By Christine Murray
TIJUANA, Mexico, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - State human trafficking investigations in Mexico rose by a third last year, but academics and activists said that many parts of the country appeared to be struggling to tackle the crime.
State authorities launched 515 trafficking cases last year - up from 385 in 2018 - according to new government data.
The numbers could reflect a rise in trafficking, but also a greater understanding and recognition of an issue that is believed to be vastly underreported to police, experts said.
More than half of the cases were opened in just three of the nation's 32 states: Mexico City, Chihuahua and the state of Mexico - raising concerns about the capacity and willingness of law enforcement to tackle human trafficking across the country.
David Ramirez, a security expert at think tank Mexico Evalua, said practices between state prosecutors varied hugely and many lacked the knowledge to investigate cases of the crime.
"That there are so few in important states or cities where ... there is evidence of trafficking ... is definitely not a good indicator," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fourteen states opened fewer than five trafficking cases last year, including Veracruz and Jalisco, which each have populations of more than 8 million people. Both states are considered to be potential human trafficking hotspots.
Mexico is an origin, transit and destination country for trafficking victims, from young men forced to work for criminal groups to women coerced into selling sex in the United States.
The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has said there could be between 50,000 and 500,000 victims, but academics say the real number is hard to pin down with concrete data lacking.
State prosecutors identified 644 victims last year - compared with 572 in 2018 - according to the government data.
Federal investigation statistics for 2019 have not yet been published, but most cases are handled by state authorities.
Under Mexico's 2012 anti-trafficking law, each state must have its own special prosecutor's office dedicated to investigating the crime.
Mario Luis Fuentes, an academic from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said underfunded prosecutors could be recategorizing crimes that are tough to investigate.
"We know that a lot of times, if the crime can be reported as a homicide, it's a lot easier to document than human trafficking," he said.
Mitzi Cuadra, head of prevention at anti-trafficking charity and shelter Anthus, said that states were poor at analyzing the information provided by the few victims they had interviewed.
"We surround ourselves with numbers and stop seeing the people," she said. "If you don't have a good analysis ... how are you going to make a prevention strategy?"
Mexico's government is drawing up a new anti-trafficking strategy and has also said it wants to tighten the 2012 law to bring it into line with international standards, according to a draft document obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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