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Argentine forces crack down on massive slavery ring

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 23 people have been arrested for alleged connections to a trafficking ring
  • Forces conduct raids in more than 70 locations in 10 provinces across Argentina
  • Officials say they rescued more than 200 Colombians working in subhuman conditions
  • In one province, raids target furniture-making workshops

(CNN) -- Argentine authorities raided sites across the country Wednesday as part of what they called a nationwide slavery ring crackdown.

Hundreds of agents swarmed more than 70 locations in 10 provinces, rescuing more than 200 Colombians who had been working in subhuman conditions, officials said.

Authorities detained 23 people accused of recruiting victims into the human-trafficking scheme that investigators say brought Colombians to Argentina and then forced them to work to pay off their travel debts.

"We are looking at a case of slave labor, but in the modern concept of the term," said Carlos Sanchez, Argentina's director general of social security.

"They are not in chains," he said, according to a government statement. But Sanchez said the workers were subjugated and manipulated psychologically to participate in the criminal organization and work in subhuman conditions.

In Cordoba province, the raids focused on furniture-making workshops in working-class neighborhoods, the state-run Telam news agency reported.

The investigation, which lasted more than two years, started when a victim spoke with an Argentine customs agent about the trafficking ring, officials said.

Authorities at Cordoba's international airport also followed leads when they observed the arrival of groups of young Colombians without luggage or money.

A year ago, dozens of Catholic bishops from throughout South America said human trafficking had seen "alarming growth" in the region.

Sixty bishops from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay called the practice "a shameful and outrageous reality" and pledged to do more to fight it.

"We warn of the existence of organized mafias," the bishops said, "that use smaller networks that are present in nearly all of our cities and towns."

Those accused of human trafficking in Argentina face possible prison sentences of between four and 14 years, if convicted, federal officials said Wednesday.

CNN's Jose Manuel Rodriguez contributed to this report from Buenos Aires.

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