Report on Trafficking in Persons 2021 (Uruguay Segment)
URUGUAY: Tier 2
The Government of Uruguay does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Uruguay remained on Tier 2. These efforts included prosecuting more traffickers, increasing the number of dedicated anti-trafficking units in Montevideo, and launching the nation’s largest investigation of sexual exploitation crimes, which included trafficking crimes and led to the identification of 20 child trafficking victims and the prosecution of more than 30 individuals for soliciting a child sex trafficking victim. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government identified fewer victims than in the previous reporting period. Law enforcement officials did not proactively and systematically identify victims, and the government did not provide adequate victim services or consistent access to shelters. The government devoted inadequate resources to investigating, prosecuting, and convicting labor traffickers and to protecting labor trafficking victims. There were no protection services accessible to adult male trafficking victims, and officials inconsistently referred labor trafficking victims to services. Some victims declined to participate in trials against their traffickers due to doubts about the government’s ability to ensure their safety.
Provide adequate services and shelter for all victims, especially male victims and those outside the capital. • Increase training for law enforcement officials, labor inspectors, coast guard officers, prosecutors, judges, and social workers to understand human trafficking and, as appropriate, proactively identify victims of sex and labor trafficking. • Implement a set of routine guidelines for the proactive identification of trafficking victims and train officials to use them. • Designate an agency responsible for the provision of services to male trafficking victims. • Operationalize a centralized database to systematically record official statistics on anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts and victim identification, including those outside the capital. • Refer labor trafficking victims to services upon identification, hold labor traffickers criminally accountable, and establish standard operating procedures for Ministry of Labor officials to combat labor trafficking. • Allocate a dedicated anti-trafficking budget, fund the implementation of the national action plan and the anti-trafficking law, and increase funding for victim services. • Expand long-term and reintegration services, including vocational training. • Proactively screen foreign workers for trafficking indicators, including through inspections aboard foreign-flagged vessels in Uruguayan waters and docked at port. • Establish a facility accessible to victims while shelters are closed during the day. • Vigorously investigate and prosecute all forms of human trafficking, including forced labor and child sex trafficking. • Sentence convicted traffickers to adequate penalties, which should involve significant prison terms. • Consistently inform victims of their rights under the law, including to apply for permanent residence permits and compensation from their traffickers, and support those victims who wish to pursue these rights. • Revise the definition of trafficking under Uruguayan law to align with the definition in the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. • Ensure the safety of victims participating in trials against their traffickers as required by law and inform victims of available protective measures.
The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Article 78 of the 2008 immigration law criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking, prescribing penalties of four to 16 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The penalties were increased by one-third to one-half if the trafficking offense involved a child victim. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as an aggravating factor rather than as an essential element of the crime.
In 2020, the government initiated 22 new trafficking investigations, compared with 23 trafficking investigations in 2019 and 23 in 2018. In one case involving four suspects and eight potential victims, law enforcement investigated whether a mother and daughter partnered with a Cuban couple to exploit Cuban women in sex trafficking at brothels in Paysandú and Montevideo. The government prosecuted eleven accused traffickers in 2020, compared with four in 2019 and four in 2018. The government did not report whether these alleged traffickers were accused of sex or labor trafficking; it did, however, confirm that at least two were foreign nationals. Officials also prosecuted 39 individuals for soliciting child sex trafficking victims, compared with two such prosecutions in 2019. The vast majority of these additional prosecutions stemmed from a coordinated, multi-jurisdictional law enforcement investigation, called Operation Ocean, targeting men – including a former juvenile court judge, a politician, and a high school principal – who solicited girls on dating mobile apps or online classified pages, which also led to the identification of 20 child trafficking victims. The government convicted four traffickers in 2020, compared with eight traffickers in 2019 and zero in 2018. Judges sentenced traffickers convicted in 2020 to between 17 months’ and six years’ imprisonment. In one case, courts convicted under charges of forced prostitution a sex trafficker who exploited her daughters in commercial sex over several years. In the past five years, the government reported investigating 55 trafficking cases and prosecuting 39 suspected traffickers, but convicted just 15 traffickers. The government reported convicting one individual for soliciting a child sex trafficking victim. Officials reported courts closed briefly in March 2020, but judicial activity was otherwise uninterrupted by pandemic-related circumstances. The government collected data on active cases, including trafficking cases, via the Accusatory Penal Process Information System (SIPPAU). However, it remained difficult to obtain comprehensive data, especially on trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions outside the capital region, and analyze trends across reporting periods.
The Ministry of Interior’s organized crime division was the primary entity responsible for anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. However, the Ministry of Labor (MTSS) directed most efforts related to labor trafficking; MTSS primarily responded to labor traffickers through administrative processes, although cases it referred to the prosecutor’s office could also be criminally prosecuted. The attorney general’s office in Montevideo had three gender-based violence units that prioritized investigating and prosecuting crimes related to human trafficking and the exploitation of children, up from two in 2019; there were no specialized units outside of the capital. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking offenses. The government offered limited anti-trafficking training to law enforcement officials responsible for victim identification and investigation, but it included trafficking-specific modules in standard gender-based violence training for approximately 375 law enforcement officers in 2020; 62 officials opted into an online anti-trafficking training for law enforcement. Observers indicated law enforcement officials did not employ systematic procedures to identify victims proactively. Uruguayan officials coordinated with United States officials in relation to a United States citizen convicted of human trafficking and serving a term of imprisonment in Uruguay.
The government decreased protection efforts. The Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) facilitated the care and protection of trafficking victims through two entities: the National Institute for Women (Inmujeres), which served adult female trafficking victims, and the National Institute for Children and Adolescents (INAU), which served child trafficking victims. Both institutions primarily catered to sex trafficking victims, as MTSS maintained responsibility for most labor trafficking victims identified through its inspections. In 2020, the Ministry of Social Development reported Inmujeres assisted 37 newly identified victims in 2020, compared with 83 victims in 2019 and 95 victims in 2018; it did not report the number of trafficking victims assisted by INAU. The 37 victims served by Inmujeres were all adult women; they were mostly Uruguayan, Dominican, or Cuban. The government did not report identifying any adult male, child, or LGBTQI+ trafficking victims in 2020; the government did not consider the 20 victims identified through Operation Ocean to be trafficking victims and provided them services through the Victim Protection Unit of the prosecutor’s office. An INAU program for child victims of sexual exploitation operating in Montevideo served 42 children during the reporting period, but it was not clear how many of these children were victims of trafficking, as opposed to other forms of exploitation. The government had a variety of victim protection protocols and written referral mechanisms on assisting victims, including an interagency response system; however, it did not have a lead agency or inter-institutional protocols to facilitate the proactive identification of trafficking victims by law enforcement or other officials. MIDES was the principal provider of services for victims of crimes; specialized services for victims of trafficking were very limited in Uruguay and, in practice, only available to adult female sex trafficking victims. Inmujeres coordinated with civil society to provide services for female sex trafficking victims at its centers in Montevideo and Cerro Largo, and INAU had a partial-service center for child sex trafficking victims in Paysandú. Inmujeres provided some services by phone or video call during the reporting period to limit disruption under pandemic-related restrictions, although not all services could be administered virtually, and these services were unavailable to victims for periods of time. The government adapted physical spaces to continue accommodating victims in-person where possible, including by installing barriers and screening for symptoms. The government primarily provided services to adult female victims of sex trafficking; it did not have shelters or services designed to accommodate male, LGBTQI+, or labor trafficking victims. When officials identified such victims, the government could usually arrange ad hoc housing in hotels or non-specialized shelters designed to serve other vulnerable populations, such as individuals experiencing housing insecurity or recovering from addiction. Some organizations expressed concern about the lack of formality in victim referral. The government and civil society continued to operate a 14-member mobile team of psychologists, social workers, and lawyers that responded to cases involving child victims in the interior of the country. The government offered limited trainings throughout the year, often virtually and with the support of international organizations, including a four-week course on child sexual exploitation for INAU staff and a training for medical professionals on identification and referral procedures for gender-based violence, including trafficking.
The government contracted with NGOs to provide victims services similar to those given to other vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, refugees, and citizens on welfare; there were no specialized services for trafficking victims. Although government officials had some facilities that could temporarily house victims, there were no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims. Government officials expressed concern that victims’ security would be at risk in a centrally located, trafficking-specific shelter, due to the country’s small size. The government preferred to lodge victims in hotels and occasionally referred them to shelters or group homes serving other populations, such as victims of domestic violence. Civil society expressed concerns about the suitability of these facilities, as they did not meet the needs of trafficking victims, and reported challenges finding shelter for trafficking victims, particularly for those identified outside the capital. Many shelters were overnight-only facilities; observers identified a need for daytime facilities and programming. Civil society reported government services focused mostly on psycho-social and legal assistance, while long-term services, such as housing, vocational support, and job placement, were insufficient. Inmujeres provided 11.37 million pesos ($269,770) to its NGO partners to fund provision of services and allocated 304,500 pesos ($7,230) to cover short-term hotel stays for victims. The government did not report other budget allocations or funding for victim assistance. Although the government had a protocol to provide security and protection measures to victims, observers reported the government could not ensure victims’ physical safety, and fear of retaliation prevented some victims from participating in trials against their traffickers. Victims could file civil suit to seek compensation from their traffickers, but the government did not report whether any victims did so in 2020. Foreign victims were entitled to work permits and permanent residency status and had 180 days to decide whether to stay in the country, return to their country of origin, or resettle in a third country. However, the government did not report issuing residence permits to any foreign victims during the reporting period, and there was no record it had done so since the 2018 legislation establishing this entitlement.
The government slightly decreased prevention efforts. The national trafficking council, composed of high-level government agencies and civil society participants and led by MIDES, met twice during the reporting period. The council was responsible for the implementation of recommendations from international organizations and institutional oversight on the implementation of Law 19.643 and the 2018-2020 national action plan. During the reporting period, the council began drafting a 2020-2022 national action plan. The national trafficking council was required to publish at least one public report per year, usually an annual review of its anti-trafficking efforts, but did not release a report in 2020. The government did not allocate funding to implement the trafficking law or the national action plan, and the trafficking council lacked an operational budget. The government conducted activities to promote awareness of human trafficking in 2020; with the support of an international organization, the government conducted one virtual awareness-raising workshop for officials in communities with an established trafficking risk. The government continued to distribute to the public informational and awareness-raising materials developed in previous reporting periods. Generally, the government’s awareness-raising efforts featured trafficking as a sub-topic of wider programming on gender-based violence and other related crimes. The government operated telephone hotlines and a corresponding cellphone app where the public could report crimes; the government did not report how many calls involved trafficking cases. In 2020, the government launched a hotline dedicated to a nationwide investigation; in addition to information related to that case, officials also reported receiving tips leading to five new investigations, at least one of which involved human trafficking. The Ministry of Labor reported it trained its inspectors to identify labor trafficking indicators; these inspectors continued to perform regular labor inspections during the pandemic, including in establishments known to facilitate commercial sex. Labor inspectors lacked specific procedures to identify trafficking, although the Ministry of Labor had primary responsibility for labor trafficking. The government encouraged private sector actors to engage in an anti-child sex tourism campaign but did not otherwise make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Uruguay, and traffickers exploit victims from Uruguay abroad. Uruguayan women and girls – and, to a more limited extent, transgender adults and male adolescents – are exploited in sex trafficking within the country. Traffickers force Uruguayan women and LGBTQI+ individuals into commercial sex in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, and Spain. Traffickers exploit women from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and, to a lesser extent, from South American countries, in sex trafficking in Uruguay. Many victims are South American women of African descent. Foreign workers, mainly from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, are exploited in forced labor in construction, domestic service, cleaning services, elder care, wholesale stores, textile industries, agriculture, fishing, and lumber processing. Cuban nationals working in Uruguay may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. Sex traffickers exploited migrants, particularly women, from Cuba in border cities; sex traffickers may move victims city-to-city to avoid detection and prolong exploitation. From 2018 to 2020, 17 crewmember deaths were associated with Taiwan-, Chinese-, and other foreign-flagged fishing vessels docked at the Montevideo port and in Uruguay’s waters; before 2018, observers reported an average of 11 crewmember deaths per year. Foreign workers aboard these vessels are subjected to abuses indicative of forced labor, including unpaid wages, confiscated identification documents, and physical abuse, and there are anecdotal reports of murder at sea. Citizens of other countries, including China and the Dominican Republic, may transit Uruguay en route to other destinations, particularly Argentina, where some are exploited in trafficking. There was heightened vulnerability to trafficking in the interior of the country, where the government’s monitoring and anti-trafficking efforts had limited reach. In particular, domestic workers employed in the interior of the country are at greater risk of trafficking.