Mariana Ruenes is tackling human trafficking by making its operations more difficult and riskier, and therefore less profitable. She is leveraging existing infrastructure as well as creating new roles for public and private players to inhibit traffickers’ movements, generate data and research to inform decision-making, and train front-line actors for effective response and prevention.
The New Idea
Through her grassroots work supporting human trafficking victims and survivors since 2011, Mariana identified the role that cities’ infrastructure plays in allowing these crimes to thrive. She realized that 99% of victims go undetected in places where they could be easily identified, since traffickers use common infrastructure, goods, and services to operate. As a result, Mariana shifted her strategy towards breaking the “production chain” through coordinated action. Her goal is to impede the circulation and exploitation of victims by increasing the risk and reducing incentives for traffickers.
Mariana realized that businesses have unique potential to disrupt human trafficking. Therefore, she is partnering with key players in strategic industries, such as tourism, transport, and technology, to create new standards that make it increasingly difficult for traffickers to operate. Mariana focuses on engaging leading companies that have an international reach and the power to influence their entire sector, such as Marriot International and Uber. She helps businesses equip those closest to the issue, their employees on the ground, with the right tools at the right time to be able to react. By putting the conditions in place for frontline workers to respond safely, Mariana is increasing their willingness to report victims and increase their access to justice. In turn, improving reporting rates dissuades trafficking networks from using those services, hindering their operations and ultimately reducing the number of victims.
For instance, Mariana partnered with Uber because trafficking networks use its ride-sharing services to move victims across cities; it is a parasitic business. Therefore, putting mechanisms in place to facilitate reporting has a double effect: first, boosting reporting rates to get better data on the number of cases and increase the likelihood of a response from authorities; and second, dissuading traffickers from using Uber. If these effects are replicated across the transportation sector, the impact does not depend on the effectiveness of the justice system.
Further, Mariana is building a regional database on trafficking operations that will enable increasingly precise interventions. This effort is especially important for a widely undocumented phenomenon such as human trafficking: Mariana is fundamentally expanding the understanding of how trafficking operates on the ground, making the problem visible to generate best practices, inform decision-making, and foster coordinated action. In this way, Mariana is helping direct resources towards the most effective, long-lasting solutions. Further, she is generating an evidence base to influence policies and industry regulations in the future.
Estimates suggest that human trafficking affects more than 40 million people worldwide. According to the Global Slavery Index, there are currently 340,000 victims of modern slavery in Mexico alone. This statistic only shows identified cases; however, one of the key reasons why human trafficking is so intractable is that its real magnitude is unknown. It is estimated that less than 0.1% of victims both in Mexico and globally are reported; 80% of the victims who crossed borders went unnoticed at official checkpoints, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Traffickers are able to operate invisibly for the most part due to a lack of coordinated action and insufficient data within and across countries. This issue has been highlighted by the US Government Accountability Office, which criticizes false numbers reported by governments, including its own, challenging the accuracy of the data due to methodological shortfalls. One of the weaknesses in these estimates is that terms, such as “trafficking victims,” are not defined or used consistently. Additionally, the data on the number of people trafficked is mixed with those of other victims, including migrants smuggled into the country or women in sex work. These inhibitors of accurate data are experienced by governments and civil society anti-trafficking practitioners around the world. In Mexico specifically, the National Human Rights Commission conducted a study in 2020 and stated that the nation needs to improve its research on trafficking patterns, data collection of traffickers and victims, and allocation of resources for NGOS to be able to have a greater impact. Without an understanding of the scope and mechanics of the problem, there is limited capacity to identify and protect victims.
Identifying victims is further complicated by the crime's coercive nature: traffickers take advantage of the vulnerability and poverty of people to use threats and violence to force them into collusion or silence. Traffickers in Mexico typically prey on girls from the countryside who are lower class, have little education, and have repeatedly been abused at home. Another tactic they use is to threaten to hurt their victims’ families or kidnap them. These factors make human trafficking the fastest growing illegal business in the world and one of the most lucrative after drug and arms trafficking, generating 150 billion USD annually.
Traffickers rely on cities’ infrastructure, services, and common goods: buses, planes, taxis, hotels, the Internet; yet businesses in these key industries are not actively involved in resolving this issue despite their strategic potential. Additionally, through her research Mariana has found that front-line operators, such as drivers and hotel clerks, lack the knowledge and tools to safely identify, report, and respond to cases, allowing traffickers to continue moving people and money unnoticed. The United States Department of State attributes this to the fact that there is not a standardized protocol for these workers to report human trafficking. For example, they should be trained to look for signs of poor hygiene or malnourishment, physical abuse, or submissive behavior among suspected victims.
A further issue is that strategies against trafficking lack systematic impact measurement that would enable making evidence-based decisions. As a result, interventions tend to be too broad, such as national campaigns for the general public, and repeat common pitfalls rather than building upon learnings.
Mariana’s approach starts with developing a fuller understanding of the problem. SINTRATA collaborates with data scientists, multidisciplinary experts, and target populations to investigate how trafficking networks operate within different sectors and contexts. Using these insights, SINTRATA develops best practices, policies, and digital tools to support key actors in the private and public sector in taking evidence-based action against human trafficking.
Mariana collaborates with businesses in key industries to reach citizens who can help reveal the hidden numbers of trafficking cases, and then uses this data to provide actionable insights for improving response and prevention. SINTRATA develops tools for documenting cases that can be used easily and safely by frontline responders, people who are most likely to come across potential victims at strategic touchpoints, such as airports, hotels, consulates, etc. For example, they developed a digital questionnaire called SINTRATA Survey Solutions to immediately log details of identified victims: who they are, where they were found, how they got there. Engaging frontline responders allows SINTRATA to have “eyes everywhere” and generate a continuous stream of information about how trafficking functions on the ground. Meanwhile, citizens in key sectors see their role and impact in society in a new light and are motivated to become part of the solution.
SINTRATA complements and cross-checks this crowdsourced data by fostering intelligence sharing with national and international NGOs, companies, and governments. The aggregated knowledge is then added to a regional database to make the true scope of the problem visible and generate more accurate, detailed, and timely information that can be leveraged to lobby policymakers and the private sector. Critically, trafficking survivors are involved at each step of this process as consultants. They validate materials, provide feedback, and act as key sources of data about the realities of trafficking based on their own experiences. Due to their testimonies, SINTRATA can identify patterns and learn where to search for victims as well as the best ways to approach them to offer help without putting them at greater risk. Mariana hopes this focus on evidence will promote a culture of impact measurement and innovation in the field.
Working with industry leaders helps Mariana scale impact quickly across their network, while their influential position creates best practices that ripple through the sector. Armed with evidence of the role of each actor, she can make the case to potential partners for getting involved: sharing the current situation, what the partner can do, and how SINTRATA can help them do it. SINTRATA aligns the incentives of corporate social responsibility, risk management, and competitiveness with their social impact goals to bring businesses in strategic sectors on board. In only three years, she has secured partnerships with several multinationals such as Marriot, Telefónica Movistar, Facebook, and Uber. These partnerships allow SINTRATA to feed data back to frontline responders at scale as recommendations and tools to improve their ability to identify and report cases.
SINTRATA works closely with each partner to identify gaps as well as existing resources and infrastructure that can be leveraged. In their partnership with Uber Mexico, SINTRATA used available communication channels to teach 300,000 drivers and couriers in priority areas across Mexico what human trafficking is and how to identify and report victims. Uber’s digital infrastructure made it possible to conduct a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) that showed which messages, timings, and formats were most effective for digital campaigns. The result was a tailored call to action that led 90% of participants agree that they have an important role to play and have the knowledge to do it. To translate awareness into action, SINTRATA also created a mechanism that facilitates reporting – a dedicated button in the Help section within the Uber app that eases safe, anonymous access to the National Hotline Against Human Trafficking, which coordinates efforts with federal and local law enforcement. By the end of the pilot, there was a 50% increase in willingness to report suspected cases. This success led Uber to integrate the program into its global security initiative. To date, the campaign has reached around 1 million people across Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Canada.
Across its programs, SINTRATA is harnessing technology to reach key populations they could not reach otherwise, in a highly targeted, constant, and personalized way to drive behavior changes. They develop tools to increase frontline responders’ capacity to identify and report cases safely in high-risk places, such as airports. They also use digital materials and existing platforms to disseminate essential information to the right people at critical times. In 2021, SINTRATA will launch a highly segmented online campaign for prevention education, and in partnership with Telefónica Movistar, they will develop strategies to build capacity in the Cybercrime Prevention Police of the Public Security Ministry.
Building upon the results of the first pilots, Mariana is currently focusing on enhancing and replicating successful strategies with new partners in other countries. She wants to establish working groups that bring together businesses, organizations, and institutions in key sectors to share learnings and best practices continuously. For instance, she recently partnered with OYO Rooms and IDB Invest to develop a study on human trafficking and exploitation in Latin America’s hotel industry. Findings will be used to co-create prevention guidelines that can be implemented by any hotel, starting with pilots in Mexico and Brazil. In the next 5 years, she hopes to position human trafficking as a pressing issue in the private sector’s agenda. Mariana aims for trafficking prevention to become a competitive standard, so she no longer needs to seek out partners individually and make a value proposition each time. There are already signs of this potential: the success with Marriot and Uber led OYO Rooms, Didi, and Mexico’s Ministries of Transport and Tourism to approach SINTRATA. She eventually seeks to influence policies in the private and public sectors across Latin America that significantly reduce human trafficking by making it so unprofitable and risky that it becomes rare.
Mariana spent much of her childhood on a virgin beach in Jalisco, Mexico where her father opened a hotel. The beach significantly changed because of the presence of her and her family. When Mariana returned nine years later to visit the beach after her father’s hotel had been destroyed by a hurricane, she felt a strange relief. The thought that a single action can change an entire ecosystem has stayed with Mariana and spurred her ever since.
At 17 years old, Mariana met a woman who had been a victim of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Her story opened Mariana’s eyes to this invisible problem and inspired her to volunteer at shelters for girl survivors, where she hosted events and fundraising efforts. She also started giving talks at her university to raise awareness, going door to door to persuade professors to donate class time for her presentation. What started as a short intervention in the classroom soon turned into university-wide conferences and eventually into 12 lectures per semester, packed auditoriums, and a student movement that grew to other top universities. A year later, in 2012, this movement evolved into SINTRATA, an award-winning organization with over 500 volunteers that has reached more than 175,000 people.
However, Mariana was unsure of how to measure her impact and grew increasingly frustrated that she was not making a dent in the system. She concluded that she needed to find a more strategic approach and decided to pursue a master's degree. An experience as an intern in rural Maharashtra, India clarified for her that she wanted to put solutions in the hands of those most affected. Back in Mexico, Mariana planned to train hotel employees to identify cases of human trafficking in order to finance a new community-based project, yet a conversation with Ashoka Fellow Alejandro Maza helped her realize the power of that idea. Seeking to learn what sectors besides hotels were facing a similar need, she dived into forgotten police records, identifying patterns in survivors’ testimonies that revealed how traffickers’ operations intersect with key industries. This insight led Mariana to completely overhaul SINTRATA’s strategy and has since grown her impact internationally.
For her work, Mariana has been invited as a speaker to the Vatican Youth Symposium and other international events, as well as multiple awards: Anahuac Impulsa Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Ibero-Bremond to Student Social Impact, UBS-Ashoka Visionaris, and Thomson Reutrers Foundation Stop Slavery Award.