A street in Bogotá Colombia

A Look at Human Trafficking in Colombia

Due to the recent popularity of the film “Sound of Freedom” and the resulting discussions about human trafficking, we reached out to some of our program directors to learn about the reality and threat of child trafficking in their part of the world.

In Colombia, trafficking and exploitation are a huge risk to children who are living in poverty and in vulnerable situations. Cristina Serna, the director of Holt’s partner agency Hogares Bambi Bogotá, explains more about what trafficking can look like in Colombia — and how she and her team are working to keep children and families safe.

Q: What does trafficking mean and look like in Colombia and in the communities you work with?

It can be both girls and boys, women and men, but the majority of the cases — like 80% — are women or girls. It’s mainly oriented to sexual intentions, that’s the main focus, but obviously there are other objectives when trafficking occurs — street begging, forced labor, forced or slavish marriage… And in these cases, sometimes the victims are kidnapped, but sometimes the victims are tricked. [Traffickers] offer them a better life, and when they arrive it’s another thing and they are trapped in this lifestyle. Here in Colombia, violent armed groups have taken advantage of the trafficking and think that, apart from the drugs, this is a new interesting source of income. They do much of the trafficking by controlling the illegal migration.

The Colombians that are tricked or taken away for trafficking are not always kept here in Colombia. In most of the cases they take them out of the country. There’s a high percentage of Colombians that are taken out of the country to Europe and the States, but also here in South America — Argentina, Brazil, even Mexico.

Q: What are the primary risk factors for those who become victims of trafficking in Colombia?

I believe it’s definitely families and children that are living in a vulnerable environment, and by vulnerable I mean extreme poverty — where they don’t have the necessary resources or the support network. It’s a big, big part. And also, domestic violence. That’s a big one also, because that kind of forces the person to look for another place where they can be safe. Wherever that place may be, but it’s not in their home where they’re living currently. Also, an addictive environment — we’re talking about drugs, prostitution, kind of like they’re escaping and not wanting to be part of that environment anymore. And also, abduction still is a big one.

With Colombia’s history of violence, kidnapping and trafficking, threats are something vulnerable populations have had to live in constant fear of.

Q: How does a child/young adult first get connected to traffickers?

They offer them a better life: “We can help you and give you money. Let me take you to a place that you’ll be safe with your family.” Or they just simply kidnap them and that’s the end of it. It’s mainly right now because of the situation with the Venezuelan president. People are living under very difficult situations. So a big percentage are people from Venezuela. But there’s also different nationalities. They offer them a specific work opportunity, and again they promise that it’s going to be a better opportunity, wonderful salaries. And a person who is in need sees this as a way out of their current life. 

Q: Have instances of child and human trafficking increased in recent years in Colombia?

I believe it’s increased. In recent years it has been very high, especially in 2021, that was a very high year. But yes, it has been increasing. It’s because there’s a lot of poverty among the people that were not living in this situation before the pandemic. So it’s been a forced situation. Due to the pandemic and how people were losing their jobs, it forced a lot of people to live under one roof. [As a result, many people experienced domestic] violence, [and many were] escaping their homes, but also the problem with jobs, companies were closing or backing down on a lot of employees. [This has all led to a large increase in human trafficking.]

Q: Have you worked directly with any victims of human trafficking in your programs?

Not direct cases of trafficking, but we’ve had a lot of cases where the children are at Bambi because of abusive or violent environments, or children who were living with people who were not their parents. They were living with the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, or the mother left the child with somebody and escaped — left the child and never came back for the child. We have a lot of those cases.

Girl smiling with two boys

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We currently have a girl who was living with her mom’s friend. One day the mother left the girl there and she was living with the woman. And the woman was saying that she was the mother, and the significant other was her father. The owner of the room they were renting in the house realized that this woman was watching pornography the whole day with the child in the room. So she called and reported the situation, and that’s how [the government] came to the house and took the girl away and brought the child to us. That happens a lot — the child is not the daughter or son of the people she is living with. We have a lot of cases where they’re living with their aunt, their uncle, their grandparent, and that’s fine. But these cases are different because it’s nobody blood related.

“I believe Bambi is like a safe place, like an opportunity, for these kids to have a better life and not be potential victims.”

Cristina Serna, director of Hogares Bambi Bogotá, a Holt partner agency in Colombia

If you look at it very carefully, the children at Bambi are at very high risk of being victims of trafficking. Because they are living in vulnerable situations, in a vulnerable environment, they’ve been sexually abused or physically abused or mistreated. So these are the kind of kids who would run away from those types of situations, and Lord knows where they might end up. I believe Bambi is like a safe place, like an opportunity, for these kids to have a better life and not be potential victims.

Q: What are the best ways to protect vulnerable children and families from becoming victims of human trafficking?

I believe a big, big way to combat trafficking is having a very strong support network. In Bambi’s experience, what we’ve seen with the families is they’re in that situation because they don’t have that sufficient, necessary support system. They don’t have anybody they can rely on. That’s important. And also, [for them to know] the correct use of online tools. Because sometimes, the online sites is where [traffickers] offer these types of very interesting, high-paid jobs, which end up being a bait for traffickers to get their victims.

a single mother in Colombia with her two sons
At Bambi, women receive the support, opportunity and community they need to become stable and self reliant — critical components that also keep her and her children safe from trafficking.

Q: What are some ways Bambi is helping prevent trafficking in Bogotá?

In Promefa [Bambi’s vocational training and empowerment program] we do a very detailed profile on the families when they arrive, and in the majority of cases the mother is the head of household. We do this profile to see what situation these families are living in. And what situation psychologically these families are in. We look at it as a whole. We’re helping these families in their education. We’ve had mothers who cannot read or write, so obviously [they] can be [more] easily tricked. We attack this — we teach them how to read and write through various partners, and also we help them finish their school so they do have labor opportunities that are more stable and have a better income than what they’re doing right now. Because some of these families depend on the money they earn on the streets — selling candies, or bus tickets, or even we’ve had mothers whose source of income is prostitution. So we try to take them away from this way of life, help them have a stable monthly income that will allow them to get away from these types of environments.

We have various workshops that teach on [safe] sexual information, online safety, how to deal with violent behaviors, how to deal with their partners. Because many of these women are in very violent relationships — that’s how they’ve been brought up, that’s what they’ve seen. Because their mother had a significant other that hit her the whole relationship and that was what she saw as normal. So we’re teaching them, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be in that situation. That’s not normal, this is a loving relationship, this is how a loving relationship should be.” And not only with their partners but also with their children — teaching them how you have to hug your children, you have to kiss them, you have to tell them how much you love them. Because they haven’t been taught that, they haven’t received that. If it’s not normal to you, how you can you do that if you haven’t been exposed to it?

“Depending on the situation we identify with these families, we touch on it [and help them come to a safer place].”

Also, these women arrive at Bambi with very low self-esteem. So we do have to work a lot on this aspect, tell them that they’re valuable, that they can work, they can make their own money to be successful, they can give their children an education, they don’t have to rely on a man for that. Because we’ve had women who are in very harmful situations just because they’re afraid that if they leave [their partners], they won’t be able to survive on their own. Depending on the situation we identify with these families, we touch on it [and help them come to a safer place].

Cristina Serna | director of Hogares Bambi Bogotá, Holt’s partner agency in Colombia

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