For thousands of adults, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day means nothing more than a safe passage to go to work or visit family. But for thousands of children annually, crossing into the U.S. means an induction into an unimaginable nightmare. It is no secret that the San Diego-Tijuana border is the busiest international border in the world.
Amidst all of its day-to-day traffic, the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation runs rampant. In 2001, the University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Work, released a study called the “Silent Emergency: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC).” The three-year study involved twenty-eight major cities in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. According to the report, approximately 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Some organizations have estimated this number to be as high as 800,000 according to a Congressional Testimony in 2005. The CSEC study names America’s Finest as a focus group city in which exploited children were found. San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border as well as the city’s coastal, touristy appeal is believed to be one explanation for the high incidence of CSEC.
Additionally, the United Nations has listed Mexico as the number one exporter of exploited children into North America. Since the early 1990’s hundreds of trans-border boys, some as young as ten, have crossed through the San Diego-Tijuana border to be lured by local gangs into child prostitution in places like Balboa Park. Some children claimed that they engaged in “survival sex” to have a warm meal or a place to sleep for the night. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also identified San Diego as a “High Intensity Child Prostitution Area (HICPA).”
The exploitation of children is also pervasive on Mexico’s side of the border. According to the World Tourism Organization, thousands of Americans travel to Mexico each year to pay for sex with children. Organized child sex tourism is prevalent in Mexico, especially in highly dense populated areas or in regions with high concentrations of tourism according to ECPAT, which stands for “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for sexual purposes.”
In response to a growing pandemic of Americans traveling to Mexico and other countries to sexually exploit children, President Bush signed into law the PROTECT Act (2003). Among other protections for children in the U.S., this law makes it illegal for a U.S. citizen or resident to travel abroad to have sex with a minor. The new law eliminates the need to prove that the alleged perpetrator traveled abroad with the intent to sexually abuse children.
The PROTECT Act, which stands for Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act, increases penalties for perpetrators to up to thirty years in prison if convicted. It also eliminates the statutes of limitations regarding sex crimes committed against children domestically and abroad.
Human trafficking is also a global phenomenon that transcends other international borders. The U.S. State Department estimates that each year 600,000 to 800,000 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked across world borders. Approximately 17,500 of these victims are brought into the U.S. through our borders every year. Victims are lured through promises of a better life and are forced or coerced to work in slave-like conditions in commercial sex, domestic servitude or other forms of labor or service.
Only a couple of years ago, the profits generated by human trafficking ranked third place compared to the illegal sale of drugs, which currently ranks first, and the illegal sale of arms, which ranks second. Human trafficking is now tied with the sale of illegal arms and is the fastest growing form of organized crime in the world according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Some anti-trafficking experts predict that based on the rapid growth of this epidemic, within ten years, the profits generated from human trafficking will have surpassed even those generated by the sale of illegal drugs.
Around the world, human trafficking is becoming more appealing to traffickers because many countries either have no laws against trafficking or fail to enforce their existing laws. In the U.S., sex trafficking is especially appealing to organized criminal syndicates because there is a large, lucrative sex industry fueled by a strong demand for paid sex.
While Mexico is primarily a country of transit, the U.S. is mainly a country of destination that receives victims from over forty-nine countries around the world. Domestically, cases have been investigated in at least forty-eight states.
Trafficking has also become appealing to organized criminal syndicates because they have discovered that a child who is forced to work at a brothel can be used as a commodity that generates profits over and over making it relatively easy for a brothel to earn tens of thousands of dollars a year with only a few child prostitutes. Compared to the sale of drugs or weapons, which after consumption or a point of sale leaves no opportunity for further profit—the bottom line is clear.
Experts often characterize this egregious crime that threatens freedom and violates the core of human rights as a new form of slavery. “Human trafficking is modern day slavery. It is slavery in the 21st Century,” said Austin Fitzpatrick, an analyst with Free the Slaves, an internationally recognized human rights organization based in Washington D.C. that aims to abolish slavery around the world. “Trafficking into slavery is a profound violation of the dignity and basic rights of a fellow human being,” said Dr. Russell Dehnel, Executive Director of Heartland Human Relations, and co-founder of the San Diego Human Trafficking Trainers Bureau.
To combat trafficking, the Victims of Trafficking law was passed virtually unanimously by both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 28th, 2000. “Victims are protected under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000,” said Lu de Baca, a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. “The new trafficking law is the first comprehensive piece of U.S. legislation to address trafficking in persons. This law is groundbreaking because it decriminalizes victims. It allows law enforcement to view them as victims and not as criminals—even though they may be in the U.S. illegally or may engage in illegal activity such as prostitution,” said de Baca. The new law seeks to go after the real perpetrator, which is the trafficker and not the illegal immigrant according to de Baca.
Before the trafficking law was passed, prosecutors did not have the necessary tools to crack down on trafficking rings. Plus victims did not receive the proper care that they needed to recover from their trauma. “The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was passed in response to the need of prosecutors to have more tools against criminals and for the protection of victims,” said Christopher Tenorio, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Civil Rights Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. “The Act made it easier to prove some trafficking offenses involving juvenile victims and gave us access to funds and more assistance to victims,” Tenorio said. “Because many of our victims are in the U.S. illegally, and afraid to come to federal authorities for help, we can now provide legal avenues to allow them to stay and receive the assistance they need.”
The trafficking law also provides potential immigration relief to victims through mechanisms such as continued presence or the T-Visa, a special non-immigrant visa for victims of trafficking.
However, unless victims are minors under 18, they are required to cooperate with the Department of Justice in order to qualify for the T-Visa or continued presence. The T-Visa is good for up to three years. Victims can adjust their status to permanent legal status after three years in accordance to immigration laws and regulations. Once adult victims apply for a bona-fide T-Visa or are granted continued presence by the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), they become certifiable.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the U.S. Attorney General, is authorized to certify victims of trafficking. Once certified as a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons, which is the technical legal term, a victim is eligible for social benefits to the same extent as a refugee. Children do not need to cooperate with law enforcement to be eligible for social benefits or immigration relief. Elements such as force, fraud or coercion are not necessary to trigger the effects of the trafficking law when a crime involves a minor under 18 who has been induced to commit a commercial sex act.
Rick Castro, a deputy with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and chair of the newly funded San Diego Region Task Force on Human Trafficking, has been responsible for dozens of raids in North County San Diego since 1996. His boss gave him a clear mandate: “end the stench of prostitution in the city of Vista!” Since then Castro has raided dozens of brothels and migrant “sex camps” in northern San Diego County. He has literally interviewed hundreds of women as a result of these arrests.
However, the same theme commonly stood out as Castro conducted these interviews. “None of the detained women showed signs that they were being held against their will, said Castro.” The women would not disclose any type of force, fraud or coercion. Castro, who thought that he was doing a service to his community by putting these women behind bars and eventually turning them over to the former INS for deportation, never imagined that any of them were being forced into prostitution. “I let hundreds of women slip through my radar. I’m the first to admit that I was completely ignorant about human trafficking.”
Castro told the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who was nearly beaten to death by Tomas Salazar-Juarez, one of the brothers running the prostitution ring in Vista. “She was brutally beaten for attempting to escape a life of forced prostitution,” said Castro.
The sixteen-year-old told the deputies that Salazar forced her into a room and duct-taped her hands and feet. Salazar then grabbed a wire clothes hanger from a closet, wrapped it tightly around his hand and forced the other young girls to watch him beat her for two hours. “She was bruised so bad that it looked like she had been cut with a filet knife. He then told the rest of the girls ‘this is what will happen to anyone else that tries to escape,’” said Castro.
Neighbors called the police thinking that it was a domestic violence situation. Unfortunately, Salazar got away before the deputies arrived at the crime scene. The deputies took a report and pictures of the sixteen-year-old girl. This report was a major milestone for the Sheriff’s Office because it was the first time that any of the so-called prostitutes alleged abuse from their pimps. “This girl’s testimony later inspired other young women to come forward,” said Castro.
However, Castro still didn’t understand what he was up against. He still believed that he was helping to rid the city of prostitution. “I remember arriving at the station one morning. A deputy responded to what he believed was a domestic violence call the night before. He asked me to take a look at his report.” Castro read that it involved a fifteen-year-old Hispanic girl that was being housed at the Polinsky Children’s Center. He then rushed to Polinsky. “The young girl told me everything that happened to her. She was a victim of something that I knew was ugly—I just didn’t know what to call it,” said Castro. This fifteen-year-old girl, whose baby was kidnapped prior to crossing the border, and used as security to force her to sell her body to up to thirty men per day for nearly six months, helped him realize that the same tragedy that was forced upon her, was being forced upon the rest of the women too. “This young girl, Reina, helped me connect the dots,” said Castro. “She helped me put all of the missing pieces together. After that interview, I knew that we were looking at some form of sex slavery.”
Reina is just one out of the tens of thousands of girls around the world that are trafficked. Although difficult to fathom, Reina is actually one of the fortunate ones since she was able to escape the terror of her captors. After nearly six months of continual rapes and beatings, she gathered the courage to run for her life. Realizing that she may never see her baby again, she fled from her captors the minute she saw a window of opportunity. She stood half-naked and crying at the doorsteps of nearby neighbors. The neighbors called the police and the deputies transported her to Polinsky where Castro reached out to her.
To help Reina, Castro teamed up with a social service provider with the Escondido Youth Empowerment (EYE). Reina was assigned a legal attorney that worked closely with the Mexican Consulate. After six months of residing in an undisclosed shelter, Reina was referred to San Diego Youth and Community Services (SDYCS).
SDYCS, in coordination with other service providers, helped Reina with crisis intervention, emergency shelter, interpretation services, mental health counseling, medical services, case management, independent living skills training, advocacy and transportation and referrals to other services. It took a coalition of nearly seventeen agencies from Mexico and the U.S. to help one survivor of trafficking.
Reina was relieved to have escaped her prison, but her baby was still in the merciless hands of the traffickers. She last saw her baby when he was four months old. She was depressed and angry with herself for believing in the man that “romanced” and deceived her into releasing her baby to him. “I know that he’s crying. I can hear him crying. These men are ruthless, they could care less if he’s hungry or if he has a diaper rash.”
I had the distinct honor of meeting with Reina many times. Once she arrived at SDYCS, I became her assigned case manager. This was my first encounter with a survivor of human trafficking and the experience changed my life forever. I would sometimes spend hours with Reina while she grieved over her baby. I remember hearing her say how she regretted allowing for this so-called boyfriend of hers to legally register her son under his name. She learned the hard way that this man also had legal rights to her baby even though he wasn’t the biological father. He had these rights in Mexico because he manipulated her into registering her baby under his name too. I knew that she was hurting and I could feel that the pain she experienced was severe as she exhausted herself in tears in my office many nights. Her pain became so unbearable that she ran away from the shelter one day, got drunk and left the country. She ended up in Tijuana and called Lilia Velasquez, her attorney.
Reina’s case had touched the very core of our beings – all of us – that formed a coalition of seventeen agencies working together to help her. Velasquez was working closely with the Mexican Consulate to try and recover Reina’s baby. Miraculously, we got word that the kidnappers delivered Reina’s baby to DIF, the social services department in Mexico. The kidnappers apparently feared life in prison if they were caught.
However, Reina had left the country and it was going to take another miracle to bring her back. Velasquez had to move heaven and earth to make arrangements with the immigration authorities and the Department of Justice to parole Reina back into the U.S. so that she could be reunited with her baby. Velasquez called me and asked me if I could go to Tijuana to try to find Reina. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I was to go to La Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red-light district, where we suspected that she might be and convince her to come back to the U.S.
Walking down the sordid street of Avenida Constitucion in La Zona Norte was an eye opening experience that I won’t soon forget. Bar owners auctioned young girls as if they were live stock saying “Check it out, fresh meat inside…thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls.” It sent a chill up my spine. They shouted this as though the men walked by a buffet food line. These opportunistic bar owners saw these girls as mere body parts for sale—human commodities.
In high heels and flamboyant, skimpy clothes, hundreds of girls lined themselves across several blocks of what appeared to be a fast food chain of exploited children. They hid their child-like faces behind red lipstick and make-up to give the illusion that they were mature women. The locals call them las paraditas (the girls that stand) because they stand in front of the street bars and hotel buildings for long hours waiting for business. They threw flirtatious kisses and pulled on the shirts of would-be customers. “Vamos al cuarto,” which means, “Let’s go to the room,” is what they said to dozens of men that shopped for sex.
It was heart wrenching to see how young some of the girls at la Zona were. A local police office was stationed right at the center of Avenida Constitución and Callejón Cuahuíla, two main streets in the seedy red-light district. I was taken aback to see girls that looked like they were no more than twelve years old yet selling themselves across the street from the police station. Police officers walked by as though these girls were invisible. An entire community turned a blind eye to their exploitation because of the lucrative profits generated by the sex tourism industry.
I especially looked for Reina at La Zona Norte’s two main bars: the Chicago and the Adelita. According to the taxistas, these are the two “best” bars in Tijuana for prostitution. “The Chicago and the Adelita is where you can get the most beautiful girls. They’ll let you do anything you want to them for sixty dollars plus eleven for the room,” said one taxi driver with a heavy Mexican accent.
While I walked up the grimy Avenida Constitución, on the outskirts of the red-light district, I heard a female voice that shouted out my name. It was a former client of SDYCS. Ten years ago she was a resident at our shelter. She was one of the “Balboa Park kids” that prostituted herself during the early nineties. Now she was selling her body at La Zona Norte—as have other American kids—a trend that is becoming more obvious at La Zona according to border liaison, Detective James Dickinson from the San Diego Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit.
I was shocked to see our former client selling herself at La Zona. I asked her if she was working on her own. Although she was always particularly independent, she admitted to me that she had a pimp. She told me that most young girls that are at La Zona have pimps or “padrotes.” I asked her if she knew of girls that were recruited and forced to work in prostitution at the red-light district. “You hear about that all the time,” she said, “but you just choose to ignore it. Most of the girls are here not because they want to but because they need money to pay the bills.” I asked her if she knew about any incidents where girls have tried to leave prostitution and ended up harmed or threatened. “A few weeks ago I heard that a young girl, she was thirteen or fourteen, what do I know, she was beaten to death. We were told that it was a john that killed her,” she said, “Sometimes you do hear of girls that are forced to work here. But those are only the young and naïve girls. They’re the ones that always get preyed on.”
Ironically, our conversation was interrupted because she didn’t want her pimp to see her talking to me too long. Her statement only confirmed what I and other trafficking specialists believe—that force, fraud and coercion, especially with young girls, does happen at the red- light district—and too often underneath the noses of an indifferent community.
Aside from what local street pimps do to coerce young girls into prostitution at La Zona, it seems naïve to believe that organized criminal networks are not involved in organized child sex tourism. Organized child sex tourism is, for example, the systematic recruitment of children to work in pornography, bars, massage parlors, strip clubs and the streets of La Zona Norte—not to mention the escort agencies that exist across Tijuana and can easily be accessed by the click of a mouse.
The fact that there are websites and American adult magazines that blatantly advertise sex tours to Tijuana is appalling. In these tours sex customers can go on line and purchase a 4,000 dollar, 12-day sex package and can enjoy “all the sex you can have,” including a limousine ride from the San Diego airport to Rosarito or Ensenada. Although many of these businesses advertise that they do not supply children, it is a known fact that child exploitation happens in many of these establishments when the price is right.
Every year, thousands of vulnerable, young girls are lured and transported to places like La Zona to prostitute themselves according to Stolen Childhood, a recent child exploitation study conducted in several major cities in Mexico. The report confirmed that each year, an estimated 16,000 Mexican children fall prey to organized child sex tourism. Most of them are recruited from poor, rural cities such as Tenancingo, which is where Reina was recruited. Tenancingo is located in Tlaxcala, Mexico where according to federal Mexican authorities exists a breeding ground for the trafficking of young girls into prostitution.
According to Mexican Journalist Karen Trejo, of La Opinion Digital, since 1980, women and children have been victims of a Mexican criminal organization called Los Romanes. This ruthless sex trafficking ring was named after their leader, Roman.
In November 28th, 2005, Trejo reported that locals from Tlaxcala claimed that Los Romanes were a huge trafficking ring and a true mafia. They maintained that they knew at least thirty sex traffickers that had deceived and lured 150 young females to Tijuana, Mexico as well as into cities in the U.S. like New York, Los Angeles and San Diego.
These types of reports concur with what the locals from Tijuana are saying. “You want me to be honest with you,” said one taxi driver, “it’s ‘Los Lenones’ [sex traffickers] that are bringing in all the young girls to La Zona.” I asked him if Los Lenones lured girls through false promises of a better life and he said, “of course they do… that’s what they do and they are good at it.” Lenones is the actual title used in Mexico for those who traffic in humans.
According to a local barber that once worked a few blocks from La Zona, some young Lenones hang out at a pool hall on Avenida Sexta at downtown Tijuana. This former, local barber claims that these young “Lenones” often bragged to him about how they would get paid to go into rural Mexico and romance young girls through the promise of work or marriage and then sell them to the sex industry for hundreds of dollars.
Of those named to hang out at the pool hall was the notorious Alfonso Zapian, AKA, “El Chivero,” who prior to being arrested by Mexican authorities, was on the U.S. Border Patrol’s 8th Most Wanted List. Zapian was also the coyote who was paid to smuggle Reina across the border and hand her over to the sex trafficking ring.
Although smuggling networks and sex trafficking rings operate independently from each other, they have been known to work together. Sex traffickers also work closely with owners and operators of the sex industry, which are the ones that place the orders of what they call “fresh meat.”
The owners and operators of the sex industry know that their customers have an affinity for young girls and that they are willing to pay hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars when children are especially young. It does not take rocket science to figure out that not only are many of these girls actually minors but many of them are not prostituting out their own free will. These girls are being recruited, tricked and forced into prostitution by sex trafficking networks.
In this evil game of deceit, many violent methods and schemes are used to lure children into exploitation and keep them disconnected from their friends, family and their communities. According to a Mexican cab driver, strip club and bar owners customarily sign month-to-month contracts with girls to keep them in a constant transition mode. “These girls are often trafficked to different destinations,” said one taxi driver.
Tijuana is not only a city of destination but a transit city as well. There are some reports that Tijuana has been used as a springboard before crossing children into the U.S. For example, in Reina’s case, she was raped and forced into prostitution at La Zona prior to crossing the border. She was told that she needed to work to pay for her smuggling fee.
But why is it that sex traffickers resort to such violence and trickery to recruit young children? With thousands of poor children across Mexico, would not the average person conclude that poverty and other societal factors are enough to compel these children to prostitute themselves simply because they need to survive? Sadly, there has not been a national public outcry in Mexico because of organized child sex tourism. So why would sex traffickers risk attracting the wrath of public opinion by employing methods of violence to subdue their victims if there are allegedly scores of children and women that would engage in prostitution because of extreme poverty?
Beside the obvious reasons like customers pay large sums of money for children, one explanation is that children, especially young children, and no matter how poor they are, never wake up and say “I want to be a child prostitute.” They are usually propositioned and coerced into prostitution by an adult or another child that’s used by an adult. Recruitment often happens by someone the children trust or someone more powerful than they are. Sex traffickers understand that poverty alone does not produce thousands of children into the sex trade each year. They, more than anyone, understand the basic laws of supply and demand.
Accordingly, due to a seemingly endless number of sex customers, the sex industry is challenged with meeting the high demand for fresh, young and new faces. Since the demand is ever growing, the need for sex traffickers to effectively supply the sex industry with children is critical. In short, the supply cannot keep up with the demand. If there is a shortage of supply the whole industry suffers.
Because the stakes for the sex traffickers are exceedingly high they then resort to extreme violence and trickery to ensure a consistent and steady stream of young children into the sex industry, while at the same time establishing themselves as leading competitors in an incredibly lucrative business. In all of this the ones that suffer are the defenseless children whose innocence has been taken from them forever. As one national campaign against organized child sex tourism rightly stated to perpetrators that travel to Mexico to pay for sex with children, “you pay for a night, they pay with their lives.”
Without doubt, the frequency in travel and migration of vulnerable, Mexican children and in such large numbers is virtually impossible without a relatively organized system to finance their recruitment and transportation. The sad truth is that child trafficking and organized child sex tourism are so linked to corruption in Mexico that forged documents are readily obtained and government support or at least apathy is easily bought by business owners in Tijuana’s sex industry. Plus, now that adult prostitution in Tijuana is legal, the corridors of human trafficking are wide open.
After one long day of searching for Reina through most of the bars, I found her in the least expected place. She was standing in front of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Catholic Cathedral, on the corner of Niños Heroes and Calle Segunda de Benito Juarez, just a couple of blocks from the Tijuana red-light district. It seemed as though she knew I’d somehow find her. She looked like she hadn’t slept for days. She was strung out. “I know that I messed up. I know I let you all down,” she said while we sat at a restaurant across the street corner from the Cathedral.
I was able to bring Reina back across the border the next day. She was paroled into my custody by the immigration authorities. The U.S. document read: “for humanitarian purposes.” When we got back to the shelter, I looked at Reina and firmly told her that she almost lost the only hope she had of recovering her baby. “We had to move heaven and earth to get you back into the U.S. Do you even realize that you almost blew it? You were this close to never seeing your baby again.”
I told Reina that we had done everything possible for her. The rest was up to her. I thought to myself that my words might sound too harsh to a fifteen-year-old child survivor of human trafficking. But I had to be firm with her. I knew that she needed to change her attitude in order to convince the Judge in Mexico that she was a responsible mother and capable of caring for her baby. Her days of self-pity needed to end. It was time for her to grow up and fast. It was time for Reina to think about her baby and take full charge of her life.
Fortunately, the thought of seeing her baby again encouraged Reina. With a little time she transformed into a new person. Being just a child herself, this new Reina realized that she would need to mature in order to help us win an international, unprecedented custody battle over her baby.
After long months of what seemed like endless waiting, we heard that there was a Mexican judge with a sympathetic ear to Reina’s case. She flew out to Mexico immediately accompanied by Adrian Martinez, an attorney with the Mexican Consulate, to attempt to recover her baby. Within a matter of hours we got word from Mexico. The judge granted Reina with full custody of her baby son. We waited anxiously for her to arrive at the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro. Camera crews lined themselves desperately trying to get a shot of the reunification between a mother and baby that were almost permanently lost to child commercial sexual exploitation.
The sight of Reina covered with tears and embracing her long-lost baby was overwhelming and by far the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. It made me realize that it was all worth- while. All of the up-hill battles, the tears, and the long nights when she thought that she might never see her son again had finally paid off for Reina. The fifteen-year-old child that survived the horror of human trafficking, after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, was now sixteen and finally safe and re-united with her child.
Please Don't Feed the Trolls|
Wikipedia defines an Internet Troll as: "either a person who sends messages on the Internet hoping to entice other users into angry or fruitless responses, or a message sent by such a person." San Diego IMC strives to provide both a grassroots media resource as well as a forum for people to contribute to a meaningful discussion about local issues. Please, when posting comments, be respectful of others and ignore those trying to interrupt or discourage meaningful discourse. Thank you.
-- San Diego Indymedia volunteers
Download this article in pdf format >>|
Make a quick comment on this article>>
Stories contributed to this site are licensed under the
Creative Commons Non Commercial - Share Alike - By Attribution license
unless otherwise specified by the author.