Ecuadorian justice takes a Japanese firm to court for modern slavery

The first trial for human trafficking and labor exploitation in the history of the country has put the Furukawa company and three senior executives in the dock

Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador
A man harvests abaca in Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador, on February 16, 2023.Ana Maria Buitron

It is historic. For the first time, Ecuador is taking legal action against a company for the crime of human trafficking for purposes of labor exploitation: Furukawa Plantaciones C.A., a Japanese firm that markets and exports abaca, a banana species used to make banknotes in half of the world. The judge in charge of the case, Susana Sotomayor, singled out Marcelo Almeida as the direct perpetrator and Hugo Chalen and Paúl Bolaños as co-perpetrators of said crime, as well as that of child and adolescent labor. The cases against Iván Segarra, former field administrator, and Adrián Herrera, manager since 2019 – the other two defendants – were dropped.

While both the district attorney’s office and the private prosecution appealed the latter decision, they applauded the judge’s decision to name Almeida, Chalen and Bolaños as perpetrators, something they have been working toward for almost four years. “We believe that bringing Furukawa to trial was quite fitting and coherent, given the more than one hundred pieces of evidence collected by the prosecutor’s office,” explained Alejandra Zambrano, one of the lawyers in the litigation team. “Above all, we think it’s fair for the victims, who have the right to demand responsibility, sanctions and reparation,” she added minutes after the hearing, which was held on Monday.

“This is not just any case. Not at all,” said Sotomayor, who stressed that the victims all shared “a vulnerable past and a lack of job opportunities.” This is the first time in the history of the Andean country that a company and three senior executives will sit in the dock for practices of modern slavery. The judge recognized the strength of the case, considering that eight ministries intervened before the case went to trial. Sotomayor reflected: “I ask myself: What was the involvement of the public institutions before the beginning of the criminal process? Are they not responsible for guaranteeing the right to integrity of Ecuadorians? Aren’t these institutions the ones that have to guarantee the health of citizens? Aren’t these state institutions the ones that have to provide guarantees to citizens? What happened? What happened to these institutions?”

What the judge pointed out is also being brought into question in another trial, in which it is being debated whether or not the State is responsible for these crimes. Patricia Carrión, a lawyer for the Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights, said that “they won half.” “The two [individuals] whose cases were dropped are also part of [the group of perpetrators] pointed out by the victims of the case. That’s why we’re going to appeal,” she added. However, the joy is evident: “The plaintiffs had never won anything. They always believed that they had no access to justice. It’s a very exciting moment.”

For Santiago*, 57, who still works for the company, this is great news. “What I’m hearing is that we won, right? I’m very pleased. My little heart is pounding with joy. I don’t know if my colleagues have heard the hearing, but I thank God and the team of lawyers. I send them a big hug”. And he added: “The judge understood what the company was doing to us. The evidence is in our favor.” Jenny* couldn’t hold back her tears: “We thought we wouldn’t have the strength. Hopefully the trial will be short.”

María Susana Rodríguez, a prosecutor who specializes in transnational and international organized crime, knew from the beginning of the investigation that this was a “very solid case.” Without a doubt, she said, Sotomayor’s decision is a good start. “It is the beginning of the mark that we, as the prosecutor’s office, have begun to make on this case. It sends a clear message in the fight against human trafficking. I trust justice,” she said.

The Japanese company had been in the spotlight since 2018, after a report from the ombudsman’s office, published in the first half of the following year, recounted a situation of modern slavery during the almost six decades of the company’s history. The agency mentioned “subhuman” housing conditions, child and adolescent labor and an absolute absence of labor rights, from its own census of 1,244 people. The ombudsman urged 10 government ministries to put an end to the abuses. In later reports, they confirmed the complaints. “It was shown that they lived in terrible conditions,” the current ombudsman, César Marcel Córdova Valverde, explained to EL PAÍS.

“I still work for the company because I have to eat,” said Santiago*. “We’re not lying. We have led a life of much exploitation. We will only have justice when they admit to what they did and comply with the reparation measures.” The private prosecution demands public apologies and non-repetition guarantees – which are measures taken to ensure that systemic human rights abuses do not recur – “in addition to, obviously, financial compensation to the victims, who are mostly people for whom it is practically impossible to rejoin the labor market,” explained lawyer Alejandro Morales, who represents the 106 plaintiffs. Although the process “is only just beginning,” there is relief among the plaintiffs and their litigants. “It’s a first step, but it’s the one that had to be taken,” Zambrano said.

*None of the names used in this story are real because the legal process is still ongoing.

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