MERCEDES ASSORATI

Sectors:
Target Population:
Argentina,

Through a multidimensional approach, 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.

This profile below was prepared when Mercedes Assorati was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.

INTRODUCTION

Through a multidimensional approach, 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.




THE NEW IDEA

Mercedes Assorati is fearlessly and doggedly 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 in 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 unites distinct stakeholders in society behind her efforts.  

Believing that a synergy between civil society and government must exist to address this deep problem, Mercedes has smart 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 of actors receives specialized training from Mercedes and her group and promotes her toolbox of over 700 different tools and resources that individuals, COs and governments can employ to combat and prevent human trafficking. Simultaneously, Mercedes focuses on public policy changes and the use of innovative law suits for victims in order to achieve a large-scale reform in the government’s actions and create allies among the public sector. Instead of just merely advocating for change, Mercedes is spearheading the change among the entire society.

Mercedes will not rest until “zero slavery,” the ambitious name of her program, exists in Argentina, and she is now at the pivotal moment to unleash the full potential of her charge.  Her national network is still evolving and developing in its abilities to nimbly address cases of human exploitation. Meanwhile, Mercedes has shaped partnerships with lawmakers to enact national plan to combat trafficking, the implementation of which would be a watershed moment for the country and her work.




THE PROBLEM

The illicit and violent commercial trafficking of people has tragically become the 21st century version of the global slave trade. Multinational organized crime syndicates kidnap and commercialize women, men and children for often heinous and 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 is a major exploitation destination for women, men and children from all Latin America, as well as a distribution center for victims in transit to other countries. Foreign organized crime groups ranging from Mexican and Colombian drug cartels to Russian mafia cells have established a strong presence, using Buenos Aires as a logistic center for drug trafficking, using brothels as distribution centers and laundering money in industries such as textile, construction, etc. The same brothels and industries where exploited individuals, kidnapped, or those mislead end up in slavery to serve as the machinery of this gigantic business. According to government records, only 3,300 individuals have been rescued from circumstances of exploitation, but the total number of trafficked people in the country is estimated to be above 1,000,000, the highest rate of anywhere in Latin America.

Most appallingly, the government and the general public has so far turned a blind eye to human trafficking, allowing it to flourish as a covert phenomenon that undercuts all levels of society and rendering 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, most of which are interchangeable members of these crime networks. Agencies that successfully rescue victims tend to return them to their place of origin without any follow-up or support. Abandoned and forced to re-enter society just as vulnerable as before, many of them become victims again of exploitation or suffer reprisals at the hands of their captors.  Moreover, open and unbridled corruption in law enforcement agencies and other governmental agencies is not being seriously challenged. After 4 years with a national law against trafficking, no public official has been sentenced for trafficking. Only 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 the local police so that trafficked persons or their families have nowhere to turn if they are threatened   Corruption also obstructs human rights advocates in the 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 very limited accusations.

Human trafficking is growing more intertwined with the transnational drug trade as drug cartels adapt their networks to trade individuals just as commodities. Underground prostitution houses, havens for trafficked persons, are ideal locations for cartel members to distribute their 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 gigantic challenge it presents to Argentina offers some of the ripest opportunities for anti-exploitation advocates to place human trafficking clearly on the national agenda.




THE STRATEGY

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 starts to accomplish more groundbreaking national change, she is looking to spin off her initiative into 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 so far failed to protect individuals from trafficking. First, the initiative has created a network to supply prolonged aid to victims rescued from situations of enslavement. Having detected cases through the help of family members, Zero Slavery helps find a safe place for the victims, files a lawsuit or criminal claim on behalf of the victim, and helps the victims regain their physical and mental health so that they can gradually be reintegrated into society. Zero Slavery supports victims through the judicial process, helping to investigate the crime and pinpoint the perpetrators. Although these claims may not be resolved, the act of granting voice in the legal sphere to victims serves as a critical step in helping them retake their agency as individuals.

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 intervene immediately and comprehensively 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 actions plans directly from their places as professionals or concerned citizens.  Mercedes has created a so-called Toolkit for Victims that consists of over 700 techniques, resources, contacts and methods that trained volunteers can employ to deal with human trafficking cases. Over 2,000 people or 80 percent of people from 150 COs who are part of this integrated support network have received Zero Slavery’s toolkit and accompanying training, of which 15 COs are part of the core network but 150 COs are part of the extended network. They have helped place the topic of human trafficking at the forefront of their organizations’ priorities and are in the process of creating a complete support system of safe houses, physical and mental rehabilitation and support, training, connections with their families in the rural areas from which they were taken, and finally the chance to start new lives in society, often with their children and families but in new locations.

Because human trafficking is such a deeply entrenched and multifaceted issue in society, Mercedes is now the National Coordinator of the Network Stop Trafficking and Smuggling (RATT) that has coalesced a loose conglomerate of some 250 human rights, victims' assistance, legal advocacy and humanitarian service organizations who work directly or indirectly affects trafficking prevention, rescue and condemnation. In 2010 the network begun to spread to other countries and there is now a RATT MERCOSUR and associated countries, including, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and now countries in Europe and Asia. Zero Slavery sits now 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 sees that the solution to human trafficking must rise from the grassroots, not be imposed disjointedly from the political establishment. Each group in her coalition therefore occupies a specific niche in the services in provides to the rest and to the external public. For instance, the Alameda, a well-known CO in Argentina working on exploitation, receives victims  and develops a much more  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 carried out through a network of organizations, Mercedes will soon be ready to approach the government, a crucial actor that must be engaged, to achieve Zero Slavery’s ultimate 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 is starting this year a new legal approach, by gathering a team that will intend to sue them in civil court for labor violations, damages or ask for governmental reparations.  Mercedes 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 Mercedes 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 will 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 is expected to be markedly more successful in securing damages for victims and raising the profile of human trafficking in the court system.  This way she is also able to press successful charges against the actual beneficiaries of trafficking, not engage in a formidable and losing legal battle against organized crime. At the same time, regarding penal procedures, Zero Slavery has started to send cases into the international and regional human rights protection systems, since impunity makes it clear that legal remedies are not being effective or timely in Argentina.

With the legislative and executive branches of the Argentine Federal Government, Zero Slavery and its smart 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 and improved integral services for victims, and to investigate places where trafficking is rampant, such as prostitution houses. Lawmakers and public officials also take part in experiential coursework with university completing certificates on Human Trafficking at the law schools at the Universities of Cordoba and Santa Fe, the first of their kind in Argentina that Mercedes herself designed.  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 the 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. She is also beginning to form alliances in the three other countries that encompass Mercosur (Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), 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.




THE PERSON

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 at a gut level the sense of vulnerability of the individual against the unchecked authority of the state. Mercedes began to read and study topics of democracy, human rights and justice, and she 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 in the national Undersecretary of Human Rights in 1985, just a few years after the fragile return to democracy. In this stint 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 facing censure. Later she returned to the government, Mercedes petitioned and secured financing from the U.N. to implement a public training in human rights and help launch the Federal Human Rights Council, an agency that still exists today.

Mercedes later took her passion and dedication for human rights to Colombia, where the U.N. 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 her nine years there, she managed to develop basic state mechanisms to identify, protect and care for the some 3 million refugees. She also began to foster relationships with different agencies and civil sector organizations, seeing this value of bringing together networks for lasting effects. In Colombia she first came into contact with the entrenched problems of human and narcotics trafficking and organized crime. Mercedes began to perceive the crucial differences in human rights violations sanctioned by the state versus those committed by non-state actors. She also came to see the successes yielded by more grassroots solutions in protection of rights, as opposed to the piecemeal, tenuous and political initiatives undertaken by government ministries. 

In 2005, Mercedes returned to Argentina, armed with a deep and meticulous knowledge she gained in her diverse career. Committed to pursuing justice for the millions of victims of human trafficking, a gross violation of human rights, she lead the Program for Institutional Capacity Building for the Fight against Human Trafficking in Argentina (FOINTRA) developed by the International Organization for Migrations. She subsequently developed Zero Slavery within The Other Foundation to benefit from its structure while remaining solely autonomous in her decision-making power. A tireless and arduous architect has been building an effective parallel support structure for victims of trafficking, Mercedes vows to never stop until her parallel support structure is complemented by an integrated government effort and human trafficking is eradicated once and for all.




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