Ex-Police Chief, 13 Others Arrested in Peru for Suspected Child Trafficking

LIMA, Peru — Police arrested 14 people in Peru and took a five-month-old baby into protective custody, dismantling a human trafficking ring suspected of selling children taken from vulnerable women.

The arrests were the result of an early morning raid on Tuesday that targeted a group “dedicated to the sale of minors and abortions,” the Public Ministry of Peru said. Hundreds of police officers raided 18 homes and businesses in the city of Arequipa as part of the operation.

Prosecutors had been investigating the organization since May and dubbed it the “Heartless Human Traffickers.”

One of the men arrested in the raid is the former head of the national police service, General Raúl Becerra Velarde, according to the public prosecutor. Mr. Becerra ran the police force from 2010 to 2011 before retiring.

Mr. Becerra’s girlfriend, Cintia Tello Preciado, was also arrested. Local news reports said she was suspected as the mastermind of a plot to buy and sell children.

A pediatrician and a gynecologist were also among those arrested. The baby who was taken into protective custody during the raids was found in unsanitary conditions and is currently under the care of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations.

Rosmery Mendoza Palomino, the prosecutor in charge of the case, said the group paid vulnerable pregnant women to give up their babies, who would later be sold for a profit. Officials also seized a large number of documents, nearly $30,000 in cash, two vehicles and cellphones from the group.

Investigators said it is still unclear how many children may have been trafficked, who the group intended to sell them to and why.

Local news reports said that at least one woman, a field worker who was eight months pregnant but felt she could not afford to raise the child, was visiting Arequipa to get prenatal care when someone involved with the trafficking group offered to pay her for the baby.

Abortion is illegal in Peru except in cases when the life of the mother is directly at risk. So that was not an option for this woman and she agreed to hand her child over in exchange for the equivalent of around $1,200, officials said.

Jorge Chavez Cotrina, the coordinating prosecutor for the state attorney’s office in Lima specializing in organized crime, said the group likely targeted poor women in desperate straits.

He said the traffickers “went to these places that exist in different cities where they perform abortions” and offered to pay women to have the babies and give them up, or approached destitute women who were in the last months of their pregnancy and offered to pay for their expenses in exchange for the child. Prosecutors suspect two other children had been recently sold.

He also said that the biological parents of the baby taken into custody have been detained for selling their daughter.

“Being in an economic crisis, these women are more easily convinced,” Mr. Cotrina said.

The arrests came a day before the American Embassy in Lima held an event highlighting a new program in which the United States and Peru would cooperate to provide protections for vulnerable women and children in an effort to prevent them from becoming victims of trafficking.

Elvia Barrios Alvarado, a Supreme Court judge, said the country’s judicial system is committed to holding human traffickers accountable and highlighted the disproportionate toll that trafficking takes on women.

“Its main victims are women,” she said. If victims do not find support, “if they collide with an adverse judicial decision, the lack of confidence in justice will favor the business of traffickers and impunity to perpetuate this type of crime.”

Peru has made strides to combat human trafficking, according to a 2018 State Department assessment, but must still improve its record.

“Complicity of some government officials undermined efforts to combat trafficking,” the report said, indicating that “the government maintained weak victim protection efforts.”

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