The government maintained law enforcement efforts. The 2014 Special Law Against Trafficking in Persons criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law considered the use of force, fraud, or coercion as an aggravating factor rather than an essential element of the crime; the penalties increased to 16 to 20 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving these factors. The law defined trafficking broadly to include fraudulent adoption without the purpose of exploitation. The government also prosecuted trafficking crimes under other parts of its penal code.
Police investigated 30 suspected trafficking cases (16 for sex trafficking, five for forced labor, and nine undetermined) in 2020, compared with 80 cases investigated in 2019 and 74 in 2018. Despite an overall decline in investigations, this marked an increase in the number of forced labor cases investigated compared with previous years. At least one case, which included the arrest of 10 suspects in November 2020, involved gang-related child sex trafficking crimes; however, authorities failed to adequately investigate whether one of the suspects—who was a child at the time of the alleged crimes—may have been a victim compelled to commit unlawful acts. In 2020, authorities initiated prosecution of 39 sex trafficking cases involving 31 suspects and convicted 12 traffickers, compared with nine traffickers prosecuted and 12 convicted in 2019 and nine cases prosecuted and seven traffickers convicted in 2018. Authorities did not initiate any labor trafficking prosecutions during the year. The government did not report sentences for convicted traffickers. Authorities arrested several officials and convicted one for smuggling crimes that may have increased migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking. However, the government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offences nor progress in investigations from previous years. Corruption and complicity, including within law enforcement, the prison system, and local government, remained significant obstacles to anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.
The government had 25 active staff members in its specialized anti-trafficking police unit and 15 specialized prosecutors in its anti-trafficking prosecution unit. Both units lacked sufficient human and material resources to effectively investigate and prosecute all cases, and the absence of an electronic case-management system limited efforts to collect, share, and analyze law enforcement information. However, the government relocated the specialized anti-trafficking prosecution unit to a building that included improved spaces for conducting interviews, including a child-friendly space for young victims and witnesses. The specialized prosecution unit initially suspended investigations and court proceedings for three months in response to the pandemic, then later adapted its efforts to continue investigations by phone. The government directed most anti-trafficking police to focus on pandemic mitigation efforts rather than identifying and investigating suspected cases of trafficking.
Observers noted the attorney general’s office frequently assigned different prosecutors to handle different phases of a single criminal case, which hampered its ability to prosecute cases in an efficient and cohesive manner and provide consistency to victims. Experts noted some police used harsh questioning during victim interviews, leading to re-traumatization. Observers reported judges did not have an adequate understanding of trafficking laws or sufficient expertise in the evidentiary processes for trafficking cases, including the use of non-testimonial evidence to corroborate victim testimony. The government did not provide sufficient training for law enforcement or criminal justice officials, relying primarily on donors to fund trainings. The anti-trafficking prosecution unit suspended all scheduled trainings due to the pandemic and fewer than half of the members of the specialized police unit had been trained in basic aspects of human trafficking. The government reported unspecified law enforcement cooperation with Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and the United States.