The long frontier between Bolivia and Argentina is crossed by thousands of people each day. The majority of them go through authorised checkpoints with the appropriate papers, but some, inevitably, prefer quieter, unofficial routes across dried-up riverbeds and along dusty half-forgotten tracks where contraband goods and dubious documents are less likely to attract the attention of police and customs officials.
For the most part even this traffic might seem relatively innocuous – a little light tariff-free smuggling here, some economic migration there – but it does mask a darker trade in people, sometimes children, who are taken over the border to be exploited.
For this episode of Latin America Investigates , Argentinian journalist Diego Granda teamed up with filmmaker Alejandro Bernal to investigate.
By Alejandro Bernal
The border between Argentina and Bolivia is a place that looks like the Moon: large fields without vegetation, more than 3,000 metres above sea level.
The border snakes for 800km between Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest nations, and its more prosperous neighbour.
It’s a very long land border and it’s very difficult for the authorities to control it. Many criminals use it to smuggle all kinds of contraband, including people.
It’s hard to get your head around the scale of the migration between these nations and the human fallout it brings, but one man who has been trying is Diego Granda, a young Argentine reporter, who has been studying this traffic for more than three years. He first came across the story when he learned about a young girl who went missing from Argentina and was found in Bolivia. There was no record of her crossing.
This case is one of many and it happens both ways across the border. Mostly, the human traffic is in the opposite direction – Argentina has long been seen as a land of economic opportunity for Bolivians.
With this in mind, we started the trip from the capital, Buenos Aires, to La Quiaca with Diego and Matias Gimenez, our director of photography. La Quiaca is on the Argentine side; Bolivia begins in the town of Villazon. Diego invited us to be part of his investigation. He had already published some of his findings, and it had caused a furore in Bolivia.
|Argentina: Cross-border trafficking|
– Argentina is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour, according to a US Department of State 2016 report
– For every person that legally entered Argentina in 2012, there were three who entered illegally, according to official statistics
– In 2012, 424,473 people crossed the Bolivia-Argentina border legally, while in 2015, the figure rose to 929,927
– Around 800 children irregularly cross the Quiaca-Villazon border per day
– The cost of crossing an undocumented person from Bolivia, through La Quiaca, to Buenos Aires is around $4,500
– Of the 20,000 inhabitants of La Quiaca, around 1,200 men of working age are registered as employed
– 6,033 people, many of them Bolivians, are currently searched for in Argentina
– In 2015, the Argentine government convicted 35 traffickers and six other individuals were convicted of trafficking-related crimes. In 2014, authorities convicted 67 traffickers
– 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report
– Investigaciones FOPEA 2016: Los Invisibles de la Quiaca
It soon became obvious that it was difficult and maybe dangerous for Diego to cross the border.
The area where we were filming was smaller than a medium-size European city, but it encompassed two different countries with two completely different legal systems, and a sizeable gap in living standards. Beside that, La Quiaca’s altitude makes it difficult to move and sometimes even to breathe, until you’ve acclimatised.
Once in La Quiaca, we met Armando Flores, a local journalist who had been collaborating for some time on Diego’s investigation. Armando knows how things work on both sides of the border, and through his contacts we found a woman who could act as an undercover reporter.
From that moment on, our mission was to investigate how it might be possible to move a minor illegally from one country to the other.
We soon learned that it was possible to buy – at a price – realistic-looking paperwork, complete with police stamps, which would potentially get a child past any inquisitive Argentinian officials. From first enquiries to the handover of the document took a few short days.
Back in Buenos Aires, we spoke to many victims of human trafficking. Among them was one who was brought into Argentina decades ago, when she was only nine years old.
Another victim we spoke to was much more recent – Gilda, also smuggled over at nine. She was chained to a sewing machine for six years.
The question is: Is it possible to control human trafficking across this border? My own thought is that the problem is not to control the border, because a wall or harder controls will not in themselves stop this.
This problem has existed for centuries all over the world; migrations are part of the human condition. But the authorities have to accept that human trafficking still exists, and that it’s a crime whose perpetrators must be pursued.