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Mexico human trafficking cases stall as coronavirus bites

MEXICO CITY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Investigations into human trafficking in Mexico stagnated in 2020 after two years of sharp growth, with activists saying that authorities had struggled to adapt as the crime evolved and recruitment shifted online during the coronavirus pandemic.

State authorities launched 551 trafficking cases last year - up 1% from 544 in 2019 - according to new government data. In 2018 and 2019, the figure rose by 27% and 41% respectively.

Trafficking in Mexico takes myriad forms - from young men forced to work for drug cartels to indigenous women in domestic servitude - and a rise in online recruitment due to COVID-19 has posed a challenge for investigators, according to experts.

“The phenomenon of human trafficking modified a lot with COVID,” said Maria Olga Noriega, a trafficking expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Penal Sciences.

“Traffickers keep working (to) recruit, but now with a more complex modus operandi,” she said, referring to organized crime groups identifying more potential victims via social media.

As in other years, more than half of the trafficking cases in 2020 came from a handful of the nation’s 32 states - Mexico City, Mexico state, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon. Campeche and Colima opened no probes, while three states initiated one each.

Under a 2012 anti-trafficking law, each state must have its own prosecutor’s office dedicated to investigating the crime.

Yet many state prosecutors’ offices do not fully understand the issue and are understaffed due to the pandemic, said Iliana Ruvalcaba, head of the anti-trafficking non-profit Pozo de Vida.

“We have investigations that are at a complete standstill,” she said, adding that victims in the group’s shelter in Mexico City were psychologically affected by their cases stalling.

“We have to push the agencies, the prosecutors, the commissions to work together,” Ruvalcaba said.

State prosecutors identified 672 victims last year - down from 678 in 2019, - according to the data released this week.

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has said there could be between 50,000 and 500,000 victims, but academics say the real number is hard to pin down with concrete data lacking.

Federal investigation statistics for 2020 have not yet been published, but most cases are handled by state authorities.

A new national anti-trafficking strategy was promised in 2019 but has yet to be published. The country’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Adriana Davila, a federal deputy from Tlaxcala state who used to lead the Senate’s Commission Against Human Trafficking, said that high-profile federal cases had also stalled recently.

“(Previously) they pretended to fight the crime, today they don’t even pretend,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It (human trafficking) has been eliminated from the agenda.”

The federal attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Kieran Guilbert Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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