ROSARIO, Argentina —  Experts from around the world gathered online Friday to talk about the scope of human trafficking in Latin America, and to share best practices to prevent modern-day slavery that currently affects some 45 million people from the United States to Thailand.

Ilva Myriam Hoyos Castañeda, a lawyer from Colombia, said there are “many pandemics,” just COVID-19, but society hasn’t responded to each in the same way.

“We have not been able to recognize these other pandemics, or we have not wanted to react to them as we did to the virus,” she said, citing human trafficking, a topic she said remains “distant, unknown and alien” for many people, but is actually close to everyone. It doesn’t discriminate based on color, sex or nationality, she said, it’s universal and affects the entire human family.

The main cause of trafficking is not traffickers but “the unscrupulous selfishness and hypocritical indifference of the world’s inhabitants, who enjoy the benefits and services of this chain of exploitation of human dignity,” Hoyos said.

According to the expert, selfishness is the “pandemic of all pandemics,” and laws declaring human trafficking a crime against humanity or pastoral guidelines released by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development aren’t enough to battle it, because there’s “a comfortable and silent complicity, masking not only our faces, but also our consciences.”

A paradigm shift as well as a personal conversion are necessary to put an end to the buying and selling of humans, Hoyos said.

Speaking about the role of Catholics, she said the Church isn’t an expert on human trafficking, nor a police force that can intervene when people are being treated as slaves. However, it is called to provide “a hopeful vision and to proclaim the kingdom of God,” and it’s legitimate for Catholics rise up and say “enough is enough,” to stop “hiding behind face masks and remaining blind to the wounded faces of the victims of slave traders.”

Her words came during a Zoom seminar organized by CEPROME, the center for child protection of Mexico’s Catholic University, together with the Vatican’s Safe Guarding Commission, the bishops’ conference of every Latin American country and several religious congregations that work in the fight against human trafficking.

Organizers said their hope was to answer the question posed by Pope Francis in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor?”

“Modern-day slavery” and “human trafficking” are terms often used to express an umbrella of criminal sub-industries, which range from children forced into prostitution to organ trafficking. The Church’s fight against these practices is led by women, a fact made evident not only in the number of women listening but also the selection of speakers.

Italian Comboni Missionary Sister Gabriella Bottani didn’t hesitate in saying that slavery and prostitution today “have a female face,” because the number of women and girls who’re victims is far higher than men.

Bottani said “synodality” is key to the fight against trafficking, because “models of inclusive cooperation” are necessary to bring together survivors, members of security forces, religious, politicians, industries and also everyday consumers who have the power to demand change.

Verónica Toller of Argentina’s Observatory of Vulnerability from Austral University gave some chilling numbers: 45 million victims of slavery today, with about half victims of sexual exploitation and the other working in slave-like conditions, including sewing shops for some of the continent’s largest clothing brands.

As an illegal industry, human trafficking today generates $150 billion in revenue and is the second most profitable after drug trafficking.

According to Toller, who’s a professor but also a journalist who’s covered many of these crimes for Argentina’s top newspapers, human trafficking is very difficult to prosecute because “you’re not going after one thief, or one murderer, you’re going after an entire network of people who’re protected by others.”

“The victims, a majority of whom are women and children, are coopted and transported to their final destination,” Toller said, before delving into the “initiation” process: “They’re raped, kept without food or water, they’re tortured, put in cages, cut with glasses, burned with cigarettes, and in their ‘baptism’ they’re gang-raped. I once spoke with a woman who, in her ‘baptism’ was raped by 40 men in one night.”

Three in 10 of those forced into prostitution, she said, are under-age girls.

Toller noted that COVID-19 has worsened the situation, making traffickers even greedier because the number of clients has grown. In Argentina alone, she said, there have been over 5,000 new cases of children exploited for online pornography to satisfy the growth in searches.

Among other things, she suggested penalizing the client of prostitution, because “without customers, there’s no slavery.”

“When you hear about human trafficking, it’s impossible to keep your arms closed,” said Eduardo Verástegui, a Mexican movie star and producer who recently filmed “Sound of Freedom” with Jim Caviezel, known for his role in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

The yet-to-be-released movie is based in the life of Timothy Balard, a former Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security and founder of Operation Underground Railroad, which rescues children victim of human trafficking worldwide.

“There’s not enough information for people to actually get involved,” Verástegui said. “Too many don’t realize how real the problem of modern-day slavery is.”

The actor met Balard several years ago, who told him that the saddest thing is not what happens to millions of children who are exploited, but the many who know and “do nothing about it.”

This conversation led the Mexican to want to do a movie portraying the reality of human trafficking, telling a compelling story that will hopefully inspire others into action.

“When we hear about human trafficking, we often think it’s ‘too far’ away, in Thailand or Cambodia,” he said. “We have to work so that everybody is interested in this issue, so that we can actually put an end to slavery. If we don’t do something now, sooner or later it will touch each one of us. We’re talking about millions of children who are four, five, six years of age, being sexually exploited.”

“What if it’s your son? What if it’s your niece?” Verástegui said.

Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras and a member of the council of cardinals who advice the pope, agreed: “We have to create conscience in Latin America on this issue. There’s an enormous number of people who say, ‘Let’s not talk about slavery, I don’t like the issue’, but seeing the scope of the problem, ignoring it is not an option.”

“It’s very comfortable to have labor done by slaves, with so many industries that appear to be ethical but aren’t,” he said. “But we can’t stay as we are. We have to denounce these realities and change them.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma