Belize, like all Central American countries, has been struggling to combat the lucrative business of human trafficking. International treaties have been signed, laws have been changed and policies adopted to strengthen the country’s anti-human trafficking strategy. Unfortunately, this has done little to slow down the illicit and inhumane trading of vulnerable people. This is why the case against Honduran national, Estella Gonzalez, was so important to human rights activists in Belize and this is why they were so frustrated when a Supreme Court Justice released her with a fine after she was convicted of forcing a 15-year-old immigrant to perform sexual services for money.
Naturalized Belizean Estella Gonzalez, 64, was convicted of the trafficking of a minor on February 10, 2016. She employed a 15-year-old undocumented female at her establishment on the George Price Highway, Temptation Bar. The minor told authorities that Gonzalez housed her at a residence in the Mile 8 community on the George Price Highway for the purpose of exploiting her as a prostitute. The conviction carries a sentence of eight years.
In court on Tuesday, February 23, Gonzalez’s attorney, Senior Counsel Ellis Arnold, called two of her doctors during mitigation. Doctor Fernando Cuellar and Javier Novelo, they told the court that they were treating Gonzalez for hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes which had led to early stages of kidney disease. Arnold submitted that the Belize Central Prison does not have the facilities to care for Gonzalez and it would be inhumane to send her to the institution. Justice Adolph Lucas said in his ruling that while he has to take into account the suffering of the Honduran girl, he also has to consider Gonzalez’s health condition. With that, Lucas imposed a non-custodial sentence. Gonzalez was fined $30,000 for the conviction. She was additionally ordered to pay $28,588 to the Human Services Department as restitution for taking care of the trafficking victim, $15,000 to the victim for suffering endured while at Temptation Island and $588 for loss in wages. The fine was to be paid immediately or Gonzalez would serve one year in prison. According to reports, the fine was paid within ten minutes of the order.
Gonzalez is now a free woman and this has caused Special Envoy Kim Simplis Barrow to publicly express her outrage. On the Special Envoy’s Facebook page she wrote, “This Human Trafficking conviction could have been a great victory for Belize’s justice system. However, the sentence handed to Ms. Estela Gonzalez, instead erodes the years of work that has gone into the fight against the modern day slavery that is human trafficking.” Mrs. Barrow rebuts the judge’s reason for imposing a non-custodial sentence: “The decision to only impose fines for such heinous actions is incredibly disappointing! The health concerns of Ms. Gonzalez should not outweigh the suffering that this child had to endure and the lifelong effects this experience will have. As it is, in too many instances, human trafficking victims remain in the shadows as a result of shame, fear and intimidation. The disappointment in this judgment is made even more acute by the fact that amendments were made to the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Act with the expressed purpose of removing fines as a part of the sentencing regime as these are seen as particularly inappropriate given the nature of the crime. These types of decisions have the potential to cause victims to become even more reluctant to come to the fore and cooperate with authorities to seek justice, which can in turn further embolden human traffickers.”
The Director of Public Prosecution has not signaled any intent to appeal the sentence.