Representatives of Mexico and Central America are in Grand Island this week to talk about a problem the two areas share — human trafficking.

Grand Island is playing host to 11 visitors — three each from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and two from Mexico. The visit is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program is called the International Visitor Leadership Program.

The group is meeting with the Grand Island Police Department, with the assistance of the Nebraska State Patrol, the Hall County Attorney’s Office, the Nebraska Attorney General’s office and the Department of Homeland Security. The visit to Grand Island concludes Tuesday,

Three of the international visitors met with the media Monday at the Law Enforcement Center.

In Honduras, human trafficking has 11 different categories, including sexual exploitation, forced labor and organ trafficking, said Martha Patricia Gonzalez, who is chief prosecutor for the Trafficking in Persons Unit of the Public Ministry.

In Guatemala, officials have noticed the last several years that “there’s been a reduction in the number of victims that we’ve been able to detect and those cases that have been reported,” said Ana Lucia Pelaez Vicente, speaking through an interpreter.

“This is of course due to several different reasons, including that it’s been normalized and tolerated within our society,” Vicente said, referring to both sexual exploitation and modern-day slavery.

In Guatemala, 73 percent of the victims are women, “but men are also victims, mostly of labor exploitation and forced labor,” Vicente said. Children and teens are the most vulnerable populations — vulnerable to both sexual and labor exploitation. But recently, officials have been seeing other kinds of trafficking, such as the recruitment of minors to perform criminal activities.

Mexican law also includes 11 modes of trafficking, said Rene Benjamin Lopez Bastida. Subcategories sexual exploitation, child pornography and sexual exhibitionism. His country has had success by increasing “our efforts against trafficking. We’ve increased the number of arrests made, and the number of victims rescued,” said Bastida, who works in the office of the Special Prosecutor for Trafficking in Persons in the Attorney General’s Office in the state of Mexico.

Before arriving in Grand Island, the group stopped in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

They were to head to Jacksonville, Fla., but the hurricane washed out that leg. Before heading home, they will travel to San Antonio and McAllen, Texas.

Gonzalez says she’s finding the experience to be invaluable. It’s been very helpful to learn how the U.S. system works, including how authorities deal with traffickers and victims.

It’s interesting to see how law enforcement investigates cases and how officers collaborate with nongovernmental agencies, especially when it comes to how victims are treated and how they’re assisted.

“Also, we see here that there are a lot of shelters for victims of trafficking. That’s not something that we have in Honduras,” Gonzalez said. The trip has “really helped me open my mind to the way that we can work in Honduras,” she said. She hopes to use that knowledge “to be able to sensitize people to the issue of trafficking” and request their assistance in aiding victims.

“We also have been quite pleased to see the work that has been done with victim recovery here. There are more resources here than that are in my country,” Gonzalez said.

The group appreciates the way victims are treated. “We’ve also been very impressed with the hotlines that are open to receive tips about trafficking cases,” she said. It’s illuminating to see how those cases are brought to prosecutors and how they decide whether to file charges.

“We’ve been able to learn from their best practices,” Gonzalez said. She is going to take those methods back to her unit at the public ministry, where she hopes “to teach the people that I work with.”

The visitors have shared best practices used in their own countries as well as the agencies they’re visiting in the U.S.

To fight trafficking, countries have to “tackle it as a transnational problem,” Bastida said.

In Central America, “we know that our countries are countries of origin, transit and destination for victims of trafficking,” Vicente said.

Vicente said their experiences in the U.S. “are going to help us really improve our procedures to tackle this issue, this scourge, that’s such a violation of human rights.”

Grand Island police have hosted visitors from other countries in the past, said Police Chief Robert Falldorf.

Agencies are doing a better job of coordinating their efforts than they were three to five years ago, Falldorf said. He credited the improvement to the emphasis given by the State Attorney General’s office.

Although the visitors are spending their time in Grand Island, their lodging is in Hastings. Husker Harvest Days created a shortage of hotel rooms in Grand Island.

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I am the Cops & Courts Reporter for the Grand Island Independent. I welcome news tips!

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