50.50: Investigation

Predators target Uruguay’s children in care… and the state looks away

Campaigners say some minors groomed by alleged sex traffickers disappear or die but the system is unmoved

Angelina de los Santos 2023
Angelina de los Santos
27 July 2023, 5.38am

The ditch where Rocío Duche was found dead in 2018


Rebelarte/openDemocracy (Composition by James Battershill)

One 14-year-old was found dead in a ditch with injuries to her head, back and neck. Another was found drowned. A third died of complications after an abortion.

Not only were the three Uruguayan teenagers the same age; they had something else in common, too. According to child welfare and advocacy officials, they were among at least 20 children and teenagers who had been sexually exploited or trafficked around Treinta y Tres province while in state care.

Prosecutors are investigating the three deaths in Treinta y Tres, 290 kilometres north-east of the capital Montevideo, but the circumstances surrounding their deaths remain unknown.

Sexual exploitation of children has been big news in Uruguay in recent months. As of July, ten alleged victims have come forward and filed reports stating that they were abused as minors by Gustavo Penadés, a top congressman from president Luis Lacalle Pou's party. Penadés has denied wrongdoing and claimed the accusations are part of a plot against him.

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But wide-scale allegations about sexual offences being carried out against children in the care of Uruguay’s state child welfare agency Inau date back to 2021 – when Inau itself and the advocacy and support group Gurises Unidos (United Children) filed a joint report with the prosecutor in Treinta y Tres city.

The report, based on research over a year by social workers and interviews with affected children, identified 30 people as suspects or accomplices in the exploitation and trafficking ring. They included police officers “linked to the network and/or facilitating its operation, receiving money to remain silent or divert information”. Some police agents “extort and manipulate teenagers, asking them for sexual services or images of their naked bodies in exchange for goods, drugs or even their silence,” the report added.

Treinta y Tres’s police chief Richard Lima, who has been in post since 2022, denied the allegations in the report.

“I must emphatically state that many rumours, such as the involvement of police officers in the Duche case, have no records, not even a mention from any source in the case file,” he told openDemocracy.

But the cases of sexual exploitation and trafficking in the report reflect a pattern revealed by a year-long openDemocracy investigation published today. We found Uruguayan law enforcement and judicial authorities frequently ignore the peril and plight of many adolescents and women, especially those at-risk.

One thing sexual predators know is where the most vulnerable children and adolescents are.

Luis Purtscher, president of childe welfare agency Conapees

In the Treinta y Tres region, state negligence is undeniable when it comes to minors in Inau’s care. Instead of being kept safe, they are being groomed by alleged sexual exploiters and traffickers.

“One thing sexual predators know is where the most vulnerable children and adolescents are,” said Luis Purtscher, president of Uruguay’s National Committee for the Eradication of Commercial and Non-Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents (Conapees).

Inau, which governs public policy on children and adolescents, still had no programme in the Treinta y Tres region to tackle sexual violence against children and adolescents in its care as of June, although such programmes do exist in other provinces. Inau did not respond to openDemocracy’s inquiries.

Commercial sexual violence is deeply rooted in Uruguay, with traumatic consequences for children, adolescents and women. In its investigation, openDemocracy delved into one of the most alarming outcomes of this entrenched issue: the disappearance of adolescent girls and young women, particularly potential victims of sex trafficking.

Official figures show the nation had no missing women who were victims of sex trafficking between 2020 and 2022, according to police superintendent Juan Rodríguez.

Rodríguez led the unit within Uruguay’s interior ministry responsible for fighting organised crime, as well as a sub-department dealing with absent persons, between 2020 and March 2023. But openDemocracy’s reporting casts serious doubt on the official data.

Sexual exploitation of children is normalised and “everywhere” in Uruguay, warns Andrea Tuana, director of the advocacy and outreach group El Paso, which leads the outsourced public assistance for victims of trafficking in the country since 2011.

Clouded in uncertainty

“Girl fallen in a ditch” was the alert sent to police in Treinta y Tres on 7 July 2018, about the body of 14-year-old Rocío Duche.

Rocío had been found dead on the outskirts of the city with injuries to her head, back and neck.

More than a year later, on 25 September 2019, another 14-year-old, Ángel Acosta, was found drowned in a quarry in Treinta y Tres. Witnesses had seen him arriving at the place on horseback, accompanied by a man.

Then on 14 December 2020, Milagros Piedra, also 14, died from complications after an abortion at the Treinta y Tres public hospital. The prosecutor’s office is still investigating possible malpractice or negligence. Prior to her death, Milagros had posted the names of suspects in Rocío’s murder on her Facebook page.

Rocío had been living in a state-run children’s home and occasionally visiting her mother’s house. Ángel and Milagros were also being monitored by Inau. The precise details of these three teenagers’ sexual exploitation and trafficking, as well as the other 17 identified as victims, are clouded in uncertainty. Despite the 2021 report filed to the prosecutor by Inau and Gurises Unidos, no one has been held accountable for any of these crimes.

In the Treinta y Tres region, as of June, 1,439 children and adolescents were under Inau’s care.

The latest Conapees report, published in 2022, estimates that 30% of victims of sexual exploitation in Uruguay were minors under state protection. But Conapees head Luis Purtscher says even this doesn’t capture the full extent of the problem.

Child welfare workers believe one reason the number is so high is the fact teenagers are frequently able to sneak out of Inau-run care homes and centres.

It takes a long time to get the woman to identify that she did not make a bad decision, but that someone chose her and said: ‘I want this one to produce money for me'

Sandra Perroni, coordinator of Uruguay’s trafficking victims’ service

Purtscher, Tuana and other child welfare workers explain that this sometimes develops into a more troubling pattern, where these children may be taken to other areas of the city to be groomed or sexually exploited during their intermittent disappearances. During those periods of absence from Inau care homes and centres, Tuana told openDemocracy, “nothing is known about them”.

When they return, the youth do not tell care workers what happened to them. For Sandra Perroni, who coordinates Uruguay’s trafficking victims’ service for El Paso, this is mainly because they do not recognise themselves as victims, which makes it difficult for them to seek help and find a way out.

"Especially in adolescents… it takes us a long time to get the woman to identify that she did not make a bad decision, but that someone chose her and said: ‘I want this one to produce money for me,’" Perroni explained to openDemocracy.

According to Rodríguez, who led the units fighting organised crime and investigating ‘absent persons’ until March 2023, some 63% of children reported missing to the interior ministry between 2020 and 2022 were minors under state protection – and 57% of these were female.

The interior ministry has not disclosed how many of the missing children and adolescents in their registry were duplicate entries (“repeaters”, or people who go missing more than once), nor how many had subsequently been located. But Rodríguez did say that reports of missing under-18s had been on the rise over the last three years and now account for more than half (56%) of all the 14,207 reported missing persons over the period 2020-2022.

Lured using deception, drugs or romance

Traffickers lured the kids directly from Inau homes or schools using deception, drugs or romantic relationships, according to the 2021 report that blew the lid on the scandal.

Then they threatened them, along with any adults – for example, teachers or advocacy workers – who were known to have offered the children help. “I’m feeling awful,” said one of the girls interviewed for the report. “I don’t want to be any more in Treinta y Tres – you have to get me out of here.”

Sex work is legal in Uruguay, but pimping and trafficking are crimes. Any sexual commerce with minors under the age of 18 is also criminalised as exploitation, without exception.

Uruguay’s largest sexual exploitation case, Operation Ocean, became public in May 2020. It involved 20 underage female victims (13 to 17 years old) and 33 alleged perpetrators, all men. Nine have been convicted, 13 have been acquitted and 11 are still on trial, many of them professionals.

The investigation was prompted by the death of an 18-year-old woman, who was found in a stream near Montevideo in March 2020. She had reported sexual abuse to her caregivers before disappearing.

But Operation Ocean only scratched the surface of child sexual exploitation in Uruguay. Local rights groups point out that most cases never get reported, while many survivors never receive assistance.

In the years since the three 14-year-olds lost their lives in Treinta y Tres, their deaths have remained unsolved.

“The investigations have been a mess,” said Marcela Falco, a lawyer for Rocío’s and Ángel's families.

Assistant prosecutor Andrea Leticia Techera Lampes told openDemocracy the prosecutor’s office in Treinta y Tres was “exhausting all investigative steps and is committed to the investigation”. She and the head of the prosecutor's office in Treinta y Tres, Alicia Abreu, refused to provide details, saying the case file was confidential.

But Falco believes the lack of progress is due to corruption. “Things are not moving forward because, if we move one piece, others that may be linked to the police start to fall.”

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