The trafficking of indigenous girls is on the increase in Mexico

Activists warn that there has been an “alarming increase” in the [sex] trafficking of indigenous children during the past three years – a crisis that is being ignored by the authorities due to racial discrimination that targets indigenous peoples

On July 14th a Mayan indigenous girl named Juane Belem Rojas was kidnapped by a sex trafficking network from her own home in the community of Morocoy in the state of Quintana Roo. The Federal Investigation Agency (AFI- equivalent to the FBI in the U.S.) rescued her two weeks later in the city of Villa Hermosa, in Tabasco state.

In Mexico City, María, a 13-year-old indigenous girl of the Tzeltal ethnic group was rescued during a raid on May 22 in the Manzanares Alley section of La Merced [one of Mexico City’s most notorious prostitution tolerance zones]. Mary was the youngest victim in a group of 61 women and girls who were freed in the operation.

Rebeca Ruiz Gómez, a 16-year-old Tzotzil girl, was selling crafts with her grandmother in the plaza of the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state. On May 1st a family who said that they lived in Cuautitlan, in Mexico state, offered her work as a domestic servant, and took her away. Nobody knows Rebeca’s whereabouts.

Teresa Ulloa, president of the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW), believes that these cases are representative of the increase in the trafficking of underage indigenous girls in Mexico for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation.

The increase in the trafficking of indigenous girls in Mexico "is alarming," he says.

Ulloa explains that no reliable research or data exists anywhere in Mexico in regard to the trafficking of indigenous peoples. However, of the 60 cases that Ulloa is now serving, 10 percent of the victims are indigenous girls and women. Indigenous peoples ar 7 to 10 percent of Mexico’s population [some figures place native population at 30% of all Mexicans].

Ulloa’s perspective is also informed by her field research in the subject entitled Re-evaluation of Indigenous Women in the Highlands of Chiapas, a not-yet published study conducted by the CATW between 2010 and 2011.

Other scholars and indigenous activists agree with Ulloa’s analysis.

Congresswoman Rosi Orozco, who is the president of the Special Committee to Fight Human Trafficking in the Chamber of Deputies [lower house of Congress], describes a case that has affected various towns in the municipality of Tamuín in the state of San Luis Potosi. Recently, a number of girls, and one boy, were kidnapped from 15 families, many of whom are indigenous.

Nahua activists Guadalupe Martinez, who is a representative of the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Central America and Mexico for central Mexico, says that they are seeing an ever-increasing number of cases of sexual and labor trafficking “affecting people from the "Mazahua Otomi, Nanus, Mixtec ethnic groups."

How trafficking works

Ana Elena Barrios of the organization Networking, Communication and Training, researched and co-authored "The South, the Beginning of a Journey", which investigates the state of human rights of Central American migrants, also believes that there is an increase in the  trafficking of underage indigenous girls from Guatemala, Salvador and Honduras into Mexico.

Barrios says that most of the victims are 12 to 15 years old. They are exploited in the Mexican border city of Tapachula, in Chiapas state, which is "one of the largest prostitution zones the world." Barrios warns that new, more isolated trafficking routes – located near the Mesilla area in the municipality of Frontera Comapala in Chiapas, Mexico, are  being used to traffic Central American women and girls.

This rising phenomenon is being ignored by Mexico’s government due to racial and gender discrimination, according to América Martínez of the Association for Integral Development, which provides health services to those in prostitution and works against human trafficking.

"Kidnapping the son of Alejandro Martí is not the same as kidnapping an indigenous girl," says Martínez, in reference to the abduction and murder of the son of businessman – a case that mobilized federal and local government and society in general to take action.

Ulloa think Indian girls are more vulnerable to trafficking because many are monolingual [they only speak an indigenous language], they are culturally docile, they may have been victims of domestic violence, and they grew up in villages that have experienced extreme poverty and marginalization.

Ulloa’s study was conducted in three municipalities in [largely Mayan] Chiapas state: Chenalhó, San Juan Chamula and Oxchuc. These areas are known for having a predominantly Catholic population, loyalty to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and high levels of alcoholism.

Ulloa noted that these populations are dominated by a patriarchal culture where women are not valued, which is why the practice of parents selling their daughters is on the increase.

Those who work as traffickers may be migrant men who now who work as ‘trappers,’ or other anonymous men who scheme to get [indigenous] parents drunk. These traffickers target girls as young as age 8, according to research.

"The men who seek out sex with these underage girls are obviously much more violent, because their actions are an absolute expression of power, when the girl has no option available to defend herself – not even to use a condom,” [stated América Martínez].

He says that in some cases the sale is made through a ritual of three visits involving local authorities.

Buyers bring "refreshments, bread, meat, and increasingly there is a cash transaction that goes from 3000 to 20,000 pesos [$217 to $1,450 US dollars]."

By contrast, says Ulloa, the women of the [indigenous] Zapatista communities in Chiapas in 1994 demanded the elimination of this ancient practice in their Women's Revolutionary Law" – which provides the right for women to choose whom they marry."

Another tricks used by these "recruiters" is to pretend to fall in love with the victim and then promise to marry her, or to offer the girl a false employment opportunity outside of her community.

Ulloa says that these practices are also customary in other states. These girls end up in brothels in the region are trafficked for slave labor or for their bodies. They are taken to other Mexican states or to the United States.

Teresa Ulloa, president of the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls for Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW), notes that the increase of this crime is also due to "the arrival of organized crime in indigenous communities" and is also a byproduct of Mexico’s failed strategy against drug trafficking.

In Ulloa’s view, the drug cartels recently discovered that the sex trafficking of girls in general was profitable, "because nobody pays attention [to their plight],”  and because the drug traffickers have begun to recruit [large numbers of youth] to work are street hawkers, assassins, sex slaves and drug mules. All of those activities constitute trafficking, because at the end of the day they are using these minors to protect their businesses."

Ulloa equally blamed the rise in child trafficking on the State's strategy against drug trafficking. “Generally, we see an increase in trafficking, more violations of women’s rights, more consumption of prostitution and more femicide [gender based murders] in areas where anti-drug operations are taking place.”

The institutional response

Currently the state does not have a model of care for indigenous victims of trafficking.

Sara Irene Herrerías, who is Mexico’s Special Prosecutor for Violent Crimes against Women and Human Trafficking (FEVIMTRA), states that nonetheless, there have been advances made by the Inter-secretarial Commission to Prevent and Sanction Human Trafficking [a commission called for in the weak 2007 anti-trafficking law]. Prevention information packets in a number of indigenous languages are being distributed in some native communities.

The approval of the [revised] Law Against Trafficking of Persons on August 3, 2011 is orchestrated by Deputy Orozco. In addition to providing harsher penalties for traffickers, the new legislative proposal does take into account the situation that is facing indigenous peoples.

However, Deputy Orozco, who is the author of a book about human trafficking called From Heaven to Hell in a Day, emphasizes that it is important to synchronize anti trafficking laws across Mexico’s [31] state. Today, only 16 states have passed such legislation. [The 2007 federal anti-trafficking law is not a ‘general’ law, and therefore cannot be enforced in the states].

Orozco also believes that the new law will not work rescue operations are not carried out, and if interdisciplinary teams are not created to accompany and protect the victims through the end of the process.

Nor will the law be effective is the perpetrators are not sentenced,  added Orozco. So noted that only Mexico City, and the states of Puebla and Chiapas have sentenced pimps to prison.

Deputy Orozco, "Impunity exists because prison sentences are not handed down, and because in some states the penalties for robbing a cow are harsher than for kidnapping a girl child.”

Rodolfo Casillas, author of the book I Remember Well ... Testimonies and Perceptions of the Trafficking in Girls and Women in Mexico City, states that prior to legislating and establishing programs, "we need to collect relevant information about the effects and consequences of human trafficking in indigenous communities, and we don’t see any desire whatsoever on the part of the federal government to presents proposals, create programs or commit personnel to address the issue."