Here in the impoverished north of Argentina, sex traffickers search among the vulnerable for targets. Typically, they lure women with deceitful job offers and then traffic them to big cities, mining towns and agricultural regions, where they are forced into sex slavery.
For most women, in the past, it was the beginning of years of servitude in a grim underworld of prostitution. But these days more manage to escape, many with the help of the Fundación María de los Ángeles, a nongovernmental organization founded by Susana Trimarco, whose daughter was seized 12 years ago.
The daughter, María de los Ángeles Verón, then 23, left home for a medical appointment in April 2002. She never returned. Some witnesses said she was murdered and buried in a nearby province, most likely La Rioja, where demand for prostitutes is high among seasonal grape and olive pickers. But her body was never found.
Frustrated by an investigation at home that she said was thwarted by a web of corruption spun by judges, the police and the local mafia, Mrs. Trimarco took up the search for her daughter alone. When it was suggested six years ago that Ms. Verón was taken abroad, perhaps to northern Spain or the Canary Islands, Mrs. Trimarco traveled to Spain, but the police there could not find her daughter.
For her trouble, Mrs. Trimarco, 59, has had her house set on fire by thugs who threw flaming rags drenched in kerosene onto the rooftop, and she has twice escaped being run over, once as she took out the trash around midnight.
She still receives vicious anonymous phone calls and death threats, but she has never given up. “The desperation of a mother blinds you,” she said. “It makes you fearless.”
Her efforts have carved the issue of sex trafficking into the political agenda in Argentina and have earned her international recognition, but she is an unlikely national heroine.
A former municipal worker, Mrs. Trimarco used to find relief from the daily grind with simple pastimes, like taking her family to nearby tourist spots and nurturing her houseplants. But the abduction of her daughter, affectionately known as Marita, upended her life.
“I live a permanent battle,” she said with a flinty stare. “From when I awake to when I sleep, I live for this. I’m looking for my daughter alive.”
As she began her search, Mrs. Trimarco obtained the names of pimps and sex traffickers from police files. Then she gained entry to brothels across this city by disguising herself as a madam and offering to buy the women and girls they held captive, including some as young as 14, who could be traded for about $800.
Some of the women said they had seen Ms. Verón. One of them, who as a rape victim asked not to be identified, said she saw her drugged, with swollen eyes, in the home of a ringleader that doubled as a den for harboring recently abducted victims. The women provided Mrs. Trimarco with license plate numbers and other clues, but none of those panned out.
Mrs. Trimarco did rescue some women, but many pleaded not to be left to fend for themselves. “The police would hand them back to the criminals,” Mrs. Trimarco said. “They used to say: ‘Don’t leave me. Take me with you.’ ”
Over the years, Mrs. Trimarco, whose husband died in 2010, became a guardian to 129 former sex slaves, she said. She sheltered them in her home, where she also cared for Ms. Verón’s daughter, Micaela, who was 3 when her mother was taken. She encouraged the women to file police complaints, ferried them to medical appointments and reunited them with their families.
In 2007, she set up the Fundación María de los Ángeles in a leaky townhouse, but the demand for its services became overwhelming. At the end of last year, the organization moved into a new building, constructed with government funds. It has also opened centers in other major cities in Argentina.