One office stands out from all the others at the bus and train terminal in Santa Cruz. It’s the only one that doesn’t employ a person shouting the names of cities to which there are still available seats on the next bus: “Sucre, Sucre, Sucre!” “Beni, Beni, Beni!” “Quijarro, Quijarro, Quijarro!”
Even without screaming girls, the office of the Bolivian Transit Police attracts my attention. Its windows are plastered with WANTED-posters, or so I believe at first. “Let’s see what the typical crimes here are,” I think, approaching with curiosity. This might be a more interesting way to spend the time I have to wait for the Orient Express than having another portion of chicken and rice.
The first poster reads DESAPARECIDO. Missing. Well, that can happen. The next poster: DESAPARECIDO. The one next to that: DESAPARECIDO. And so on. Of the 60 posters only one calls for help with identifying a car thief. The other 59 concern missing persons.
I understand that in a large country like Bolivia, you can easily get lost and die in the desert or get eaten by a jaguar in the rainforest. But so many people? No, this is more than the normal rate of atrophy.
Even more shocking is the composition of victims. These are less the demented doters that abscond elsewhere from time to time, but mainly children and teenagers. I pencil some of the names and ages in my notebook: Yandira, 18. Estefany, 14. José Luis, 6. Milan Jailany, 2. Yamine, 14. Ayelen, 17. Maria Andrea, 17. Jhon Azariel, 5. Karla Andrea, 15. Ana Maria, 14. Misael Paco, 1 ½. Chico, who can also be called Tiko Tiko (this one is a missing dog). The brothers José Enrique and Mauricio Dennis, 10 and 13. Nayely, 12. José Maria, 9. Elio, 12. Carla, 14. Airon Daniel, 13. I guess that’s enough to give you an impression of the age group which is hit the hardest by inexplicable disappearances. By the way, the dog has three posters on that wall, each of the children only has one.
Although the posters are already faded and ripped, none of the pleas for help date from before September 2015. Many of them are from the still young year of 2016. (I took these photos and notes on 15 February 2016.) And these are only the people missing in Santa Cruz.
Upon leaving the terminal, I spot further missing person’s posters at the entrance. They are the brand-new cases. Ana Paola, 15, and Devora Natalia, 16.
When I raise this subject with people in town, they tell me anecdotes of human trafficking, prostitution, forced labor all the way to gruesome speculations about organ trafficking. Bolivia’s borders with Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay mostly run through the rainforest or sparsely populated areas that could only be policed with disproportionate effort. You hardly face any hurdles here, whether you are smuggling humans, drugs or pirated DVDs.
Humans often don’t even require smuggling because they travel across the border themselves. Many stories of forced labor and (forced) prostitution begin with promises of better-paid work in the factories or on the farms of neighboring countries. Once the Bolivian children are in Sao Paulo or Santiago, their “employers” take away their documents, don’t pay out the salary, lock them up in the basement and abuse them.
Too often activists against forced labor use the term “slavery”. I am rather cautious regarding that. For once, I think it trivializes real slavery. Second, even exploitative employment maintained by coercion is something different than trading humans like property. But the latter is exactly what happens on Bolivia’s borders, 128 years after Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. In La Quiaca in Argentina, Bolivian children are sold for around 350 $.
But this doesn’t explain the missing babies and infants. Maybe they pop up with some North American or European family who always wanted to adopt a cute child.