The Mexican Drug Cartels’ Other Business: Sex Trafficking

Narco gangs, including the Zetas, have diversified their portfolio to include buying and selling women as slaves

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ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP / Getty Images

A sex worker in Mexico City on Jan. 20, 2010

Like many victims of human trafficking, Marcela was tricked into the sex trade by a man she thought she could trust. She met him in her small hometown in Veracruz state when she was 16. Posing as a wealthy businessman, he asked for her hand in marriage, promising a comfortable lifestyle. Instead he took her to the Merced neighborhood of Mexico City, a hotbed for prostitution. She was kept under duress in a hotel room and forced to have sex with up to 40 men a day, who paid $15 each to her so-called boyfriend and his accomplices. Girls suffering from human trafficking are often kept under such conditions for years. However, after a week, police raided the hotel, and Marcela defied the threats from the traffickers to testify in court, sending them to prison. “When it was happening, I just blocked it out, as it was so painful,” says Marcela, who asked that her name be changed. “It took me a long time to regain any confidence in myself, to rebuild my life.”

Now 21, Marcela works with activists in support of a new drive by prosecutors to make sure other girls don’t suffer what she did. Their efforts have been aided by Mexico’s first federal law on human trafficking passed in 2012. (Before this, the issue was governed by varying state laws.) The new act dictates custodial sentences for perpetrators at all links in the trafficking chain with sentences up to 40 years. Activists estimate that hundreds of thousands of women in Mexico, including many underage girls, are coerced into sex work or other forced labor, though the clandestine nature of the trade makes it impossible to know exact figures. Under the new law, any sex work involving girls under the age of 18 qualifies as human trafficking. Laws governing prostitution vary across Mexico’s states, and it is often tolerated in red-light zones, such as those on the U.S. border.

(VIDEO: Mexico’s Feared Narcos: A Brief History of the Zetas Drug Cartel)

The fight against this trafficking is complicated by the deep involvement of the country’s notorious drug cartels in the business. Narco gangs like the Zetas — a criminal army founded by defectors from the Mexican military — have diversified their portfolio to include kidnapping, extortion, theft of crude oil, gun running and lucrative human-trafficking networks. It’s impossible to know the exact value of Mexico’s human-trafficking trade, though the U.N. estimates the global industry to be worth $32 billion a year. “As the drug war has become more intense, the networks that traffic women have made their pacts with cartels,” says Jaime Montejo, a spokesman for Brigada Callejera, a sex-worker support group in Mexico City. “Those that don’t cannot survive.”

In addition to selling women for sex, Mexican cartels also have been known to kidnap women and girls and use them as their personal sex slaves. “Human-trafficking crimes have a devastating effect on victims and their families,” says Rosi Orozco, who served as a Mexican federal deputy, drafting the new law, and now works closely with prosecutors. “There are parents who are searching and searching for their children and can’t sleep because of this nightmare.”

The antitrafficking drive has gained momentum in Mexico City, where a special prosecutor took power in May and has since overseen 86 raids on hotels, bars and massage parlors, rescuing 118 women and charging 62 alleged traffickers. Other significant arrests have been made across Mexico in states including Hidalgo and Puebla in recent months. Activists are also supporting cases as far away as the U.S., where Mexican women have been smuggled over the Rio Grande into forced sex work. This month, police in New Jersey arrested six Mexican nationals on sex-trafficking and organized-crime charges following a raid on a brothel in the town of Lakewood. “For too long, human-trafficking victims have suffered out of sight on the fringes of society,” acting state attorney general John Hoffman told reporters on July 18.

(MORE: Mexico Goes After the Narcos — Before They Join the Gangs)

Gangs like the Zetas are involved in human trafficking at many links on the chain. Cartels control most of Mexico’s smuggling networks through which victims are moved, while they also take money from pimps and brothels operating in their territories. Prosecution documents show numerous cases in which cartel members have confessed to murdering pimps who crossed them or burning down establishments that refused to pay their “quota.” Mexican marines arrested the Zetas’ leader, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, this month and prosecutors say that human trafficking will be among the long list of charges leveled against him. “The cartels know that drugs can only be sold once, but women can be sold again and again and again,” says Teresa Ulloa, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ulloa, who has helped hundreds of victims of sex trafficking in Mexico, says organized crime is involved in 70% of cases.

The new human-trafficking law takes into account cases of women forced to work directly for cartels, punishing anyone who helps bring women to them. Some recent testimonies made to journalists and activists cast light on the horrifying ordeals of women held in servitude for long periods by the gangsters. In one account taken by the former deputy Orozco, a woman from El Salvador described how she was kidnapped by the Zetas in Mexico, repeatedly raped and then also forced to cook and wash bloody clothes and machetes. While she was finally freed by one of her captors, other women are believed to experience similar brutal treatment before ultimately being murdered. This month, a mother located the body of her daughter in Oaxaca state after a two-year-long search; she discovered that her daughter had been held by a gang of Zetas and was repeatedly raped before being decapitated.

In western Michoacán state, the brutal Knights Templar cartel is alleged to have kidnapped large numbers of girls and held them for sex. Jose Manuel Mireles, a doctor who has become the leader of an armed vigilante group fighting the cartel in the village of Tepalcatepec, said the cartel’s systematic use of rape as a tool of terror was the final spark that made residents take up guns this year. “They arrived at people’s houses and said, ‘Bathe your daughter, she is going to stay with me for some time,’ and they wouldn’t return her until she was pregnant,” Mireles said in a video testimony posted on the Internet.

(PHOTOS: Auto Defensa: Rough Justice in Mexico’s Lawless Mountains)

The vigilante militias, like the one headed by Mireles, have sprung up in a string of western Mexican towns in recent months, setting up checkpoints and rooting out alleged cartel members. The government has taken a rather ambiguous stance on these militias: President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned vigilantism, but local police have arrested only a few vigilantes. In recent weeks, the government has also sent in thousands of extra federal police, soldiers and marines into Michoacán to combat the cartels. In response, the Knights Templar gunmen carried out a series of attacks both on the vigilante militias and the federal forces. On Sunday, alleged gunmen from the Knights Templar killed a vice admiral in the Mexican navy and his bodyguard on a Michoacán road.

Back in the Merced neighborhood, many sex workers continue plying their trade independently in the shadow of Mexico’s bloody drug war and the predations of human traffickers. Patricia, who has been a sex worker in the Merced for 30 years, says she believes the majority of Mexican prostitutes are not coerced, though they face few options in life. “I have no problem with my clients. Many are good people,” Patricia says. “One even brought me medicine when I was sick.” However, Marcela, who was forced into sex work as a teenager, says there are often coercive pressures that cannot be seen, like threats against the sex worker or her family. “There might be some women who do it out of choice, but many are forced,” Marcela says. “Nobody, when they are a young girl, says, ‘I want to be a prostitute.’”

MORE: There Are Sex Slaves All Over the U.S. Right Now

58 comments
hambone2132
hambone2132

@SeanRSmallwood Cutting it now, you would love my Solvency, it's that specific, using the alliance to combat transnational threats, hot!

SoyAmado
SoyAmado

This story should be a warning to the families and friends of girls who think they are being offered a new life, better job, marriage etc...Know who they are going with! Once they leave, they cannot come back as they are often caught in the evil web of Human Trafficking! My heart goes out to these girls/women and I do nnot have answers but I do offer HOPE:http://stephaniesprayercorner.blogspot.com/   

azmalhome
azmalhome

Falling in love with a new girl and falling in sex are same things. sexual intercourse is most entertainment to humankind for all the time. But sometimes it fetches extremity for someone. Sex is a most dangerous disease for someone in the world. Because It comes in the vein when they’re not suffering about any disease. Cigarette slays humankind slowly and HIV slays humankind with scandalous. Mostly divorce is development country for sex. Some people are heavy responsibility about exact planning. But they’re unable to keeping far own from illegal sex.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/love-and-sex/

silverose
silverose

Seriously?! 15 bucks?! I am truly shocked!! Is human moral that cheap? This is why I sometimes wish I were a boy.

Jane Guinn
Jane Guinn

Have Free time? Look up Brown Berets, MECHA, and La Raza. They are Terrorists and the Invasion is on!

Joanna Katehis
Joanna Katehis

HERE ARE SO MANY OTHER THINGS HAPPENING AROUND US THAT WE DONT KNOW ABOUT AND THIS IS A SERIOUS MATTER!!!! either marrying or promising girls a better future are taken to work as slaves in smaller towns all over the world!!!!! this is awful and has to stop!!!!! HUMAN RIGHTS!!!!

Chad M. Harris
Chad M. Harris

You know you're truly evil incarnate on a whole other level beyond even 'regular' evil when even the mafia and Al Queda are hesitant to deal with you...

jway87
jway87

Legalize marijuana like beer and wine, and legalize prostitution like massage services and you'll cripple the cartels. Are we enlightened enough to do this?

Daniel Sandoval
Daniel Sandoval

This is sick....it sucks not having the force to stop this... A life of hunting these dirt bags would be simpler if only

Lisa Miles
Lisa Miles

It's a HUGE problem here in the u. S. & globally . WE NEED TO STOP THIS!

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

Nothing compares to taking the time to learn about the world at large. :/

Tosyn Shakalaka
Tosyn Shakalaka

People talk about Al Queda and other terrorist cells, but in all honesty these drug Cartels e.g Sinaloa & Los Zetas have done way worse than i can imagine, the worse part of it is everyone's hand is stained in this mess, people buyin the drugs, selling guns and funding this monsters

SmokyRic3
SmokyRic3

plenty of innocent young people out there, tsk.

Eden Charles
Eden Charles

Good Lord, how how awful! My sincere prayers for these innocent victim .

mismin1180
mismin1180

@TIME @TIMEWorld sex slavery is way to common here in the United states and most countries. Sad and very scary

Hilaiss
Hilaiss

@El_Narco_Book Have you read the investigation of Victor Hugo Michel in the magazine Nexos? La conexion Tenancingo? A must read... greetings

LauraAbril
LauraAbril

@El_Narco_Book have you heard anything about that? I wonder why they've been taking people? If it's not for money, What could the reason be?

SeanRSmallwood
SeanRSmallwood

@hambone2132 it could also coincide with some UN resolutions that seek to reduce the amount of violence towards women.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

@silverose 

No advantage there. This particular story doesn't mention it, but young boys are also being kidnapped and prostituted to homosexuals. I just say thank God for the 2nd Amendment. The first character that tries to seize one of my children will be transformed from a rooster to a hen with one shot.

CarmenSpeer
CarmenSpeer

@jway87 Actually, legalizing prostitution has been proven to increase sex trafficking. Try researching legalized prostitution in the Netherlands and you´ll see what I mean.

El_Narco_Book
El_Narco_Book

@LauraAbril There is concern that disappearances in several parts of Mexico are taking women for sex slaves, work, males to force into crime

LauraAbril
LauraAbril

@El_Narco_Book yes, the ones from Lagos have all been young males. So far around 15 people in the last month have disappeared.

mg2012
mg2012

@El_Narco_Book@El_Narco_Book Have you read "Midnight in Mexico" by Alfredo Corchado....he mentions about the disappearances of women in Juarez. You should read it. Cheers.