Mercedes Assorati is leading a coordinated front against human trafficking in Argentina. The social, legal and public policy resources in her network work in tandem to arouse and motivate society against this entrenched transnational tragedy.
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Mercedes is fearlessly confronting one of Argentina’s most formidable challenges: human trafficking. With a comprehensive and diverse initiative, Mercedes organizes all levels of society to recognize their complicity and combat this deep-seeded yet invisible problem. At the heart of her work is the centrality of the victims of human trafficking, the illegal trade, enslavement and exploitation of people for purposes of domestic service, forced labor, prostitution, or extraction and sale of their organs. By giving agency and an active role to exploited individuals, Mercedes overcomes the sense of dehumanization from which they suffered in their captivity while also uniting stakeholders in behind her efforts.
Believing that a synergy between civil society and government must exist to address this problem, Mercedes has resourced coalitions of organizations, advocacy groups, and social service agencies in the citizen sector into an integrated support structure that operates in parallel to the various government agencies and ministries that have failed to protect its citizens against trafficking. This network receives specialized training from Zero Slavery and promotes her toolbox of over 200 different tools and resources that individuals, citizen organizations (COs) and governments can employ to combat and prevent human trafficking. Mercedes also focuses on public policy change and the use of innovative law suits to achieve large-scale government reform and create allies among the public sector. Instead of merely advocating for change, Mercedes is spearheading societal change.
Mercedes’s program, Zero Slavery, is at a pivotal moment in Argentina. While her national network is still evolving and developing its abilities to nimbly address cases of human exploitation, she has shaped partnerships with lawmakers to enact a national plan to combat trafficking, the implementation of which would be a watershed moment for the country and her work.
The illicit and violent commercial trafficking of people has become the 21st century version of the global slave trade. Multinational organized crime syndicates kidnap and commercialize women, men and children for inhumane acts of domestic slavery, prostitution, narcotics smuggling, and other criminal activities. Perhaps to the surprise of some, Argentina now plays host to human trafficking at a startlingly high rate. Due to its size, geographic location and global character, metropolitan Buenos Aires serves as an international nexus for human trafficking, a major transport and distribution center for victims. Foreign organized crime groups ranging from Mexican drug cartels to Russian mafia cells have established a strong presence here alongside more local crime rings to traffic in persons. Exploited individuals, kidnapped often from other developing countries, pass through warehouses, drop houses, brothels and slums around the metropolis for processing and holding before being sent on to their final destinations in Argentina and elsewhere. According to government records, only 2,300 individuals have been rescued from circumstances of exploitation, but the total number of trafficked people in the country is estimated to be above 500,000, the highest rate of anywhere in Latin America.
Most appallingly, the government and the general public has thus far turned a blind eye to human trafficking, allowing it to flourish as a covert phenomenon that undercuts all levels of society and renders everyone complicit. Most of the attention toward human trafficking is isolated to denunciation of the practice, sporadic rescue operations, and prosecution of the few perpetrators captured. Agencies that successfully rescue victims tend to return them to their place of origin without follow-up or support. Abandoned and forced to re-enter society just as vulnerable as before, many are again exploited or suffer reprisals at the hands of their captors. Moreover, open and unbridled corruption in law enforcement agencies and the justice ministry often means that the low-level criminals involved in known exploitation of persons receive menial sentences or are acquitted—if they are even caught—while the bosses and capos go free. This sense of impunity traverses the justice system down to the local police, so that trafficked persons or their families have nowhere to turn if they are threatened with kidnapping. Corruption also obstructs human rights advocates in civil society from achieving meaningful allegations or prosecutions of human traffickers. Since many public indictments would implicate public officials in consenting to or even abetting the crime, the political establishment pressures activists to make limited accusations.
Human trafficking is growing more intertwined with the transnational drug trade as drug cartels adapt their networks to trade individuals as commodities. Underground prostitution houses havens for trafficked persons are ideal locations for cartel members to distribute stores of illegal drugs. As drug-related crime and violence has started to soar in Argentina and the region, the government has been forced to tackle organized crime as a significant public security threat. This spotlight on drug trafficking and the challenge it presents to Argentina, offers some of the ripest opportunities for anti-exploitation advocates to place human trafficking on the national agenda.
Mercedes predicates her multipronged approach to ending human trafficking on the active self-determination of the victims. Zero Slavery manifests this principle of empowerment in its direct assistance to victims, construction of smart citizen networks, training of a broad and varied network of COs and government agencies, legal action and public policy influence. Since 2007 Mercedes has spearheaded the design and execution of her initiative under the auspices of The Other Foundation, a civil sector institution that provides legal and administrative infrastructure to Zero Slavery. As she accomplishes more groundbreaking national change, she is looking to establish the initiative as an autonomous, self-sustaining organization that can more rapidly and creatively address the challenges before it.
Many of Zero Slavery’s tactics seek to complement or even supplant government initiatives that have failed to protect individuals from trafficking. The initiative supplies prolonged aid to victims rescued from situations of enslavement. With the help of family members, Zero Slavery finds a safe place for the victims, files a lawsuit or criminal claim on their behalf, and helps them regain their physical and mental health to be gradually reintegrated into society. Zero Slavery supports victims through the judicial process, assisting to investigate the crime and pinpoint the perpetrators. Although these claims may not be resolved, the act of granting victims a voice in the legal sphere serves as a critical step to retake personal agency.
Next, Mercedes engages other public and social sector institutions in training programs that teach them to recognize and tackle instances of human trafficking. Volunteers and interested people within each organization learn how to comprehensively intervene immediately to rescue victims and put them in touch with the appropriate agencies. They do not need to acquire external resources to support the victims; they can implement their action plans directly from their places as professionals or concerned citizens. Mercedes has created the Toolkit for Victims that consists of over 200 techniques, resources, contacts, and methods that trained volunteers may employ to deal with human trafficking cases. Over 2,000 people or 80 percent of those with 150 COs which are part of this integrated support network have received Zero Slavery’s toolkit and accompanying training. Of the extended network, 15 COs are part of the core network. They have placed human trafficking at the forefront of their organizations’ priorities and have gradually created a system of safe houses, physical and mental rehabilitation, and connected them with their families in rural areas where they were taken. The have the chance to start new lives, often with their children and families, but in new locations.
Because human trafficking is such a deeply entrenched societal issue, Mercedes has coalesced a loose conglomerate of about 150 human rights, victims’ assistance, legal advocacy and humanitarian service organizations whose work directly or indirectly affects trafficking prevention, rescue and condemnation. Zero Slavery sits at the center of this “smart network,” enabling Mercedes to lead a coordinated front and maintain the mission of victims’ agency as paramount for the entire coalition. Mercedes knows that the solution to human trafficking must rise from the grassroots, and not be politically imposed. Each group in her coalition therefore offers a specific niche in the services it provides and to the external public. For instance, Alameda, a well-known CO in Argentina working on exploitation, receives victims identified by Zero Slavery partners and uses grassroots lobbying to complement Zero Slavery’s more technical approach to public policy. The organizations in the coalition benefit from Zero Slavery’s training program to professionalize and strengthen their own responses. This generates a win-win for all parties: Zero Slavery multiples its impact by facilitating a network of like-minded partners and the other groups build their expertise and base of allies.
Armed with a powerful coalition and a successful program, Mercedes is ready to approach the government, a crucial actor, to achieve Zero Slavery’s objective. Mercedes’s legal and policy strategies encompass all levels and branches of the Argentine government, and have required her to draw upon her years of experience working on human rights in the public sector and witnessing state corruption firsthand. The futility in filing and winning criminal prosecutions against human traffickers has emboldened her to take a different tactic with the justice system: reparations for victims. Rather than charging the perpetrators with trafficking, a far more difficult allegation to prove in criminal court, Mercedes’s team sues them in civil court for labor violations. She has taken advantage of two opportunities in the Argentine legal context. First, the Argentine labor code stipulates strong protections for workers subject to mistreatment; second, over the past decade the presidential administrations have prioritized granting reparations for victims of human rights violations incurred by the military during the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship. Together, these precedents provide a strong legal foundation of legal precedent on which to file civil suits on behalf of one or multiple victims against their alleged traffickers. The suits demand monetary reparations for work performed by the trafficked person during her time in captivity—thus treating the victim as an able-bodied worker, not an exploited slave. This strategy has been markedly more successful in securing damages for victims and raising the profile of human trafficking in the court system. This way Mercedes is also able to press successful charges against the actual beneficiaries of trafficking, instead of engage in a formidable and losing legal battle against organized crime.
With the legislative and executive branches of the government of Argentina, Zero Slavery and its coalition engage lawmakers to draft and lobby support for anti-trafficking laws. They hold weekly meetings with legislators to examine bills and write language to reform current norms or implement new ones. In 2010 Mercedes forged an agreement across party lines among the lower house of congress, the Chamber of Deputies, to restructure the national human trafficking law. The following year she directed her attention to the Senate, where she has meticulously built a critical mass of lawmakers that is now strong enough to pass the bill. On the executive side, Mercedes and Zero Slavery work with municipal and provincial governments to establish offices on human trafficking, shelters, improved integral services for victims, and investigate places where trafficking is rampant, such as prostitution houses. Lawmakers and public officials also take part in experiential coursework; completing certificates on Human Trafficking at the Universities of Cordoba and Santa Fe law schools, the first of their kind in Argentina and designed by Mercedes. This carefully crafted government buy-in is critical for Mercedes to accomplish lasting and widespread impact.
Mercedes has already reached national influence with her multidimensional efforts. Within the next two years she hopes to have a National Plan to Combat Trafficking in place, along with budgets allocated from key governmental agencies, executed in conjunction with her larger coalition of COs and allies among public agencies and lawmakers. She sees a major opportunity during President Cristina Kirchner’s second term, due to the administration’s emphasis on violence against women and human rights. Mercedes is also beginning to form alliances in the three other Mercosur (Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) countries, to establish a regional league against human trafficking. The ingrained, transnational character of human trafficking demands a complex, international solution—one that Mercedes serves as a recognized catalyst to produce.
After a terrifying episode at age 15 with a policeman during the military dictatorship, Mercedes knew she would zealously dedicate her life to the protection of human rights. Although she left the experience unscathed, she felt an individual’s vulnerability against an unchecked state authority. Mercedes read and studied democracy, human rights and justice, and proceeded to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in human rights and international law in Argentina and Spain. A professor and mentor who also participated in the National Commission on the Disappearance of People (CONADEP) invited her to work at the national Undersecretary of Human Rights in 1985, just a few years after the fragile return to democracy. Mercedes helped investigate and prepare the tribunals for the Astiz and Night of the Pencils incidents, two notorious cases of egregious human rights violations during the military dictatorship. In the Undersecretary’s office Mercedes was instrumental in designing and putting into place new standards and programs on human rights protection. For this trailblazing work, though, she often found herself in conflict with the Carlos Menem administration and she resigned for a short period of time rather than face censure. When Mercedes returned to the government, she petitioned and secured financing from the UN to implement a public training in human rights and assisted launching the Federal Human Rights Commission, an agency that exists today.
Mercedes later took her passion and dedication for human rights to Colombia, where the UN High Commission on Human Rights requisitioned her to investigate and assist the vast population of internally displaced persons; refugees from the long drug-fueled civil conflict. Over nine years, she managed to develop basic state mechanisms to identify, protect and care for the some three million refugees. She also fostered relationships with different agencies and COs, seeing its long-term value. In Colombia Mercedes first came into contact with the entrenched problems of human and narcotics trafficking and organized crime. She began to perceive the crucial differences in human rights violations sanctioned by the state versus those committed by non-state actors. Mercedes also came to see the successes of grassroots solutions in the protection of rights, as opposed to the piecemeal, tenuous and political initiatives undertaken by government ministries.
In 2005 Mercedes returned to Argentina, with a deep and meticulous knowledge she gained over her diverse career. Committed to pursuing justice for the millions of victims of human trafficking, she created with international support, the Program for Institutional Capacity Building for the Fight Against Human Trafficking in Argentina. Mercedes later developed Zero Slavery within The Other Foundation to benefit from its structure while remaining solely autonomous in her decision-making power. As a tireless and arduous architect to build an effective parallel support structure for victims of trafficking, Mercedes vows to never stop until her structure is complemented by an integrated government effort and human trafficking is eradicated.