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In focus: Gustavo Vera, President of La Alameda, Argentina

Gustavo Vera La Alameda

Gustavo Vera is the President of the La Alameda, a non-governmental organisation based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

AOAV: Could you tell us about what La Alameda is and what work you do?

Gustavo Vera: La Alameda is an anti-mafia organisation that fights human trafficking, slave labour, child exploitation, pimping and drug trafficking. We define mafia as criminal groups that work with the collusion of some sectors of the State. La Alameda believes that the deepening insecurity within Argentina is due to the rise of mafias and other groups of organised crime.

La Alameda has four main components: First, the Alameda Foundation is the research branch that looks into slave labour, trafficking, organised crime and mafias, and promotes public policy that works to eradicate this type of activities.

Second, in work cooperatives victims who have escaped clandestine workshops are able to participate and work in a safe environment. We also promote the creation of further cooperatives to widen and strengthen the network.

Third, we have the Union of Seamstress Workers (Union de Trabajadores Costureros, UTC) that supports and defends the rights of seamstresses and workers from the textile industry, which gives them a supportive body that helps to defend labour rights.

Finally, our community attends to the poorest members of the neighbourhood by setting up a communal food hall and facilitating free cultural and education workshops.

AOAV: What is the specific problem in Argentina?

GV: Many years ago, Argentina had a prominent national bourgeoisie, which was linked to the country’s internal market and to some multinational companies. With the introduction of neoliberal policy and reform in the 90s, this concentrated wealth was transnationalised, and instead became part of the global economy. Argentina then suffered a dramatic economic collapse in 2001 and a drastic devaluation of the peso. This climate of economic insecurity meant that a dubious accumulation of capital began which led to the reformation of a corrupt Argentinian national bourgeoisie. The State actively helped to cover the tracks of the on-going criminal activity.

To give a concrete example, in Argentina half a million people are subjected to slavery, both in rural work and textile industries. There are 60,000 women in 8,000 illegal brothels, and you have the highest consumption of cocaine in Latin America, with 2.6% of the population being addicted or a consumer of cocaine – which gives an idea of how deeply entrenched Mexican and Colombian cartels are.

There are many companies that cannot explain where their money comes from, because it will have some link to the mafia and organised crime, and we have condemned more than 100 brands as having links to, or basing their production on, slave labour.

Despite all of this, there have only been two convicted cases for money laundering in 20 years.

But the State is not absent from the streets: in fact, it is very much present and complicit in mafia activity. Bribery has been systematised and is now deeply entrenched in society.

AOAV: Can you tell us about trafficking, and how the process works?

GV: Both sex and labour trafficking is composed of various stages. First there is deception. Recruiters scout vulnerable and desperate people and take advantage of their poverty with false offers of employment. The victim is then transported to another province or country, with the collusion of transporters, corrupt officials, and intermediaries.

Then there is the exploitation: the victim arrives at the site of exploitation and realises that they have been tricked. The victim is violently coerced and has their willpower broken – victims are drugged, beaten, raped and abused. This is the case for both sex trafficking and forced labour. Children are also inflicted with physical and sexual abuse in order to coerce them.

It is important to point out that for this system to function, the liaison between different actors is key. For example, transport companies offer their services to transfer the victims, and corrupt officials at the border allow the free flow of people without any type of control.

AOAV: How does Alameda support these victims of trafficking?

GV: Often it is victims who have escaped that come to us, especially in the case of victims of forced labour. If they are foreign it is easier to attend to them and provide them with help, as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) can intervene.

If they are native to Argentina, it is a little more difficult, as we have to put a lot of pressure on the State to abide by the guidelines for assisting victims of trafficking. The protocol outlines that comprehensive assistance be given to the victims of trafficking once they have been rescued, where they are trained with necessary skills, and reinserted into society.

This, however, is not often the case. What really happens is that the victim is attended to for a few days, after which they are left to their own devices and released back into the world. This means that the cycle of exploitation is often repeated and the victims find themselves in the same situation again.

This is why, when the government champions the fact that they have rescued 6,000 people in the last few years, we question where these 60,00 are now, where they work and what they do.

We have rescued the same victim up to three times before, after we have attended to them – just from another brothel. This is a clear sign that the mechanisms of assistance are not working.