A Brazilian Film Sheds Light on the Causes and Consequences Human Trafficking
7 Prisoners shows how a weak state and an dog eat dog society create the conditions for human trafficking
Four young men from the Brazilian countryside are recruited to work in a junkyard in the mega-city of Sao Paulo. The young men come from small-scale farmers and have never been outside their immediate environs. They leave their families with the intention to temporarily work in the city and send money home. As they enter the city, their excitement at their new opportunity to explore the world and help their families is palpable.
Upon arrival at the junkyard, the owner asks for their work identity cards and they naively comply. It is shortly after this that the four young men realize they are now essentially slaves of this junkyard owner and his henchman. While difficult to watch given the brutality, the Netflix movie 7 Prisoners sheds light on the complicated topic of human trafficking in Latin America and how weak and corrupt state structures give rise to human trafficking and create an increasingly individual, dog eat dog culture.
Once the four men realize they are essentially slaves, one attempts to run away the front door of the junk yard as it opens for a delivery truck. A few hours later, the police bring him back. It is clear he has gone to the police for help and they are on the payroll of the junkyard owner.
In most American nations in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the state gave legal sanction to slavery and used their police and military force for the benefit of slave owners. Similarly, this scene highlights the ugly reality that in many instances in Latin America, the state is still an active participant in human trafficking as it allows the system to function and hunts down runaways.
The depth of the state’s complicity is highlighted when the junkyard owner threatens to kill or maim the prisoners’ families if they try to leave again. Later in the movie, when another prisoner attempts to escape but fails, the junkyard owner follows through with his threat and sends someone to severely injure the mother of the man who attempts to escape. Even hundreds of kilometers away from his perch in Sao Paulo, the junkyard owner does not fear the state and has likely co-opted parts of it as well. The state ultimately cannot be counted on to end human trafficking. Indeed, according to Insightcrime.org most countries in Latin America are far from effectively combating human trafficking.
In contrast to the slavery of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, however, the state is officially opposed to slavery and human trafficking. Indeed, at one point police come unannounced to the junkyard to ensure that the workers are being treated in accordance with labor laws. One of the prisoners assists the junkyard owner in satisfactorily answering the police’s questions. One is left wondering why this prisoner gave up the golden opportunity to denounce the owner to seemingly sympathetic police.
The police who came to inspect the junkyard were from a different department than the police who brought back the escaped prisoner (there are five different types of police in Brazil). The state in Brazil — as in Mexico — is layered and fragmented. Just because one group of police may help you doesn’t mean another will. This reality is driven home when we discover that the junkyard owner is friends with a local politician. The chances of escaping the tentacles of a corrupt state are small.
Given the corrupt state, the only way the prisoners can save themselves and their families — who would be hurt or killed if they escaped — is to work within the rotten system to advance personally. The junkyard owner gives one prisoner increasingly more responsibility while also sending large sums of money to his family. This prisoner is at first angry he and his fellow prisoners are enslaved by the junkyard owner but, after realizing that escape was hopeless, ultimately becomes the henchman for the owner and oppresses the other prisoners. The message is clear: if you are poor in a country with a weak and predatory state, look out for yourself and your family even if it means hurting others along the way. Those you hurt along the way -- like the other prisoners -- will likely be hurt anyways so you might as well save you and your family.
The film also shows the international nature of human trafficking in Brazil. Midway through the film, the junkyard owner buys three new workers -- one Haitian, one Venezuelan and one Bolivian. Migrants from these countries are common throughout Latin America and often enter Brazil as political or economic refugees. Criminal networks exploit their vulnerability and it is common they end up as victims of human trafficking.
The fact the four men were tricked into the situation -- rather than kidnapped and forced from their homes into slavery, as was the case in 17th and 18th century Africa -- is a common feature of modern human trafficking in Brazil. Moreover, human trafficking is nowhere near as large-scale nor visible as 17th and 18th century slavery. The relatively smaller scale and less visible nature, however, lead to a lack of awareness about the problem. Although difficult to watch (I had to watch in two settings because it was so disturbing), 7 Prisoners is a vital education about human trafficking and the contexts that perpetuate it.