Each year since 2001, the U.S. State Department recognizes modern abolitionists tirelessly working to end exploitation across the globe with the TIP Report Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award. In 2019, Daniel Rueda, along with his colleague Veronica Supliguicha, were recognized for creating one of only two shelters in Ecuador designated for the protection of human trafficking victims and whose network now encompasses multiple anti-human trafficking NGOs and stretches across the country with branches in Quito, Tulcán, Ibarra, Lago and San Lorenzo.
The Fundación Alas de Colibrí (Hummingbird Wings Foundation ) carries out a holistic approach focused on the realization of human rights by providing support to women, children, and migrants with psychological support, legal and medical consultancy, both guidance and referrals, and educational or livelihood training. The Venezuelan migratory crisis and the global pandemic have strongly increased the need for these areas of support to protect the human rights of populations made vulnerable by migration and compensate for the subsequent lack of access to services.
Ciara Sotomayor, from Latina Republic, interviewed Daniel Rueda, president of the Fundación Alas de Colibrí, about its creation and the complexity of human trafficking. Rueda explained several societal factors that increase vulnerability to human trafficking, as well as shared his insight on borders and the empowerment of trafficked individuals.
Latina Republic: Why was the Fundación Alas de Colibrí founded in 2012 and what is the main goal of the organization?
Daniel Rueda: Fundación Alas de Colibrí is a non-profit organization that works in the promotion and defense of human rights with an emphasis on the crime of human trafficking. Why was it established? It was born out a felt need, in this case among Ecuadorian society, for the care and accompaniment of the restoration of rights to victims of human trafficking, especially women, adolescents and minors. At the time Fundación Alas de Colibrí was founded, there was no comprehensive care and there was lack of a protective space considering the number of victims that existed in the country. In this sense, the founding partners, including myself and two other companions, saw the need to do this work and venture into this field.
We came with experiences working in other organizations and thought it was essential to continue the line of attention to victims of human trafficking. So, we started working on the exclusionary fostering project for women, adolescents, victims of human trafficking, and that’s how we started the organization. Over the course of eight years, we have also worked on other types of projects. The most important thing is that this project was born from our desire to be able to support the victims, along with an enormous social commitment. This established social responsibility was very important for the institution to keep growing, become known and continue assisting victims of human trafficking.
Latina Republic: Where do the majority of human trafficking victims come from? From Ecuador?
Daniel Rueda: Yes, the majority are internal trafficking which is contrary to popular belief as we always think the victim is from other countries or latitudes. Nevertheless, we understand trafficking above all in South America, occurs between cities and provinces, both in terms of sexual and labor exploitation. There is a higher incidence of sex trafficking and it is established that 80 percent of the victims of women and are minors.
However, we have a higher incidence in the sexual sphere. It is established that 80 per cent of the victims of trafficking are women and are children. However, due to the Venezuelan migratory crisis, we have treated various victims which are Venezuelan minors, as well as Colombian and Peruvian girls with higher rates as well. At this time, there are four Venezuelan adolescent girls in one of our houses of protection that were victims of sexual exploitation.
Latina Republic: Typically what factors make these girls more vulnerable to human trafficking?
Daniel Rueda: There are various factors that are related to structural factors and are connected as well to issues like machismo, the patriarchy, the objectification of women and their bodies. In addition to this, trafficking is related to extreme poverty and other vulnerability factors related to globalization and inequality. All of these are factors that contribute to human trafficking and evidently some corrections must be taken in terms of working on public policy to prevent this crime and directly attack these structural factors that allow and encourage trafficking. I think some of the most important come from the issues of machismo and inequality.
These two are preponderant for the exponential increase in trafficking in persons in these countries of developing countries. It must also be taken into account how power dynamics influence the issue of human trafficking. These are relations of unbalanced power in which an adult captures or tricks an adolescent to carry acts of sexual nature to their own benefit. So these are all some of the factors that influence the occurrence of human trafficking.
Latina Republic: Your organization also works to prevent the crime. How does prevention work?
Daniel Rueda: I believe there are some lines that have worked at this moment based on the issue of the pandemic. In this context we have, many governments of countries have stopped working on trafficking prevention at exactly a moment where these types of situations arise. On the subject of prevention, it is necessary to work so the crime never occurs instead of aiding a trafficking victim when she has already been exploited as a victim of the crime and not solely a victim of trafficking. When we discuss human trafficking, it is a multiple offense crime. It offends the victim multiple times and can be a very complex situation.
In terms of prevention, it is connected to governments which can incorporate clear and precise public policies for the prevention, detention and detection of the crime. So there are several strategies that can be incorporated including educational messages to children and adolescents, issues with attention routes, issues of denunciation and protection of the victim so she does not continue being a victim, as well as increasing operational controls so human traffickers keep in mind that the authorities are always looking. And so the occurrence of human trafficking can be further limited.
There are various options which can be explored in the issue of prevention. However, it is very weak among governments, not only in Ecuador but in South American and Central American governments. The actions carried out by them are very weak in preventing human trafficking. For example, we can talk about Mexico where the trafficking situation is quite critical. We are talking about exploitation that crosses borders, as well as local exploitation in which women are sexually exploited and the issue of machismo is very strong, as in the rest of Latin America.
However, due to sharing a complex border with the United States, the cases are very cruel. This deserves to be analyzed, as well as Central America, where there are complex issues which are connected to the social, political and economic order that affect the population who become immersed in despair and a vulnerability factor that allows people to commit the crime against boys and girls.
There are cases of both girls and boys being sold. It is exactly due to the conditions in which the population finds themselves. When we talk about South and Central America, with higher rates in some countries, we look at these factors of vulnerability. For example, with Venezuela we have seen a country with a socio economic and political crisis in which people are in despair and more than 5 million people had to flee the country. Leaving in conditions of extreme vulnerability, they walk and cross borders, evidently becoming more vulnerable to being trapped in human trafficking networks, especially because we do not have borders focused on human rights.
We have borders with a vision where one cannot cross or enter the country without documents. There is not a vision of human rights in which a person’s situation is established, protecting children and adolescents to a higher degree to guarantee the dignity and rights of human beings. I think all of the factors are predominant for people to become victims of human trafficking.
Latina Republic: Have the processes of legalization and migratory amnesty changed this year due to coronavirus?
Daniel Rueda: At this time, the entire migration issue has been paused due to the pandemic and the state of emergency. In some ways, all of these have been paused. However, there is always the concern that when we return to normalcy, there will not be a vision of human rights, rather a vision focused on safety, that is more political and based on proselytism. Evidently this also affects norms and the laws which are generated by states. I think it is necessary to be very attentive to civil society to generate a counterweight to these issues and be able to work to prevent the violation of migrants’ human rights.
As of right now, the migratory process issue is paused. It has been decreed that after the state of emergency two months, they will be able to continue to meet their immigration requirement and then access an extraordinary or humanitarian visa. We will see what happens because not all Venezuelans can access that visa. We are still waiting to see what happens.
Right now all states are focused on the situation with COVID-19. This emergency not only affects the society of every country, but also the migrants who find themselves in each country and sometimes there is a focus which does not cover migrants with provisions, but only the local population.
The labor carried out by non-governmental organizations exists to be able to give attention to the migratory population. It is a very critical and complex situation. The local population can receive some care from the state, however migrants receive none. This must be kept in mind and viewed from principles of human rights.
The situation of Venezuelans is critical across all countries of South America and now it must be considered and reexamined to see how the international community can help.
Latina Republic: I saw that there’s a project called Comprehensive Border Care (Atención Integral en Frontera) that works hand in hand with UNICEF, how do the two organizations work together?
Daniel Rueda: Right now we are not working with UNICEF. It was a small project in 2017 and we were able to carry out a very interesting project on the border. Rather now we are completing a project on the border as well, but with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. With them, we are working in the provinces of Imbabura, Esmeralda y Carchi. We are also part of a project with the U.S government that relates to attention to migrants in the northern border, also reaching the province of Sucumbios.
This project has a large component targeting health issues because access to health care right now in Ecuador is super complex and for migrants even more so. What we are attempting to do is deliver comprehensive care, with a heavy emphasis on health issues and providing medicine. These are two of the projects we are working on at the northern border and we are going to attend more than eight thousand people who will benefit from this project done by our foundation.
Latina Republic: In regards to women and children who do not live close to the border, how does the organization identify individuals who may benefit from their services? Does it rely on the police or other organizations to identify people who need assistance?
Daniel Rueda: Yes, this work is always coordinated with the authorities. All of the actions we are taking are coordinated with the police and the protection system because they protect victims and carry out criminal investigations and investigate human rights violations, so we always complete our work with them.
Obviously, there are limitations in the issue of being able to reach the entire population. However, through the work of technical teams we have, what we do is help or contribute the work the State does. In this sense, it is coordinated work with public institutions.
Latina Republic: In terms of reintegration of people who have been human trafficking victims, what kinds of obstacles do adolescents and children especially face?
Daniel Rueda: The issue of social reintegration for children and adolescents who have been victims of human trafficking has been complex because we deliver comprehensive care. At the moment of reintegration, generally there can be certain inconveniences. There may be problems with the structural order, like issues of inequality or poverty. What we also do is strengthen the family and monitor the child’s progress.
In this sense, there are certain conditions we establish because the adolescent leaves the house of protection, usually with a police order if a judge has knowledge of the situation and then monitoring is arranged. It is not always completed, however we do everything possible to follow up with victims.
I think we’ve had success with the reintegration we’ve completed. Evidently, it’s not a 100% success rate because there are also conditions we deal with throughout the country. For example, coastal issues are complex for the foundations due to their environment and radius of action.
However, we try to maintain contact with the adolescents and the tools we have given them during their time in a house of protection. Many of them take a new path, really they are aware that they were victims and can review certain things with consciousness and can continue on the best path for themselves.
So, there has been acceptable success with this issue despite there being much to work on in terms of reinsertion. More than anything, issues of inequality and poverty continue being risk factors for adolescents and families. Latin America is one of the most unequal places or continents in the world.
Since inequality is so high, this affects and creates exactly these crimes of exploitation. When we see other types of societies, the crime no longer occurs due to inequality but possibly due to other factors, but here inequality causes these crimes.
Latina Republic: How did you start working in this field?
Daniel Rueda: I started working after graduating from university. I am a lawyer and I was working at Ecuador’s National Court of Justice where I familiarized myself with some cases on human trafficking that came there. I became passionate about the issue because I saw some of the sentences and what happened with victims. I had a lot of empathy because when you revise the process, you see all the entire story, all the reports, all the trials.
When I studied them, I became more involved and then found an institution working on the issue and applied to be a lawyer for their institution. I arrived at that foundation and shortly after we started working there, they closed it. With the partners I mentioned earlier, we decided to create the Fundación Alas de Colibrí. There this issue was born and we all had worked together in the previous foundation. So, we said we could not stop the services, but had to continue now from our part.
Latina Republic: Do you have any success stories or any that stand out about reintegration?
Daniel Rueda: Yes, there are many. As I told you, we have attended to hundreds of women. There are many who have been very influential in my life. One girl, about fourteen years old, was sexually exploited and was a victim of human trafficking here in Ecuador. She had no family or her family did not recognize her. She did not know her family, though there were relatives in Colombia that we could never track down. It was pretty difficult and she was a super intelligent and sweet girl.
She has a great future and it was a really intense job with her. We could do various things until we finally turned her to a long-term institution, because we are an organization for temporary care. What we do is stabilize, work on the human trafficking issues and then what we do is family reintegration, but in some cases like this one, we refer them to a branch where they can continue until turning eighteen.
With her, we did an institutional referral and she continued her studies. We continued monitoring her and finding courses because we knew she was super smart. Recently, she graduated from high school and is now enrolling in college with all the desire and conditions to continue forward. Now she is a beautiful and empowered young woman. She did not have anyone in Ecuador, nor anyone in her life.
Now she’s doing so well, has made friends, entering college and continuing her path. It is so gratifying for us to see these types of stories. Another girl who was with us recently, fell into sexual exploitation in a red light district. When she was sixteen years old, she came to the foundation and we also worked with her.
She was with us until she was eighteen and then left to continue working in a small entrepreneurship. Afterwards she continued studying because she still had one or two years until graduation. She wants to be a police officer and is now completing officer training. So, these are success stories where you feel very touched and keep believing this work is possible, believing in life and in people.
We are going to continue working. The stories we have to hear and tell are very difficult, but we know there is hope. It is what moves and motivates us to continue working with the girls who need assistance, so we are very content to continue.
Latina Republic: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about the organization?
Daniel Rueda: This is all a summary of what I could tell you because the actions that each one of our employees do are actions that change lives. It is all thanks to our technical teams. When we began the foundation, we were four people. Now, forty people work in the institution and are all working in human rights issues, all with the focus and mission that we have. Everyone works on different projects. If it were not for the technical teams, possibly it would be very difficult to keep working on this issue.
We must always recognize the work done by these team members that work in our organization. Thanks to them and their great efforts they make, especially during this pandemic. We still must go out and work from home because the organization continues functioning all this time and we have not stopped. During this time, we have been in the houses of protection working with the adolescents. I only want to recognize the work done by the professionals who make up Fundación Alas de Colibrí.
Ciara Sotomayor | Wake Forest University
Now in her last year at Wake Forest University, Ciara is completing her studies in Politics & International Affairs, as well as Spanish. Her interest in international politics stems from her experiences living in different cultures as a military dependent and her family’s connection to Puerto Rico. While on campus, she involved herself in the surrounding community as a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a coeducational community service fraternity and as a staff writer for the student newspaper, The Old Gold & Black. In 2019, she received the Richter Scholarship to investigate the effects of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico and studied the Spanish language and politics in Salamanca, Spain. Always a lover of storytelling, she is excited to be a Latin American Correspondent to develop understanding of human rights in Latin America and participate in journalistic advocacy to highlight the efforts being made to protect them. After graduation, she hopes to continue supporting community efforts towards development by broadening the types of narratives told about Latin America in the rest of the world.