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Stevens Guerrier takes fifteen steps towards his mother to melt into a hug.
She squeezes him all over his back, measuring the thinness of his offspring and feeling the scars on his arms and face.
-Where have you been?
Why did you take so long to come?
Nathalie scolded affectionately, choking on sobs.
"I don't know, I wanted to see you," the blushing 12-year-old repeats, without letting go of her hand.
They have just met again after more than three years without seeing each other and without knowing anything about each other.
On a Thursday in May 2017, Nathalie Pierre was selling in the binational market on the Belladère border, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, when she gave her little one to a Dominican man.
The promise of offering him a decent life in a foster home ended in a nightmare.
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“I took care of the cattle, they forced me to do a lot of jobs.
They didn't want to send me to school.
I was in misery.
They didn't want to buy me clothes and I slept in the kitchen.
I felt very mistreated, ”Stevens says with his eyes downcast.
He lived badly as a servant for a family in Santiago.
He learned to speak Spanish, but refuses to use it due to trauma.
Stevens imagined every night how to escape from that prison.
Every night he thought of "going back to his mother's lap", he explains, but if his owners had found out that he wanted to escape, they would have stopped him.
His situation alerted a neighbor who helped him flee on a motorcycle to the border.
The authorities found him at the same crossroads in the center of the country where he was abandoned and they took him to the Zanmi Timoun foundation, in charge of taking in child survivors of trafficking and reuniting them with their families.
It took them a couple of days to find Stevens's mother in a remote community, Capemte, a half-hour drive to the outskirts of Belladère.
Then the pair of volunteers and the boy walked for more than an hour along a path that passes withered banana plantations carved by oxen.
The concrete houses and bare rods give way to shacks made of wood and adobe.
They are forced to prostitute themselves, beg, and now we have detected that also to fight in clandestine combats
Junior Noisette, Zanmi Timoun worker
“I did my best to get my children to school, but I had a lot of problems.
I had nothing to feed them and I was resigned to give them up ”, Nathalie justifies.
Months before saying goodbye to Stevens, he had already given away his eldest son, of whom he has not yet heard from.
The 28-year-old housewife had to leave the street vendor to care for her husband, who had kidney disease and was unable to work in the harvest.
They eat the little that grows on their embankment.
The couple and their other four children live in a hovel of about 15 square meters of planks and a brass ceiling.
Day laborers, beggars ... and underground fighters
The extreme poverty that afflicts a quarter of the Haitian population pushes thousands of families to abandon their children.
A quarter of the four million minors in Haiti do not live with their biological parents and more than 50,000 cross a year - 150 daily - into the Dominican Republic, according to official estimates.
“There they are forced to do all kinds of jobs: prostitution, as shoeshine, in the countryside, begging in the streets and recently we have detected that they are being used to fight in street fighting with gambling in Dajabón (Dominican border city) and in areas of the coast, ”says Junior Noisette, a Zanmi Timoun worker.
They have received at least a dozen boys "with wounds to the face", who reported that they had been forced to fight for money and some detailed that the fights took place on the beach.
This new practice of child exploitation was confirmed by the Lumos Foundation and the Jano Siksé network.
Noisette walks the official pass and the illegal trails of Belladère, where she estimates that 50 to 100 infants cross daily.
In August, they intercepted a couple with six children between the ages of three and nine without any related relationship.
The biological families admitted to having paid the traffickers from 100 to 200 euros, under the promise of taking them to a good foster home.
The fatal border market
A crowd with huge lumps on their heads, wheelbarrows that push their way and motorized vehicles full of bananas and chairs crowd the Ouanaminthe border crossing in the north of the country every Monday and Thursday.
These are the days of the binational market.
At the gates of the Massacre river bridge, several Haitian agents (Polifront) brandish their whips and branches to intimidate the crowd or shake them on their calves.
In the bustling traffic, it is very difficult to identify smugglers or unaccompanied minors.
Despite this, the police found two abandoned brothers that morning of November 3, after their trafficker ran off when he ran into the patrol cars.
The six-year-old boy and the four-year-old girl are waiting at the offices of the Social Welfare Institute (IBESR), which refuses to grant a requested interview for a month.
The Dominican military charge from 500 to 2,000 pesos (7 to 30 euros) for letting child traffickers pass
Sylvestre Fils, director of the Trafficking Observatory
Some children wander here and there selling candy or shining shoes.
A group of teenagers in miniskirts and tops flirt with the agents to avoid making the endless line of half a kilometer.
A young man with a child also skips the line and goes through the gate after a slight nod to a Dominican soldier, dressed in a combat helmet and rifle.
No authority requests documentation from passers-by.
"There is no immigration control, therefore, no possibility or intention to combat child trafficking or any form of trafficking," says Sylvestre Fils, director of the Observatory for Migration and Cross-Border Trafficking, created a year ago in response to the negligence from both countries.
The observers blend into the swaying of the merchants.
They have detected the collection of bribes by the Dominican Armed Forces to turn a blind eye both in the crossing of goods and human beings.
"The military are not very demanding, they ask for 500, 1,000, 2,000 pesos (from seven to 30 euros).
It depends on the number of people the dealer carries, but there is no fixed amount, it is something very informal.
The trafficking network works permanently, so they (the smugglers) develop a relationship with the military ”, assures Fils.
Exploited for sex tourism
Through that murky border, one Monday, Rachel Saint-Jean entered.
He is 15 years old.
When she was a child, her parents abandoned her and she grew up on the streets of Cap Haitien (north), where she subsisted with some friends.
Her boyfriend convinced her to send her to study in the neighboring country, because in Haiti she could no longer afford to pay for secondary school.
He organized the trip to meet the trafficker in Dajabón, a city bordering Ouanaminthe.
“The gentleman [trafficker] took me to his house, but it was full of people.
So they moved me to a woman's house with other girls.
She just wanted to choose men for me to have a love story and go to their homes, ”says the teenager, who still wears a chain, a gift from the boyfriend who, apparently, sold it to a sexual exploitation network.
"Were the men who chose you white?"
Rachel came to Santiago and from there to some point on the north coast, a tourist area, so those “white” clients were probably foreigners.
In the main avenues of the busiest destinations, it is common to find Haitian women, some minors, offering their services for less than 10 euros.
“We went [with the drug dealer] to a party together and I got very drunk.
I don't know how, I don't remember what happened.
When I got up ... [he pauses for a long time] I saw that he had served himself, ”Rachel literally says to refer to sexual abuse.
After being kidnapped for four months, she managed to escape, or she was released because of her fierce resistance to being intimate with strangers: “I didn't agree, I just wanted to go to school.
The man told me that he would leave me in the street if I did not accept ”.
No ability to combat trafficking
After returning to the Ouanaminthe border, the IBESR transferred Rachel to the shelter of the San Juan Evangelista congregation, which each year welcomes half a thousand child survivors of trafficking.
Its director, the Colombian Alexandra Bonilla, landed in the confines of Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. A few days after the catastrophe, the arrest of a dozen American Baptists who were trying to take 33 infants from Port-au-Prince set off alarms. .
The then prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, asserted that child trafficking was "one of the biggest problems" and acknowledged the existence of "trafficking of organs for children."
Sister Bonilla built a spacious transitional center in this decade, proof that inhuman smuggling persists.
“Since I have been here, I have not seen that child trafficking has decreased.
It remains the same or has even increased.
(...) The Government does not have the resources to tackle this problem and its causes ”, laments the nun.
We will spearhead adoptions to avoid excesses such as pedophilia and organ trafficking
Arielle Villedrouin, Director of the IBESR
In 2016, Haiti was the eighth country in the world with the highest rate of modern slavery, mostly due to massive human trafficking.
In the last five years, some steps have been taken to prosecute crime and train border officials, as assessed by the US State Department in its latest annual report.
However, it underlines that "the Government did not allocate sufficient funds and did not implement procedures for the identification of victims."
In practice, part of the IBESR officials have been on strike for a long time, while the creation of the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons (CNLTP) remained at that, in the name, completely dysfunctional without a budget or offices.
Orphanages, the first link in child trafficking
Institutional neglect has favored the consolidation of a vast network of orphanages that operate as recruiters of infants.
Only 50 of the 750 of these centers have a license to operate, according to official data.
80% of the more than 32,000 internees are not orphans.
For Bonilla, "most of them are a business and they have the children to attract donations for the benefit of the owners."
After the 2010 earthquake, the number of orphanages doubled and, although the Government has closed 150, they continue to open at a higher rate, motivated by the enormous profit they generate.
Only a third of these nurseries in Haiti receive about 60 million euros annually in donations, reveals a report by the Lumos Foundation.
In contrast, the IBESR, the national body for the protection of children, has a budget of less than a million.
The Sourire d'Amour center is a pigsty.
At the entrance are several children from three to six years old without pants, covered in dust, with nothing to do or play.
The bunk mats are filthy and many cracked.
Not to mention a sheet.
The ramshackle closet doors reveal a few pieces of clothing, insufficient insurance for the 15 orphans.
The dumpy kitchen has only one charcoal grill and its shelves are empty, as is a cage for storing food.
The employees claim that the pantry is locked in a room, but they refuse to show it.
Its owner, Inesse Joseph, pastor of a church with the same name of the orphanage, was involved in a scandal in 2007, when she took from their families 47 children from rural communities in the extreme west of the country, with the expectation that they would be adopted by foreign.
“Too many people get rich from the poor!
We find them in a terrible state!
We must stop selling children! ”Shouted a disgruntled representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), moments after the rescue of the children, aged two to seven years, who had to be taken to hospital due to their deteriorating state of health. Health.
The orphanage continues to operate without accreditation outside Pétion-Ville, the least unfortunate neighborhood in Port-au-Prince.
In that same district, in February of last year, 15 boys and girls died in the fire of an orphanage, also irregular, run by a group of American members of the Church of Biblical Understanding, who deny us entry to another of their centers.
The fire was produced by some of the candles that were used to light themselves, due to the lack of electricity.
The facilities did not meet basic standards.
"They were really very neglected (...) All we see are children living like animals," said the judge in the case about a panorama that, according to the images, closely resembles the Sourire d'Amour.
In addition, many of the internees "suffer violence" and in some cases "sexual abuse and avoidable deaths," according to the Lumos study, which concludes that the orphanages act as traffickers.
In order to restrict cross-border traffic by these centers, the Haitian administration tightened the requirements for the processing of adoptions.
"We will lead the (adoption) processes, which avoids some excesses, because there has been talk of pedophilia and organ trafficking," said the director of the IBESR, Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin at the beginning of last year.
Animals, drugs and weapons are smuggled through the 370-kilometer porous border that divides Hispaniola.
Alexis Alphonse walks daily for more than an hour through a meadow in Ferrier, on the outskirts of Ouanaminthe, to sit all morning under a willow tree near the stream that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic.
Only a yellow stone indicates that it is a border.
Some passersby roll up their pants to wade through the stream without getting wet.
Alexis writes them down with a line on a clipboard, witness to two decades of irregular crossings registered for the Janó Siksé Border Network, displayed in dozens of points on both margins.
Traffickers are the third richest group in the country
Alexis Alphonse, Jano Siksé Border Network coordinator
“Small traffickers pass through here, with children, without concern.
When I stop them, they even identify as traffickers.
They do not know that they are committing a crime, that there is a law that can put them in jail ”, he exclaims.
Smugglers are sometimes relatives of the victim or acquaintances in the community, where they are often seen as saviors for, theoretically, bringing their children out of hardship.
It is considered any other job, although "traffickers make up the third richest group in the country," according to Alphonse.
Haiti took until 2014 to pass a law against human trafficking, which provides penalties of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of 14,000 euros.
However, the Border Patrol (Polifront) barely detained 51 suspected individuals in 31 trafficking cases from April 2019 to the same month last year, according to the Washington report.
No file reached a conviction.
Haitian justice has only sentenced six cases in 2019 and one in 2017.
The persecution of child trafficking is not improving in the other half of the island either.
The Dominican Prosecutor's Office increased investigations compared to previous years, but considerably reduced sentences.
He only convicted five defendants.
The limited prosecution is largely due to the complicity of the authorities in trafficking networks, from prosecutors to police officers, as emphasized by the US State Department, which lowered the rating of the Dominican Republic to the level of Haiti.
Servitude, the widespread form of child slavery
The colorful school outfits, which happily flood the dusty streets in the afternoons, disguise misfortune for one in 15 children.
Around 407,000 boys and especially girls work as domestic servants.
Some 286,000 are less than 15 years old.
The “child servants” are known as
(stay with) and usually come from poor families in rural areas, sold or given to households with greater purchasing power.
Most of them do not receive retribution and endure inhuman conditions and mistreatment, as denounced by Unicef, which dismisses this practice as a form of modern slavery, socially tolerated in Haiti.
It was another of the alternatives that Nathalie considered in the face of the impossibility of taking care of Stevens.
“I thought of giving it to a neighbor who could support it, but here we are all very poor.
Besides, the same difficulties would have happened here, it is always believed that with the Spaniards [as Dominicans are often called] they will have a better life ”.
Nothing is further from reality.
Haiti registers some 59,000 people living as slaves and the Dominican Republic, 42,000;
both among the three Latin American countries with the highest slavery rate, only behind Venezuela, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, which estimates the Haitian population at risk of slavery at 70%.
The first Latin American country to become independent, thanks to the only successful slave revolt in human history, is still suffering the ravages of a multimillion-dollar fine imposed by France for having lost its pearl of the Caribbean, added to the prolonged diplomatic and commercial blockade of the rest applied by the rest of the nations as a lesson.
Haiti never recovered from colonial plunder and the high price for its freedom.
"What other choice did I have?" Nathalie often wonders.
What other option did she have if she wanted to feed Stevens and her four other children in a country where half of the children suffer from malnutrition?
What other option did you have for your son to continue studying, if only two out of ten adolescents can attend secondary school?
In the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere salvation is by risking your life at random.
The abyss in Haiti is 15 steps away, the ones it took Nathalie to lose sight of Stevens three years ago.
“When he left, tears fell from my eyes.
I immediately regretted it, but was paralyzed.
When I reacted again, it was late, he had disappeared into the crowd.
I thought I would never see him again ”.
You can't stop hugging your little one to believe it.
15 steps between miracle and hell.
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