Justice Inspires Hope

Susan Coppedge
Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
El Periodico
November 17, 2016

The road to reconciliation may be long, but there is nothing worthier than the pursuit of justice. We celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Peace Accords, which ended long-standing conflict and envisioned a more just and inclusive Guatemala, and recognize that Guatemala is still fulfilling this vision. As the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I am encouraged by recent government efforts to seek justice. Most notable is the landmark decision in the Sepur Zarco trial, which convicted perpetrators of decades-old crimes involving forced labor and sexual slavery. Redressing these crimes is vital in building trust and preventing future abuses of power.

While Guatemala has made significant efforts to combat human trafficking, much work remains. This week, I’m meeting with government officials to discuss improving services for trafficking victims, increasing resources for anti-trafficking efforts, and enhancing the criminal justice response to both sex and labor trafficking crimes. I’ll also pursue ways Guatemala and the United States can increase our collaboration to fight human trafficking, which President Obama has called one of the great human right causes of our time.

Human trafficking is generally defined as the exploitation of a person for compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Human trafficking crimes are not necessarily violent and do not always involve the physical movement of the victim.

As outlined in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (available online), Guatemalan adults and children are subjected to sex trafficking and to forced labor in agriculture, domestic service, and other sectors within the country and abroad, including in the United States. Criminal organizations, including gangs, exploit girls in sex trafficking schemes, and coerce young males into criminal activity.

The State Department’s top recommendation for Guatemala in the 2016 Report is to improve access to specialized services for trafficking victims. Judges, who have the sole authority to refer victims to shelters, should ensure all victims, including adults and males, have access to residential services. The government should also support shelters to offer specialized services, such as proper health care, mental health services, legal support, and protections for witnesses – to assist victims participating in the legal process and protect them from further exploitation.

Guatemala should increase efforts to address official complicity in trafficking crimes. Corruption doesn’t just undermine faith in government. It can also facilitate human exploitation when officials participate in or turn a blind eye to trafficking crimes. While the Sepur Zarco case and other recent efforts to prosecute complicit officials are positive steps, increased government accountability and transparency are needed to deter future complicity, keep Guatemalans safe, and build greater trust in government.

It is promising that Guatemala has increased its prosecutions and convictions of human traffickers, including the first convictions for labor trafficking crimes. However, investigations outside Guatemala City generally remain limited by inadequate government funding and training.

Guatemala has come a long way since signing the Peace Accords in 1996 but still has a long road ahead. I hope the decision in the Sepur Zarco case offered the victims some consolation. And I hope it will encourage the government to even greater efforts in its pursuit of justice for victims.