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.
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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.
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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.
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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.’”