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Modern-Day Slavery in Mexico and the United States

On December 3, Mexico City police freed 107 human trafficking victims who were forced to manufacture shopping bags and clothespins under “slave-like” circumstances. Officials reported that the victims exhibited signs of physical and sexual abuse, and were also malnourished, as they had been given only chicken feet and rotten vegetables. Twenty-three individuals were arrested and charged with human trafficking after one of the workers escaped and informed the authorities about the dire situation.

On December 3, Mexico City police freed 107 human trafficking victims who were forced to manufacture shopping bags and clothespins under “slave-like” circumstances. Officials reported that the victims exhibited signs of physical and sexual abuse, and were also malnourished, as they had been given only chicken feet and rotten vegetables. Twenty-three individuals were arrested and charged with human trafficking after one of the workers escaped and informed the authorities about the dire situation. Despite that fact that Mexican states have enacted some forms of anti-trafficking legislation, there have been no criminal convictions of traffickers to date. In the coming months, it awaits to be seen if those captured on December 3rd will be convicted. While the discovery of this trafficking ring has made for lurid headlines, doubt regarding whether or not these criminals will be brought to justice illuminates the fact that Mexico still has a long road ahead in eradicating the destructive industry of human trafficking.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is the fastest growing illegal industry in the world and, by 2010, it is predicted to surpass the illicit drug trade, which will make it the world’s largest criminal activity. The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, […] for the purpose of exploitation.” A common misconception is that an individual must cross international borders to be considered a victim of human trafficking; however, as evidenced by the United Nations’s definition, this is not always the case.

According to the United Nations, human trafficking generates an estimated $32 billion in revenue each year. According to a State Department estimate, between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are trafficked annually, with women and children especially being targeted. The State Department estimates that 70 percent of trafficking victims are female and that nearly 50 percent of the victims are younger than 18. Moreover, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), of the 12.3 million people who are currently subjected to forced labor, bonded labor, or the commercial sex industry, 2.4 million have been trafficked. Of these, 80 percent are used for sexual exploitation while the remaining victims are forced to labor on farms or in factories.

President Obama Addresses Trafficking

President Obama spoke in Tokyo last November about the need for international collaboration in fighting against modern-day slavery. Mr. Obama discussed the need for vigilance in combating human trafficking, stating that the industry is a “transnational problem.” He went on to emphasize that countries must work together to put a “stop to this scourge of modern-day slavery once and for all.” Many anti-trafficking advocates argue that the emotional reaction engendered by “slavery” accurately captures the industry’s deplorable nature and applauded President Obama’s use of modern slavery.

On the subject of using the term, “slavery,” Luis C. de Baca, the U.S. Ambassador for Human Trafficking, remarked, “we cannot create terms that are too bland, [because they] ameliorate the conditions victims experience.” Human trafficking thus represses basic human rights and represents a global civil rights imperative. While world leaders publicly acknowledge the destructive nature of this illegal industry, countries must work together to truly eradicate human trafficking. In particular, neighboring countries, like the U.S. and Mexico, must combine forces to eliminate all forms of criminal activity, as human trafficking is often a symptom of larger social problems.

The Trafficking Process

At a macro-level, individuals are “pushed” from countries that have few economic or educational opportunities available and “pulled” towards wealthier countries that have a demand for sex and labor. These countries are typically impoverished and suffering from conflicts or natural disasters. Victims in developing countries are especially susceptible to traffickers’ offers of economic prosperity in a developed country, like the U.S. As social turmoil typically weakens the law enforcement system, traffickers can operate without fear of being prosecuted and brought to justice. Victims of trafficking do not necessarily arrive to their destination countries immediately, but are instead passed through what is known as a transit country. The final point in a victim’s journey is entering the destination country where he or she is subsequently exploited for labor or sex. Throughout the process, traffickers employ a combination of deception and force to capture and terrorize their victims.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, individuals who are trafficked fall victim to acts of force, fraud, and coercion. The vast majority of human trafficking victims are raped, physically abused, and confined by their captors. According to the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 95 percent of trafficking victims experience physical or sexual violence. This violence frequently occurs during the first stage of victimization, termed the “seasoning process,” where captors abuse victims in order to break their resistance and make them easier to control. Trafficked individuals also fall prey to false promises such as offers for employment in other countries. Women and children typically reply to advertisements for positions as waitresses, maids, or dancers and are subsequently trafficked into brothels and other forced labor situations.

Finally, coercion in trafficking cases often involves the captors threatening the victim or the victim’s family with physical harm if the trafficked individual fails to cooperate. Traffickers often steal important government issued documents, like passports or identity cards, from the individual in an attempt to impede his or her escape. Additionally, individuals are often caught in endless cycles of debt bondage. The trafficker typically argues that the individual must work to pay off the cost of the trans-border passage, while also paying for living expenses in the host country. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services, “fines for not meeting daily quotas of service or ‘bad’ behavior are also used by some trafficking operations to increase debt” of their victims. Individuals are thus caught in a cycle of debt and, due to language, social, and physical barriers they are reluctant to seek assistance from local authorities or family members back home. Each year, according to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the United States with a large percentage of these victims originating from or traveling through Mexico.

Mexican Drug and Human Trafficking

The U.S.-Mexico border is an especially conflicted area where transnational crime is rampant. Mexican President Felipe Calderon explained the relationship between criminal activity in Mexico and the U.S. saying, “the more secure Mexico is, the more secure the United States will be.” As Mexico and the U.S. are connected physically and through criminal links, issues the Mexican government deals with will subsequently impact the U.S. Many of the Mexican criminal networks notable for narcotrafficking are also involved in human trafficking. According to the Inter Press Service, “at least 20 networks are involved in the trafficking of persons, with links to organised crime rings involved in other activities like drug smuggling.” Rampant corruption plagues the U.S.-Mexico border, where high-ranking Mexican officials have been accused of taking bribes from drug rings. According to Gary Hale, DEA intelligence chief for Houston, the U.S. effort to end the drug war has forced these criminal networks to seek “other crime activities to generate their income.” Hale reports that, due to the U.S. government’s crackdown on drug trafficking, crime rings income has decreased significantly. As a result, many of the criminal networks have searched for other activities, like human trafficking, to supplement their income.

Ambassador C. de Baca believes that focusing on eradicating human trafficking could improve U.S.-Mexican efforts to combat other forms of transnational crime. According to C. de Baca, human trafficking “appears to be an area where the [Mexican government] is prepared to cooperate with [the U.S.].” C. de Baca and others are hopeful that the exchange of information on human trafficking cases will build relationships between Mexican and U.S. officials that might help further combat the drug war.

Trafficking in Mexico

The State Department classifies Mexico as a source, transit, and a destination nation for human trafficking. The State Department also has labeled Mexico a “Tier 2” country, meaning that it has yet to fully implement effective anti-trafficking measures. While many Mexican states have adopted measures to criminalize human trafficking, the report found that “no convictions or stringent punishments against trafficking offenders were reported last year.” The government’s failure to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice further enables this damaging industry to effectively function. The trafficking industry is also contingent on corruption at the local level and, as many officials routinely receive generous bribes from traffickers, few regional trafficking measures are strictly enforced.

Mexican Victims in the United States

In response to the human trafficking link between the U.S. and Mexico, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), funded by the U.S. State Department, recently published the Human Trafficking Assessment Tool for Mexico (HTAT). The report states that “one of the greatest challenges regarding trafficking in persons in Mexico is that the phenomenon is believed to be extensive, but has yet to be documented in a systematic manner.” While estimates of human trafficking in Mexico can be somewhat allusive, the U.S. State Department and the United Nations have begun to devote more attention to the issue.

Mexico is one of the world’s largest source countries in the hemisphere and countless numbers of these victims being trafficked into the United States originate here. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mexico ranks “high” as an origin country in its annual trafficking report. Traffickers employ a variety of strategies to ensnare their victims, ranging from false promises of employment in the United States to kidnapping. Often, individuals pay “coyotes,” or immigrant smugglers, to help them cross over into the U.S. These individuals, anxious for the opportunities these coyotes promise, turn over thousands of dollars in transportation fees. However, the line between coyote and trafficker is tenuous at best and smugglers often enslave those in their charge. Mexican women and children are particularly vulnerable to falling prey to traffickers as they are highly valued commodities for sex traffickers supplying destination countries, like the United States and Canada. Due to the Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. and the relaxed government regulations concerning trafficking, a huge percentage of the sex trafficking victims in the U.S. originate in Mexico.

Mexican victims of sex trafficking often appear in the United States either as prostitutes or as bargirls in cantinas. In high volume brothels, according to the State Department, these women and children are forced to service from 10 to 40 clients each day and are extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and excessive physical violence. While prostitution is illegal in most of the United States, “cantinas” — restaurants and bars where clients watch, grope and, on occasion, have sexual encounters with the young victims — are legal and lucrative businesses.

On November 25, Brooklyn police discovered a sex trafficking ring and found a young Mexican woman who had been forced into prostitution and the buried remains of her two month-old son. The brothel owners, illegal immigrants from Mexico themselves, face criminal charges for sex trafficking in the Brooklyn Federal Court. Domingo Salazar, the man accused of organizing the woman’s capture, allegedly traveled to Mexico, impregnated the young woman and smuggled her back to the United States. Coyotes, or traffickers, intentionally try to impregnate young women because they will be less likely to return home bearing an illegitimate child. This act of coercion is unfortunately a common factor in trafficking Mexican women into brothels in the U.S.

Once she arrived in the U.S., the young woman was forced to engage in sexual activities with 25 clients daily and was regularly abused by her captors. After she gave birth in November of 2007, the owners of the illegal establishment barred her from seeking medical treatment for her infant, who died two months later. After 2 years in bondage, investigators received a tip, raided the brothel, freed the young woman, and arrested the couple. Officials continue to search for other victims of this couple’s dreadful business. In response to the crime and investigation, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged victims to speak out saying, “We all have an obligation to help each other, and if somebody really is being trafficked, you’ve got to make that phone call.” Just as New Yorkers must “help each other,” the U.S. and Mexico need to collaborate in order to prevent human trafficking and ensure proper treatment for victims of the illegal industry. If Mexican authorities fail to promote more stringent measures against human trafficking, these heinous acts will continue to be encountered in the U.S. and other destination countries. Conversely, the U.S. must also address the country’s demand for prostitutes and inexpensive laborers.

In addition to sex trafficking, victims from Mexico are also held captive by farm operators, who exploit them as a source of cheap labor. Ambassador C. de Baca has said that, “the pickles and tomatoes that we eat are more and more being picked by people held against their own will.” While U.S. citizens are starting to become more aware of sexual trafficking, few individuals realize that modern-day slavery is taking place on U.S. farms. Unfortunately, the demand for inexpensive labor in the U.S. often leads to the exploitation of illegal immigrants and trafficking victims. Especially in the current financial climate, more farm and factory owners are in need of cheap labor to ensure that profits remain high despite the economic downturn.

Victims in Transit are Vulnerable to Traffickers

Mexico also acts as an intermediary location between the individual’s country of origin and the nation where he or she will be enslaved. Statistics representing Mexico as a transit country for traffickers are particularly lacking, as many individuals enter Mexico illegally and only briefly pass through the country. According to the U.S. State Department, “victims from South America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Asia, are trafficked into Mexico for sexual or labor exploitation, or transit the country en route to the United States.” The Human Trafficking Assessment Tool reports that, of the estimated 500,000 Central Americans that travel through Mexico hoping to reach the U.S., 20,000 to 50,000 of these immigrants fall victim to human traffickers. The overwhelming majority of these victims are trafficked to the U.S., and a small minority of individuals are trafficked into Canada.

Unaccompanied Immigrants Captured and Forced to Work in Mexico

The U.S. State Department reports a new trend that immigrants from Central and South America, traveling towards the U.S., are captured and exploited in Mexico. Guatemalans, living in a country wrought by political instability, violence, and crime, are often desperate to improve their economic situations and provide for their families. Devastatingly, human traffickers play upon their victims’ desperation. Luis C. de Baca observed that, “though [human traffickers] deal in misery, what they’re pitching is hope: hope for a better life, hope for a better opportunity.”

With such a hope of improving her opportunities, a young Guatemalan woman left home to travel through Mexico in search of the fabled “American Dream.” On December 2nd, the Mexican newspaper El Universal related the story of Nancy, a young Guatemalan woman, who left her native Guatemala with her brother hoping to travel through Mexico and then into the United States. The pair boarded a northbound train secretly but members of a gang called Los Zetitas viciously attacked them. The group of armed men, known for participating in drug and human trafficking, is only one of many such organizations operating in Mexico along the migratory route. The men grabbed Nancy and threw her into a car that soon departed, leaving her frantic brother behind. Nancy spent the next two and a half months working in a brothel along the U.S.-Mexico border before she was able to contact her brother, who soon organized her rescue. According to the article, her story is shared by nearly 20,000 Central Americans currently forced to work in the sex industry throughout Mexico.

Mexican Child Sex Tourism

Mexican women and children are also forced from their homes due to economic issues and sent to work in the sex industry in Mexican tourist centers and border towns. ECPAT, an organization whose acronym stands for “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes reports that the country has “long been regarded as a popular sex tourism location.” The State Department report also emphasizes that a “significant” amount of women and children are trafficked from within Mexico and forced into the sex industry. Each year, nearly 20,000 Mexican children are trafficked and forced into sex work in tourist centers like Acapulco and Cancún, and the border towns of Juárez and Tijuana. These cities become magnets for sex tourists and, especially pedophiles, that prey on minors who have been trafficked to border areas.

ECPAT enumerates three possible categories for child sex tourists. Those that do not travel to a country to initiate sexual relations but take advantage of the children when they arrive are called situational abusers. According to ECPAT, “the situational offender is an indiscriminate sex tourist who is presented with the opportunity to interact sexually with a person under 18.” The majority of child sex tourists are of this type. The second type, the preferential child sex tourist, displays an “active sexual preference for children” but is also attracted to adults. This type of individual typically seeks out adolescent children. Finally, pedophiles are sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children exclusively.

Pedophiles and preferential child sex tourists represent the minority of child sex abuse cases. U.S. citizens are driving the demand for the trafficking of children by making trips, whether with a specific purpose or chanced interest, to brothels for the explicit purpose of exploiting children. ECPAT reports that 36 percent of U.S. child sex tourist cases involved crimes committed in Mexico. Mexico must address the trafficking of these child victims so that they are not available to situational abusers. The U.S. must also work to prevent these criminal acts by investigating the child sex tourism websites and networks that draw preferential child sex tourists and pedophiles.

An example of a child sex tourist case can be found in a November 25 article in the Arizona Daily Star. The paper reported that a former school superintendent pled guilty to charges that he planned a child sex tour of Mexico. The man, who indicated he was interested in a 13 or 14 year-old boy, arranged his trip with undercover agents. Officials arrested him as he crossed into Mexico and he now faces between five to nine years in a federal prison. According to Mario Fuentes, director of Mexico’s Centre for Studies and Research in Social Development and Assistance, “As long as the political will to combat trafficking is lacking, and until further legal changes are adopted, nothing is going to change.” Without stricter legislation and enforcement, the U.S.-Mexico border cities will continue to be a safe haven for American tourists to sexually exploit girls and boys.

Tackling the Issue

However, in its annual report, the State Department also applauded Mexico’s enactment of federal anti-trafficking laws that dole out six to twelve years of prison time to convicted traffickers. Nonetheless, they continued to be concerned that supportive legislation is not being implemented at the local level. To date, only twenty-two of the thirty-one Mexican states have ratified at least partial trafficking laws, but there have been no reports of any convictions at the local, state, or federal level this past year. “So far there have been no convictions, which is a very serious problem,” said ABA ROLI Consultant Gretchen Kuhner. “But the law against trafficking in Mexico is very new, and more time is needed to evaluate its implementation.” With Mexico’s federalist system, it is the responsibility of the state to enact legislation and subsequently punish offenders. The lack of prosecutions demonstrates a fundamental disconnect between the intentions of the federal government and the actual implementation of these reforms.

Corruption prevents federal legislation, ratified to adhere to international standards, from being implemented at the local level. According to the Trafficking Report, “some officials reportedly accepted or extorted bribes or sexual services, falsified identity documents, discouraged trafficking victims from reporting their crimes, or ignored child prostitution and other human trafficking activity in commercial sex sites.” In response to his country’s rampant corruption, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched Operation Limpieza, a program intended to rid the government of crooked officials. The program resulted in dozens of arrests and was intended to demonstrate, especially to the U.S., Mexico’s commitment to establishing a morally upright law enforcement and judicial system. The Mexican government must continue to exhibit such dedication if it hopes to truly clean up its act and prosecute these criminals.

Possibly the most flawed aspect of existing Mexico’s legislation is that the victims themselves must bring charges against the offenders in order for the crime to be considered human trafficking. The obvious issue with this mandate is that the victims, who have been coerced and forced into servitude, are often far too traumatized and frightened to speak up against the traffickers. Victims often fear for the safety of their families as the traffickers, who are typically members of larger criminal networks, have the contacts necessary to avenge any criminal investigation that might result from the victims’ testimonies. Furthermore, without a real assurance that Mexican law enforcement officers will prosecute these offenders, victims will unfortunately be tempted to maintain their silence.

Protecting Victims of Trafficking

In addition to strengthening the existing legislation and ensuring that anti-trafficking laws are strictly enforced, the Mexican government must begin to serious protect the victims of human trafficking. Last year, the government allotted a mere $5.45 million to shelter victims of human trafficking in a variety of protection programs. The bulk of assistance provided for these victims has come from international organizations and national non-governmental organizations. Of more concern is that Mexican victims are typically directed to contact local resources, which are often lacking, and foreign victims are often deported within 90 days. These individuals are returned to their homes without regard for the potential economic or political difficulties that await them. Furthermore, given the far reach of these criminal organizations, deporting victims makes them available and vulnerable once again to trafficking.

Preventing Human Trafficking

The most important measure that must be taken to eliminate human trafficking is to work for the alleviation of poverty. Economic instability forces individuals, desperate to provide for their families, to seek employment opportunities in developed countries. According to the Associated Press, in Mexico from 2006 to 2008, people suffering from extreme poverty, or those surviving on less than $1.25 a day, rose from 13.8 million to 19.5 million citizens. Ordinary poverty, or those who cannot pay for housing, transportation, and education, increased from 42.6 million to 50.6 million people over the same time period. Poverty also weakens social infrastructure and generates “zones of impunity” where traffickers can operate freely. Alleviating poverty empowers potential victims and prevents them from falling prey to the false promises of traffickers. In addition, countries must not only address human trafficking but also work to eliminate all forms of criminal activities within their borders. Educating citizens, in developed and developing countries alike, about human trafficking is the first step to reducing misunderstandings about the illegal industry and empowering victims to advocate on their own behalf.

The traffickers play upon an individuals’ lack of awareness and social inequality to lure victims away from their homes and into a rapacious vocation. As a result, the individual does not understand that rather than gaining a steady job in the United States, he or she will be forced into prostitution or to labor on a farm. Supplying citizens with knowledge about trafficking affords them the ability to advocate on behalf of the exploited. The State Department reports that FEVIMTRA, the Mexican Attorney General’s Crimes Against Women and Trafficking in Persons Unit, began an educational campaign and distributed anti-trafficking material throughout the country. While this is a positive initiative, the State Department reported an “uneven” relationship between law enforcement and local NGOs, in that the work of the latter far exceeds the attention of the former to the subject. The Mexican government must endeavor to bridge this communication gaps between local and international organizations and law enforcement personnel.

Human trafficking takes advantage of and perpetuates economic and gender inequality. This illicit industry relies upon economic disparities to uproot impoverished individuals and transport them to areas where there is a consumer base for these services. The victims, who then do not have any opportunity to earn an income, cannot improve their economic situations or those of their families. In addition, many victims, due to emotional and physical trauma or social stigma, are barred from seeking gainful employment once liberated, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty. In regards to the trafficking of women and girls, human trafficking plays upon the image of a woman as a commodity, and commercializes the female body. Preventing human trafficking requires eliminating the gender and economic inequality that the industry relies upon to function.

Future Steps to be Taken

Collaboration between U.S. and Mexican authorities regarding the elimination of corruption and improving informational technology will help eliminate the prevalence of this malevolent industry. The most important step for both the U.S. and Mexico is to communicate and collaborate on issues involved with human trafficking. The industry thrives on so-called “zones of impunity,” or areas where traffickers can operate without fear of prosecution, and the elimination of such areas through international collaboration is crucial to effectively combat trafficking.

Another important process involves the eradication of corruption in both the U.S. and Mexico to ensure that perpetrators and “turned” police personnel are brought to justice. Victims will only begin to have faith in law enforcement and the justice system once they witness the convictions of offenders. Until these criminals are brought to justice, victims will continue to live in fear, both of their captors and of law enforcement. Finally, empowering Mexican civil society through improvements in technology is necessary for equipping citizens and victims with the tools to report these crimes. For example, implementing a national hotline and informative websites enables victims to cite instances of trafficking and locations where they can be found. The Mexican government must work to not only develop these technologies but also make them accessible throughout the country, which could be aided by skillfully applied funding.

Concluding Remarks

No country is immune to human trafficking. All nations, whether they are classified as source, transit, or destination countries, are being profoundly damaged by this illicit and demoralizing industry. While the United Nations regards the Asia Pacific region as the “most vulnerable” to human trafficking, the presence of trafficking in Latin America is growing. The current economic downturn’s effect on the region will undoubtedly lead to an increase in human trafficking throughout Latin America. The region must work together with the United States, which represents the largest destination country in the hemisphere, to ensure that countries are doing as much as possible to eradicate modern day slavery. While it is not easy for either the U.S. or Mexico to acknowledge the weight of the issue, both countries will, in fact, be key players in the fight against human trafficking.