One woman's tragedy becomes Argentina's TV-based reality check

Art is imitating life on Argentina's airwaves, and for Susana Trimarco, it's doing so in a painful yet rewarding way. In 2002, her 23-year-old daughter, Marita, vanished from their hometown in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman, a suspected victim of a human trafficking and prostitution ring with connections throughout Latin America and Europe.

Now, the story of Trimarco's ongoing search for Marita has become the basis of one of this nation's most talked-about nighttime soap operas, "Vidas Robadas" (Stolen Lives).

The program premiered in March on Telefe, one of Argentina's largest networks, to a lukewarm response. But as the story line and characters evolved, word began to spread. Now, "Robadas" is water-cooler television for many Argentines, who are hooked on the usual telenovela themes of love and revenge while also learning about an issue that has remained in the dark here until recently.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide. In the past 18 months, an estimated 600 young women in Argentina alone have gone missing at the hands of traffickers.

"Losing a daughter brings incalculable suffering," Trimarco says. "But I am delighted that the show has been able to bring this topic to light because no one ever talked about human trafficking in Argentina before."

The show's plot revolves around widowed anthropologist Bautista Amaya (Facundo Arana) and Rosario Soler (Soledad Silveyra) — the mother of a kidnapped girl, based on Trimarco — who team to unravel an underground prostitution ring run by powerful Astor Montserrat (Jorge Marrale) and his henchman Nicolas Duarte (Juan Gil Navarro).

"As an actress, I feel an enormous responsibility," Silveyra says. "I need to convey to the audience the very real emotions of this woman."

"Robadas" is the latest in a series of recent Argentine telenovelas to dissect important social issues while also aiming to entertain. One of the most important was the 2006 Telefe hit "Montecristo," which examined crimes against humanity committed by Argentina's military during the "Dirty War" of the 1970s and '80s. That program helped reunite children of the "disappeared" with lost family members.

"Robadas" is making a similarly strong impact. According to Trimarco's foundation, 300 women and children have been rescued from trafficking networks because of their help, and more leads on missing people continue to pour in.

Last year, Trimarco received the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a ceremony in Washington. This year, Argentina passed its first national law against human trafficking, a law Trimarco lobbied hard to get passed. In May, "Robadas" was declared a show of "social interest" by the Buenos Aires city Legislature.

"Telenovelas express the emotions of people in difficult situations and humanize their stories much better than any newspaper article can," says Adriana Bruno, a television writer for Clarin, Argentina's largest newspaper. "That's why they are so important."

Trimarco continues to travel throughout Argentina educating people about human trafficking, but it's not an easy road. Her accusations of political and police complicity in her daughter's disappearance have led to death threats against her. Still, she remains committed to the cause and says that collaborating with the "Robadas" producers to tell her story has helped give her the strength to keep searching for Marita.

"I'm content, because my pain is now serving a purpose," she says.