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'They kill you, they kidnap you, they rape you': Trafficking victims speak of the dangers they face

“No woman should go through what I went through, no girl or adolescent,” a teen who was able to escape her situation said, speaking from a shelter in Mexico.
A group of women who have been human trafficking victims taking a class at Anthus, a non-profit that provides help for them in Puebla, Mexico.
A group of women who have been human trafficking victims taking a class at Anthus, a non-profit that provides help for them in Puebla, Mexico.Mitzi Cuadra

The young woman, 15, left Tegucigalpa, Honduras in early March to come to the U.S. Her aunt, who lives in Florida, had paid a "coyote" $4,000 to cross her into U.S. territory.

But after journeying several weeks, the smuggler left her lying on a street in the Mexican state of Puebla.

There, what she thought was an offer from a man to work at a restaurant as a waitress turned out to be a ruse from a human trafficking network. “They put me as a sex worker. There were several people who controlled me a lot, the clients even hit me. It was horrible," she said of her ordeal, which lasted several weeks. She managed to run away one day she was being taken to a hotel room.

Her story and that of other victims who spoke to Noticias Telemundo — their names are being withheld for fear of reprisals —illustrate the experiences of the approximately 50,000 people that are trafficked every year across 148 countries, according to the United Nations latest biannual report.

More than 60% of human trafficking victims in the last 15 years have been women and girls, and most have been trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In addition, "it's estimated that at least 25% of the cases are migrants. It is very high, and there are victims who are not being detected,” said Mario Cordero Véjar, head of UNODC's Program on Crime and Drugs.

In 2021, A21, an independent anti-trafficking organization, stated that Mexico is the country with the third-highest rate of trafficking against children, only surpassed by Thailand and Cambodia. 

According to official data, the Mexican government identified 744 trafficking victims in 2021, compared to 673 in 2020 and 658 in 2019, but experts point out that official numbers don’t reflect the reality, since the vast majority of cases aren’t reported.

Speaking of what happened to her from a shelter run by Anthus, a nonprofit in Puebla that combats sex trafficking, the young woman said of her migration from Honduras: “It’s very risky and dangerous because you don’t know if you’re going to arrive alive or without a leg or an arm. Sometimes they kill you, kidnap you, rape you. There’s everything on that road.”

“No woman should go through what I went through, no girl or adolescent,” she said sobbing, saying she can’t sleep without reliving what happened to her.

In the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report published last week, the U.S. State Department said that the Mexican government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, although it recognized it's implementing important measures to reach that goal. 

Among other things, the State Department report states that, in 2021, the prosecution and sentencing of traffickers in Mexico didn't increase.

Non-governmental organizations reported that authorities at all levels lacked the necessary knowledge of trafficking laws and failed to effectively identify and refer potential victims, contributing to the low numbers officially recorded.

Various investigations indicate that the groups most likely to be victims of trafficking schemes in Mexico are Indigenous people, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, informal sector workers, youth from gang-controlled territories, and asylum seekers and migrant people.

In Mexico, anti-trafficking groups worry that a recent tax reform under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador limits the donations that individuals can give to civil society organizations, which they say puts the survival of more than 5,000 civil projects at risk.  

“On the state issue we have not received support, and there is a general law that requires that the government, if it does not have shelters, must support civil society that does have them,” said Mariana Wenzel, Anthus' director and co-founder.

“Unfortunately, the issue is not on the public agenda of this government. We should have the national plan to prevent, punish and eradicate human trafficking, which is from 2019, but we do not have it," said Teresa Ulloa, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW-LAC). 

Grappling with historic migration

In recent years, Mexico has experienced a record migratory flow toward the United States, with U.S. authorities detecting more than 1.7 million undocumented immigrants on the border with Mexico in fiscal year 2021. In addition, more than 58,000 people requested refuge in Mexico during the first half of 2022, a situation that is unprecedented in the country.

A South American woman who was forced into prostitution for four years in Mexico City told Noticias Telemundo she was recruited in her native country with a false job offer, which she accepted because her mother was very ill.

But when she arrived in Mexico, she found herself immersed in a nightmare of sexual exploitation that left her with multiple physical and psychological consequences. Every day she had to produce the largest number of "tickets," a euphemism used by traffickers to refer to the act of having sex and for which they charged 200 pesos per client — under $10.

“On several occasions I got sick because I don’t smoke cigarettes and everyone smoked. Once my left lung was blocked. You're a foreigner and alone, and you suffer mistreatment and discrimination," said the woman, who has sought legal help from CATW-LAC.

Mexican authorities recently created a working group dedicated to human trafficking and smuggling.

“We are not only interested in getting into the diagnoses, but also in improving the registry and at some point having some care protocol," said Miguel Aguilar, director of the Center for Migratory Studies, part of Mexico's Interior Ministry, noting that migrant trafficking victims could be exploited again.

Aguilar said a goal is to encourage the reporting of trafficking crimes. "We work a lot with this part of self-perception, because people do not consider themselves victims, even if they are,” referring to the low numbers of official trafficking complaints among migrants.

Various organizations state that cartels such as Jalisco Nueva Generación, Sinaloa and Northeast operate in the southeast of Mexico, where there is a large Indigenous population.

The groups take advantage of ancestral uses and customs to take young Indigenous women, through sums of money or duress. “That happens with girls from 8 to 17 years old," said Ulloa, explaining they are then taken to the northern border and sexually exploited.

Not just sex trafficking

The State Department report also warned of labor exploitation, stating that the Mexican government did not allocate enough funds or staff to the Ministry of Labor to enforce labor laws.

Inspectors in the country have a limited mandate to monitor working conditions in informal businesses and farms, which employ more than half of the Mexican workforce.

Groups say labor exploitation and trafficking impacts many Indigenous people who are recruited from the south of Mexico, especially in states such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, with a promise of attractive jobs. They're then taken north to do agricultural work.

“They are people who don’t speak Spanish, or speak very little, and they don’t have documents, but they live in extreme poverty and their only chance is to work in a field for more than 14 hours," said Cordero, from UNODC.

On July 30, which marked International Day against Trafficking, the UN launched a campaign with videos to identify and call attention to the issue. Since many victims are transported by plane, an alliance was created to include brochures on flights so that passengers have the necessary information to identify and denounce such practices.

The UN advises various organizations to detect and prevent cases of labor trafficking. Women in Defense of Women is a group in San Quintín, in Baja California, an important agricultural center near the U.S. border.

Margarita Cruz, director of that organization, said many people migrate from Mexican states such as Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca in the hope of working in agricultural fields harvesting berries managed by international companies that, on occasion, give people paperwork to apply for an H2A visa and work in the U.S.

“They work more than 12 or 14 hours in the hope that they will get a visa, and they don’t complain," Cruz said. "But many times there are big consequences, because they get sick and they don’t have benefits...After they get sick, they're not hired anymore."

Project Polaris, an American organization that prevents and combats human trafficking, runs a free national hotline. Between 2018 and 2020, they received more than 15,000 calls from people reporting that they were victims of labor trafficking. Most were men and came from Mexico.

The issue of work is a challenge for survivors of trafficking who, on many occasions, lose several years of their lives in exploitation.

“They must be reinserted into the labor market, beyond social programs ... The issue is that they be free and independent,” said Mitzi Cuadra, director of prevention at Anthus.

A Mexican woman, 33, is trying to rebuild her life at the Anthus shelter in Puebla. After living with her pimp for eight years and having his children, she gathered the courage to report what took place. She's proud she recently finished primary school and will be entering a high school program.

“He tricked me into falling in love, but then the beatings began and he forced me to work on the streets, having sex with men, to support him. It was hell," she said. "But I’m not so afraid anymore. Studying takes away your anger and you’re a better person."

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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