Jorge Duany’s “Human Trafficking in the Caribbean”

In a recent article, “Contrabando humano en el Caribe” (Diálogo Digital, 21 January 2011), Dr. Jorge Duany—professor of anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, whose latest book is the 2010 La nación en vaivén: Identidad, migración y cultura popular en Puerto Rico—analyzes the inextricable links between human contraband and trafficking and undocumented migration. Emphasizing that “human smuggling, especially trafficking of women and children is one of the most sordid features of population movements in the contemporary Caribbean,” Duany writes, “While such practices can be distinguished analytically, they are often inseparable. Human smuggling usually has a more voluntary component than illegal human trafficking, which is characterized by coercion. However, the smugglers often mislead and coerce their customers. Although they may initially consent to participating in illegal transport networks, many illegal immigrants end up in vulnerable situations, particularly women and children.” He emphasizes that “Smuggling, trafficking and human smuggling are pieces of a larger puzzle: the exploitation of persons deprived of their fundamental rights, especially when they lack official permission to reside in another country.”

Duany offers a fascinating and detailed overview of the illegal transfer of humans, the fastest growing transnational criminal industry in the world and the third most lucrative, after the illegal drug and weapons trafficking. He explains that human smuggling generates millions of dollars a year in the Caribbean, from China and Colombia, passing through Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to the United States and Canada, stressing that the Caribbean’s geographical location—between North and South America, and between the Americas and Europe—facilitates the movement of people, drugs, and illegal weapons.  

Explaining that most human trafficking in the Caribbean includes a large number of people trying to reach North America or the European Union, he explains that Haitians, followed by Cubans and Dominicans, constitute the largest numbers of people involved in unauthorized travel in rafts, boats, yolas (locally built, small wooden boats), and other small craft. Detailing the risks these people take in traveling via an assortment of fragile seagoing craft, he underlines that trafficking in human beings has been very frequently linked to prostitution or sex work. The widespread exploitation of foreign, exotic [often female] bodies, people of color, and notably, mulattos, becomes “an integral part of inter-sex trafficking, which in turn plays a key role in the underground economy.”

Noting the rapid increase in sex workers involved in the tourism industry in the Caribbean, including Cuba, Dominican Republic, the Dutch and French Antilles, Duany offers examples: “Since the 1980’s, the Dominican Republic has exported thousands of sex workers to Curaçao, Panama, Aruba, St. Maarten, Surinam, Puerto Rico, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Germany. [. . .] The political and economic dependence of Caribbean territories such as Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Guadeloupe, facilitates the clandestine movement of migrants from neighboring islands to the United States, Holland, and France, and from there to other European countries like Germany and Italy.” Not always the product of coercion, deception or violence, sex work may become “a survival strategy undertaken by many women in the poorest countries, both inside and outside the region.” Detailing the various types of indentured servitude or “modern slavery” resulting from human trafficking, he also presents the appalling figures of children and adolescents trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation documented in Caribbean countries such as the Bahamas, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, and Surinam: “Many are forced to work in poor conditions in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, domestic service and sex. Some are taken illegally in the United States and several European countries. In other cases they are used to remove and sell their organs on the international market.”

In his in-depth study of this dire situation, Duany quotes the pioneering work of sociologists César Rey Hernández and Luisa Hernández Angueira—La trata de personas en Puerto Rico: Un reto a la invisibilidad [Human Trafficking in Puerto Rico: A Challenge to Invisibility] (2010)—to speak about Puerto Rico as a destination for sex tourism and transit for immigrants from other Caribbean islands, especially the Dominican Republic. The sociologists suggest that the human smuggling business in Puerto Rico, as in other countries in the region, includes the falsification of documents such as birth certificates, passports, visas, social security cards and driver licenses. “Another mechanism for legalization of undocumented immigrants,” Duany explains, “is ‘arranged marriage’ to U.S. citizens.” Because of these advantages and due to its location, at the crossroads of several major routes of illegal migration in the Caribbean, Central, South and North America, Puerto Rico has become the second most popular point of entry to for smugglers to U.S. territory, after the southwestern border with Mexico.

Describing the undocumented migration of Cubans, Haitians, and Dominicans, Duany explains in detail the case of the latter, Dominicans who travel to Puerto Rico in yolas: “Given the clandestine nature of travel by small boats, nobody knows exactly how many people die during the voyage, stay in Puerto Rico, or continue their way to the North American continent. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rican and Dominican press routinely reports shipwrecks of undocumented boats in the Mona Channel. Although impossible to ascertain, the number of undocumented residents in Puerto Rico is substantial, growing and not controlled by government authorities. In 1996, U.S. immigration officials estimated the number of undocumented immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic, living in Puerto Rico to be 34,000. That figure has probably risen in the last decade and a half.”

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One thought on “Jorge Duany’s “Human Trafficking in the Caribbean”

  1. Dr. Duany,

    I want to commend you on your article about trafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America. I am currently working in Haiti and am in the process of writing a grant through UNICEF especially looking at child trafficking. If you have some data that I can use, please forward this to me as we are in the last submission stage. I appreciate your help.

    David Domingues, Ph.d.

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