ask forgiveness for her sins.” While I was with the woman, Chabu talked with the woman’s two young daughters, 6 and 2 years old. By now it was around 8 p.m., and they had not even had lunch. So, Chabu bought some crackers and juice for them. With some therapy techniques, I was able to help the woman become more coherent in preparation for the interview the next day with the fiscal. Because of some connections we have, we were able to talk with a Dominican sister in the city of Selvática (another fictitious name) who works in the Human Rights office. We asked her to do some follow-up, especially if the woman should end up in the prison, which is also in Selvática. Why do I use the word synchronicity? Because it is not every day of the week you meet a police officer in church who decides to take a prisoner to Mass. We were in the right place at the right time.
Escape from Captivity
Two nights later, once again quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the company of two 18-year-old women who had just that day escaped from captivity. Once again, synchronicity was at work. We spent the morning in Minatown, (another fictitious name) well known for illegal mining and human trafficking both in the forms of forced labor and forced prostitution.
In an attempt to close down the illegal gold mining, hundreds of police in riot gear were poised to conduct an interdiction. They had already confiscated a huge number of illegally acquired motorcycles (the primary form of transportation). Because of this police presence, the traffickers had moved their “girls” to various local hostels, and to more remote areas. Our two escapees, whom I will call Anna and Beatriz, told us that they saw girls as young as 8 years held captive in this human trafficking ring.
As it happened, the traffickers did not have enough space in their vehicles to transport all of the girls, so some were left behind at the hostels. Anna and Beatriz were among them with absolutely no money. They had no idea where they were, Anna, who is married and has a baby, offered to prostitute herself in order to get some money for their escape. This would protect Beatriz from sexual exploitation. They had been captives for four weeks at this point, and were in a situation of forced labor that would evolve into forced prostitution eventually.
They somehow encountered a motorcyclist who was willing to drive them to the main road. And, yes, both of them were on one bike with the driver. When they got to the main road, they encountered a taxi-driver who was willing to drive them to our pueblo. But he took Anna’s luggage in lieu of a payment of 20 soles ($6.90 U.S.) for the fare. It was that evening that we all encountered one another.
We listened to their story, gave them something to eat, found them a secure place to sleep, and then had a meeting among the four of us and three other trustworthy people. We explained to our three friends the importance of getting the young women out of the area as soon as possible to avoid the traffickers who would search for them. The large police presence was in our favor. So, taking advantage of that, we formed a plan.
The following morning two of the three friends, along with the Brazilian Holy Cross sister, Conce, and the Spanish Carmelite, Mari, stuck to our original plan to visit another pueblo that was celebrating its anniversary. Chabu, and I stayed behind to continue the rescue process with Anna and Beatriz.
First order of the day was to pay the 20 soles to retrieve Anna’s luggage. Our friend then found jackets for all of us in some recently donated clothing. We would be traveling six hours from the hot, humid jungle up into the cold, snow-capped Andes Mountains to Lugar Alto. Anna and Beatriz had to change their outward appearance. Baseball caps helped. We were heading to a city that would give us options of safe transport for the two to their hometown. We contracted with a car service that travels between these two cities, and set off ASAP. We tried to impress upon the two young women, the importance of discretion and caution in the trip, and that we would not be able to discuss their situation once in the car. If their captors tried to find them, and were able to trace their steps to Lugar Alto, they might also be able to find out which agency we used, who the driver was, etc. We gave them our contact information as well as that of a trustworthy NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) with whom we work. We arrived in the mountains without further incident, got them tickets on a safe bus company, and stayed with them until the bus departed. One of them had a cell phone, which, surprisingly, their captors did not confiscate. Therefore, we were able to call them some three hours later, just before we boarded our all-night, eight-hour bus to return to Encrucijada from Lugar Alto. They were fine, and happy to be on their way. They left Lugar Alto at 6 p.m. and were to arrive in their hometown at 2 p.m. the following day.
They communicated with us once they arrived safely. Later that evening after they arrived in their respective homes, “Beatriz” called my cell phone to express once again her gratitude. Her father got on the phone and with a voice full of emotion expressed his thanks for our part in the safe return of his daughter.
Visit to an Area of Illegal Gold Mining
After travelling all night, Chabu and I arrived back in Encrucijada around 5 a.m. on Sunday. At 6:30 a.m. Conce, Mari and I set out with a local deacon for a celebration of the Word and Eucharist in a pueblo some distance away. We took a boat to cross the river, and then traveled another hour or so in a pick-up truck to arrive at Avaricia (fictitious name). We were forewarned of the potential danger of traveling here. We had to use a great deal of discretion, not mentioning directly that we were in favor of protecting the environment and against human trafficking. Why? Because we were going to a place known for its illegal gold-mining operations where the people are extremely suspicious of strangers.
A few years earlier, a community of Brazilian women religious was essentially thrown out of the pueblo with death threats because they talked to the people about the proper nutrition of their children and the dangers of using the contaminated water.
We could not use our cameras and needed to travel under the protection of one of the local women who was well respected there.
Interconnected: Illegal Mining, Human Trafficking, and Destruction of the Land
There are connections among illegal mining, destruction of the land, and human trafficking. The primary industry in this area of the country is illegal gold mining. Mining means having to clear the land of vegetation. What was once part of the green Amazon rain forest now appears as a desolate desert wasteland.
Part of the process of mining for gold includes using dangerous and toxic substances such as mercury. These substances run off into the rivers contaminating the water, the fish, and the birds. The water is an odd color of brown, a brown that does not come just from silt, but rather from the chemical run-off from the gold-mining process. These rivers and streams are tributaries of the Amazon River.
In Avaricia, the population is fewer than 25,000 people, most of who come from other parts of the country to work in the mines or related jobs. Even with a population so small, they use more combustible fuel in one day than the city of Lima, which has nearly 10 million inhabitants. This fuel is used largely for the mining and deforestation machinery. Mercury is not the only contaminant.
Other businesses have grown up in the area to support, directly or indirectly, those who work in illegal gold mining—whether it is a clothing shop, a small grocery store, a restaurant, etc. If the mining were to be eradicated, these businesses would also likely close. There are now a few small attempts to help the people find alternatives, like farming, but the efforts are not nearly enough to make much of an impact. It is interesting to note that a “defensor del pueblo” (legal ombudsman) in Encrucijada said that gold in and of itself has no value. We cannot eat it, nor use it to provide shelter, nor wear it as clothing. Yet, because somewhere along the line it became the measure of the wealth of nations, it has assumed a value that seems to be more important than human and environmental health and life.
Human Trafficking: Forced Labor and Forced Prostitution
Many of the owners of the illegal mines are themselves human traffickers, or work in close collaboration with the traffickers, to find cheap, forced labor, and to find women and girls to service the needs of the men who form the largest part of the work force. There are numerous prosti-bars where the men can drink, usually in excess, and have their pick of girls or women. Some of the women and adolescents who work at these bars do so as a free choice to engage in sexual exploitation as a means of earning a living. However, the greater majority are tricked into accepting some sort of so-called well-paying job, transported to this area from another part of the country, and then held against their will once they realize that they were deceived.
Human trafficking in this part of Peru is a very complex reality because there is a sense in which nearly everyone is complicit either directly or indirectly. Many of the mine owners are directly involved as traffickers or collaborators of the traffickers. Many of the mineworkers either are in forced labor (victims), or use the services of the women and girls in forced prostitution (exploiters). Most, if not all, of the local business owners (shops, restaurants, etc.) provide the services to the miners that are necessary for them to stay in business—thus an indirect type of complicity.
Of course, there is always the question of demand—if there were no demand for gold, there would be no demand for deforestation, for toxic substances, for forced labor. The waterways would be clean. The forest would continue to provide oxygen. The trafficked laborers would be free. If there were no demand for sex outside of committed relationships, there would be no demand for “freely chosen” prostitution, or for forced prostitution of women and girls. The sad reality is that even as the police occasionally conduct raids in these areas of illegal mining, generally speaking, the miners and the traffickers simply move more deeply into the jungle, causing more environmental devastation, and continuing the travesty of human trafficking.
Reflection on the Experience
As a result of our rather intense experience, at least two ideas have surfaced in us. One is the recognition that because the people and agencies who are willing to work against human trafficking in the area have virtually no financial resources, we would like to set up an emergency rescue fund under the auspices of the national Conference of Religious. Its purpose would be to provide the financial support necessary to transport escaped and rescued victims of human trafficking from this zone back to their place of origin.
With such a fund, the people who could help the victims to escape would have a way to do so. We proposed the establishment of this fund at the annual meeting of Major Superiors in the CONFER who affirmed the idea. Though soliciting funds is not the intent of this article, if anyone would like to make a donation, contact me at my email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) so we can work out a way for this to happen.
The second idea that surfaced was the suggestion that we in religious life do some sort of serious theological reflection—a reflection based on what we know of the Jesus of the Gospels. This would focus on this question: When there are two goods that appear to be mutually exclusive—accompanying the people without judging them, and speaking out against horrible injustices and violations of both human and environmental rights—how do we discern what we must do?
In this case, to speak out against the illegal mining would likely alienate the great majority of the people because their livelihoods are directly or indirectly related to it, thus negating the possibility of accompanying them. To speak out forcefully against human trafficking would also likely alienate the same people because of trafficking’s connection to mining. So, the possibility of having a voice with them would all but disappear. Moreover, those who speak out would likely be putting their lives in real physical danger—very much like Jesus, whose way of life led him to the cross. To accompany the people without speaking out, trying to gain their trust, trying to walk with them, would mean (as is currently largely the case) being virtually impotent against these terrible realities.
Is there some road in between? If there is, it is not evident to those of us who have spent some time in the midst of this. This is not to imply that no one is doing anything. Rather it is to say that the problem is so enormous and so complex that even the little bit that some people are able to do seems to be having very little impact.
I close this reflection, haunted by the quote we attribute to Saint Catherine of Siena: “Preach the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.”