By Jonathan Gilbert for the NYTimes on May 23, 2014—
“HERE in the impoverished north of Argentina, sex traffickers search among the vulnerable for targets. Typically, they lure women with deceitful job offers and thentraffic them to big cities, mining towns and agricultural regions, where they are forced into sex slavery.
For most women, in the past, it was the beginning of years of servitude in a grim underworld of prostitution. But these days more manage to escape, many with the help of the Fundación María de los Ángeles, a nongovernmental organization founded by Susana Trimarco, whose daughter was seized 12 years ago.
The daughter, María de los Ángeles Verón, then 23, left home for a medical appointment in April 2002. She never returned. Some witnesses said she was murdered and buried in a nearby province, most likely La Rioja, where demand for prostitutes is high among seasonal grape and olive pickers. But her body was never found.
Frustrated by an investigation at home that she said was thwarted by a web of corruption spun by judges, the police and the local mafia, Mrs. Trimarco took up the search for her daughter alone. When it was suggested six years ago that Ms. Verón was taken abroad, perhaps to northern Spain or the Canary Islands, Mrs. Trimarco traveled to Spain, but the police there could not find her daughter.
For her trouble, Mrs. Trimarco, 59, has had her house set on fire by thugs who threw flaming rags drenched in kerosene onto the rooftop, and she has twice escaped being run over, once as she took out the trash around midnight.
She still receives vicious anonymous phone calls and death threats, but she has never given up. “The desperation of a mother blinds you,” she said. “It makes you fearless.”
HER efforts have carved the issue of sex trafficking into the political agenda in Argentina and have earned her international recognition, but she is an unlikely national heroine.
A former municipal worker, Mrs. Trimarco used to find relief from the daily grind with simple pastimes, like taking her family to nearby tourist spots and nurturing her houseplants. But the abduction of her daughter, affectionately known as Marita, upended her life.
“I live a permanent battle,” she said with a flinty stare. “From when I awake to when I sleep, I live for this. I’m looking for my daughter alive.”
As she began her search, Mrs. Trimarco obtained the names of pimps and sex traffickers from police files. Then she gained entry to brothels across this city by disguising herself as a madam and offering to buy the women and girls they held captive, including some as young as 14, who could be traded for about $800.
Some of the women said they had seen Ms. Verón. One of them, who as a rape victim asked not to be identified, said she saw her drugged, with swollen eyes, in the home of a ringleader that doubled as a den for harboring recently abducted victims. The women provided Mrs. Trimarco with license plate numbers and other clues, but none of those panned out.
Mrs. Trimarco did rescue some women, but many pleaded not to be left to fend for themselves. “The police would hand them back to the criminals,” Mrs. Trimarco said. “They used to say: ‘Don’t leave me. Take me with you.’ ”
Over the years, Mrs. Trimarco, whose husband died in 2010, became a guardian to 129 former sex slaves, she said. She sheltered them in her home, where she also cared for Ms. Verón’s daughter, Micaela, who was 3 when her mother was taken. She encouraged the women to file police complaints, ferried them to medical appointments and reunited them with their families.
In 2007, she set up the Fundación María de los Ángeles in a leaky townhouse, but the demand for its services became overwhelming. At the end of last year, the organization moved into a new building, constructed with government funds. It has also opened centers in other major cities in Argentina.
On a recent afternoon, the new headquarters were abuzz. Lawyers pored over missing-person reports. Women, whose gazes betrayed dark pasts, milled in the lobby with their toddlers. Some had appointments with psychologists; others waited by a small office to denounce domestic abuse. From a stairwell, a giant image of Ms. Verón loomed over a small group of victims listening to a talk about how to get a job.
Upstairs, Mrs. Trimarco’s office was adorned with framed certificates in recognition of her struggle. Two are from the United States State Department: an International Women of Courage Award, signed by a former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and highlighting the “great personal risk” she has endured in combating human trafficking, and an award for “acting to end modern-day slavery.”
On a side table was a photograph of Mrs. Trimarco posing with Ms. Verón and Micaela, now 15. The scene was a throwback to the simple contentment of her life before, when Ms. Verón was studying to become a schoolteacher and enjoying the works of Jorge Luis Borges, and Mrs. Trimarco did not need police protection.
“I would’ve liked to have my previous life,” she said. “Not this one, because this life I lead is a life of pain.”
EVENTUALLY, the official investigation into Ms. Verón’s disappearance yielded 13 indictments and a trial that outraged Argentines when in December 2012, all 13 defendants were acquitted of charges of kidnapping Ms. Verón and forcing her into prostitution.
The three judges who presided over the case face a possible impeachment hearing if a request from Mrs. Trimarco’s lawyers is approved by the federal Supreme Court. Two, however, have already retired.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner telephoned Mrs. Trimarco to console her and then announced that she would sponsor reform bills to “democratize” Argentina’s judicial system, saying it had become divorced from society.
It was not until Mrs. Kirchner’s first term, in 2008, that Argentina even had a law on the books making human trafficking a federal crime. More than 2,500 victims of sex trafficking have since been rescued, according to Ministry of Justice figures from last year.
“She is always by the side of those who need help,” Gilda Nobau, 47, said of Mrs. Trimarco. Mrs. Nobau’s grandchildren attend a kindergarten established last year by the foundation. Her daughter was kidnapped at 13 and forced to perform in erotic shows before she was rescued.
Lawyers at Mrs. Trimarco’s foundation hope to bring to trial next year the case of the rape victim who said she had seen Ms. Verón. Six weeks after Ms. Verón was kidnapped, the young woman was walking to her local butcher when, she said, abductors thrust her into a maroon Suzuki and drove her to their home. She was 16.
She was locked in a back room and drugged, then forced to work in brothels throughout the city. Her uterus was torn in acts of sexual violence. “This is something you never get over,” the young woman said.
In the case of Ms. Verón, the judges concluded in their 600-page verdict that there was an “evil network of sexual exploitation” in Tucumán, “with national and international connections, and satanic rituals.” But, they said, the evidence had been too thin to convict the 13 defendants.
In December 2013, however, a higher court overruled the judges, convicting 10 of the 12 defendants. (One had died in the interim.) Last month, they received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 22 years for colluding in crimes against Ms. Verón. They have appealed their convictions.
Mrs. Trimarco said that while she was satisfied by the sentences, she would never stop searching for her daughter. “It’s impossible to live without knowing,” she said. “You don’t have peace in your life.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of judges in the Verón trial who have already retired. Two are no longer on the bench, not one. Because of an editing error, the earlier version also misidentified the Argentine institution that is scheduled to decide on Susana Trimarco’s request for an impeachment hearing for the judges. The decision would be made by the federal supreme court, not the federal government.”
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