Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Lost Boys: the disappearance of children in South and Central America

In ancient Rome, there are dozens of records of parents selling their children because they needed money.

In 1597, Elizabeth I of England authorised the abduction of children for use as theatre performers and chapel choristers. 

Between 1600 and 1800, children were routinely kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery.

Now, in 2014, at least 8 million children go missing each year, yet most countries lack systems or procedures to assist the children’s families, most do not even count the missing, and definitions of what it means to be ‘missing’ vary widely. In the United States, an estimated 800,000 children younger than 18 years of age are reported missing each year. An estimated 230,000 children under the age of 18 were reported missing in the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2010; 100,000 in Germany; 50,000 in Canada; 39,000 in France; and 20,000 in Spain.  The figures in South and Central America however are all the more staggering.

Missing Persons poster in the affluent area of Sopocachi in La Paz
Nicolas Leonardo and Camila Cortez Pacheco, a brother and sister who disappeared from La Paz, Bolivia, are just two of the estimated hundreds of thousands of children who are lost without trace in Latin America every year.  Like countless other children, they disappeared from a busy street in a residential area in the middle of the day.

Bolivia, like the majority of South American countries, is a country significantly affected by kidnappings and human trafficking.  In Cochabamba alone, every month, an average of 48 children are reported missing according to the Human Trafficking division of the Bolivian police unit FELCC.  In just three months, 75 children have been reported missing in Sucre, and only 38 of them have been found, leading to the possibility that the others are liable to have been victims of human trafficking.

The US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons places Bolivia as a tier 2 country, meaning that their government does not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but is making efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

Amongst other tier 2 countries are Mexico and Brazil.   In 2012 the Mexican Senate filed a report stating that from 2007 to 2011, 150,000 children had gone missing in the country, the equivalent to 3 or 4 children per hour.  50% of those were between 4 and 12, and almost 65% were girls.

In Brazil, it is estimated that more than 40,000 children per year disappear, closer to 5 or 6 per hour.
Argentina, which is one of the few countries in Latin America that has a national database for missing children, experienced 20,300 cases of missing children in the ten-year period from 2003 to 2013.

According to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (CINDE), Central America in particular faces difficulties when children go missing because, with the exception of Guatemala, no country has any legislation in place concerning missing children, and there are no protection procedures implemented, which means that when a child disappears, the authorities have no obligation to investigate.

Unfortunately, according to the Latin American Missing Persons Network, one of the principal causes of disappearances in Latin America, a continent with notoriously porous borders most notably abused for the traffic of drugs, is kidnapping for human trafficking.

A comprehensive study on missing children in Central America carried out by CINDE and UNICEF in 2011 found that child trafficking had become a serious problem in the region due to the existence of blind spots in the borders and the increasing illegal migration across the region.  At any given time, between 250,000 and 800,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras live along the border between the USA and Mexico as illegal immigrants, making it particularly problematic to attempt to approximate the exact number of children who can be abducted and sold into trafficking from this region.

It is estimated that, worldwide, 1.2 million children are trafficked every year.  Of these, around 250,000 occur in Asia, 200,000 occur in Africa and 550,000 occur in Latin America and the Caribbean. Child trafficking is most prevalent in developing countries.  Several international organisations, including the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking and the International Labour Organisation, link child trafficking to poverty, which has been found to increase children’s vulnerability to trafficking.

There is considerably less research on the extent and nature of trafficking in children in Latin America and the Caribbean than there is on Asia and Europe.   According to the Latin American Missing Persons Network, while there are trends in Mexico and Guatemala of children being taken to sell on and hold for ransom, the majority of cases of children who are taken for trafficking are sold on for sexual and labour exploitation.

UNICEF’s 2006 State of the World’s Children Report reported that there are as many as 2 million children sexually trafficked worldwide.   In Brazil, considered to have the worst levels of child sex trafficking after Thailand, UNICEF estimates that there are around 250,000 children working in prostitution.  In El Salvador, the average age for entering into prostitution among children was 13 years old, and 10% reported that they worked seven days a week.  Trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is most common in countries that are popular tourist destinations and centers of sex tourism, with Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile and Peru identified as countries with significant child sex tourism industries, accounting for around 600,000 children working in prostitution between them.  Although street and orphaned children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking into the sex industry, with 95% of Mexico City’s 13,000 street children reporting to have had at least one sexual encounter with an adult, no research has been conducted into what percentage of children working in the sex industry in Latin America had been kidnapped and trafficked.

Another objective of child trafficking is forced labour. UNICEF estimates that, in 2011, 150 million children aged 5–14 in developing countries were involved in child labour.  While child labour has declined substantially in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years, there are still 5.7 million working girls and boys who are under the minimum age for employment.  In 2012, the International Labor Organisation estimated that 8.8% of children in the region were involved in child labour, with 77% of those in child labour involved in hazardous work such as mining or manufacturing.   In many countries, domestic labour in third party homes is the second largest sector in which children, mostly girls, work.  In Bolivia, the worst forms of child labour are in the sugar, nut and mining industries and on private ranches (haciendas) in the region of the Chaco.  33,000 people work harvesting sugar cane, 15,000 of which are women and children (of the children, 7,000 are under 14 years old).   

Few countries in Latin America have a consolidated basis for collecting specific data on - or records of - missing children.  The data collected is often incomplete and unreliable: the reality is that there are no available statistics.  The problem exists on a national and international level, but there is no database that states how many children are kidnapped in each state, nor is there any international strategy to address the problem of missing children.  The world has international legal and informative instruments such as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED) and The International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, but there is no universal tool, which collects and amalgamates all the cases where children disappear, and it is thus very difficult to spot patterns. 

Although creating and collating national records that reveal the true extent of disappearances in each country would be a progressive step, it would not resolve the issue.  Currently, many families in Latin America do not report the disappearance of a child immediately to the relevant authorities, and often if they do report the child missing, the police advise them to "come back in 48 hours if the child has not returned."

As Guatemala is the only country with legislation on the subject of missing children, the authorities in countries throughout Latin America have no mandate to investigate when a child disappears.  No consensus exists to define a missing or abducted child, or to guide on how best to investigate their disappearance. 

What is needed is a protocol of procedures to direct the police on the importance of immediacy and thoroughness in the investigation of a disappearance, and raising awareness and understanding of the importance of reporting and recording the loss of a child.  

Written by Eilidh Thomson


Diallo, Y., Etienne, A., and Mehran, F., 2013. Global Child Labour Trends 2008 to 2012. [online] Geneva: International Labour Organisation. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/viewProduct.do?productId=23015 [Accessed 5 July 2014]. 
International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 2012. Making the World a Safer Place for Children. [online] ICMEC. Available at: http://www.icmec.org/en_X1/icmec_publications/ICMEC_mech.pdf [Accessed 4 July 2014].
Ribando Seelke, C., 2013. Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean. [online] Congressional Research Service. Available at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33200.pdf [Accessed 5 July 2014]. 
UNICEF, 2013. Training Manual to Fight Trafficking in Children for Labour, Sexual and other forms of Exploitation: Understanding Child Trafficking. Textbook 1. [online] Geneva: International Labour Organisation. Available at: http://www.unicef.org/protection/Textbook_1.pdf [Accessed 3 July 2014].
…. , 2013. El Drama de los Niños Desaparecidos de América Latina. BBC Mundo. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2013/11/131106_ninios_perdidos_desaparecidos_explotados_america_latina_men.shtml [Accessed 5 July 2014]

1 comment:

  1. Another child has gone missing this week. A 13 year old girl, named Susana Callizaya.

    To further comment, I spoke to a teenage girl in one of our centres this week who hasn't seen her sister for 2 years and they fear she too has been trafficked.

    It appears to be a never-ending tunnel, the more you open your eyes to it, the more you see it.