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TENANCINGO, Mexico— It began, like so many cases, while waiting for a ride home. She was 13 and sitting on a park bench in central Mexico when a handsome stranger approached and began to flirt. He was a few years older and seemed charming.
For the sake of her protection, let’s call them Maria and José.
They soon began dating and after a few months she moved in with his family in a tiny town called Tenancingo that is notorious for sex trafficking. Maria didn’t know that, though. All she knew was that she had problems with her parents and her boyfriend promised a happier future. Vaguely offering marriage, he suggested they sneak across the border into Arizona and make money for their new life together.
What he had in mind wasn’t a typical job, though. It was sexual slavery.
A van drove the couple across the country to a dingy apartment in the New York neighborhood of Corona, Queens, where José promptly locked her up. For the next three and a half years he forced Maria to service men, sometimes as many as 30 a day, in commercial gang bangs in suburban homes.
José kept her $35 fee. When she protested, he beat her so severely that she later needed reconstructive surgery. He forced her to swallow multiple forms of contraception so that menstruation would never cause her to lose a day of work. Her private parts grew so torn and infected that she had to apply anesthetics. Meanwhile, Maria's pimp threatened to kill her sister back in Mexico if Maria went to the police.
“He controlled me psychologically. This is the most terrible thing. He knew where my family lived,” she recalled. “I was angry but what could I do? I didn’t know English. I had no money. I didn’t know the streets. He had my papers so I couldn’t leave. I didn’t know how to get home.”
Eventually, the pain became so unbearable that Maria could no longer take it. During a rare moment alone she fled the apartment and hobbled to the police station. Officers rushed her to a hospital and to a lawyer who handles sex trafficking cases. Lori Cohen of Sanctuary for Families, a center for battered and trafficked women, arranged a safe house, therapy and English lessons for Maria. A year later, she’s gained back the 30 pounds she lost and makes pastries for a restaurant.
“I’ve seen dozens of these cases, all linked to Tenancingo,” said Cohen, sitting by Maria’s side in an unmarked office in Midtown Manhattan. Other young Mexican women filled the waiting room, a sign reminding them to keep the address confidential.
That town of 10,000 has a disturbing cottage industry — sex trafficking. The extended families of young and uneducated women, from sons to grandmothers, kidnap and smuggle them to Corona, a bustling immigrant neighborhood of taco trucks and restaurants. Outside bars along the main drag, Roosevelt Avenue, pimps hand out business cards to potential clients advertising "florists" or "kids’ birthday parties." The men who take the cards are not seeking clowns or roses, and when they call the number a driver delivers girls.
While human trafficking has recently exploded as big business for drug cartels, Tenancingo’s family-run prostitution goes back to the 1950s, when the local economy collapsed. The state it is in, Tlaxcala, is the country’s smallest, with little notable economic production and a long tradition of robo de novia, whereby men abduct women they want to marry. Over the years this practice mutated into a commercial venture that spans generations. Fathers train sons to bring in women. Uncles provide security. Mom launders the money and grandma minds the babies.
Pimps from Tenancingo rank on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) list of most-wanted human traffickers. Earlier this year, ICE announced that it had caught one, Paulino Ramirez-Granados. He was the 12th member of his ring to be nabbed after a lengthy operation that rescued 25 Mexican sexual assault victims in New York City. An associate on the list remains at large.
Despite the risk of arrest, a pimp who manages just three women could conceivably make $1 million a year. The practice has spread to 34 other towns near Tenancingo, says anthropologist Veronica Caporal, who has studied the networks.
“It’s a copycat machine,” she said. ”The boys want to grow up to be pimps. Because towns are so little the families are basically in control, and of course there is complicity by officials.”
An expanse of seedy hotels and women in scanty dress line the highway that connects the towns. A new style of architecture has sprung up — garish mansions painted neon green and purple, with castle-like turrets. Each peaked gable supposedly represents a sex slave.
The pimps also seek quarry in other areas — Oaxaca, Mexico City, Tabasco, Veracruz and Puebla — because they don’t want to sully local girls. They look in parks, commercial centers and dance halls for alienated teenagers who have problems with parents or work as maids far from home.
“The pimps are the best psychologists. They smell vulnerability,” said Maria Guadalupe Garcia Vega, the director of Fray Julián Garcés, an NGO based in Tlaxcala that is trying to stop the practice.
Garcia Vega finds it hard to reincorporate rescued women into society. Their parents often reject them and the women feel too ashamed to seek help. Neighbors are scared to rat on pimps. (According to urban legend, one who went by the nickname Cayman fed his pet crocodile the flesh of girls.) Taxi drivers return girls who try to run away. Government complicity makes it impossible to wipe out.
Rosario Mendieta, of Colectivo Mujer y Utopia, a human rights group for Tlaxcala women, knows of more than 250 cases that have taken place since 2005. She believes the actual number is probably higher, though. “It is easy to romance a girl of 16. The man takes advantage of her vulnerability to create distrust with the parents, by saying things like, ‘They don’t love you, only I love you.’ ”
Due to Mexico’s notoriously dysfunctional law enforcement, the most aggressive crackdowns are north of the border, where a special task force in New York is working the streets to break the rings. The announcement of Ramirez-Granados’ arrest, for instance, came from American immigration officials even though it was the result of a joint operation between U.S. and Mexican authorities in Tenancingo.
In Mexico, even the special prosecutor for violent crimes against women, Nelly Montealegre Diaz, admitted that impunity and organized crime hampers her work: “We can’t deny that corruption plays a role. It’s not just one person, it’s a chain.”
Cohen said that at present she has 32 cases involving women smuggled from Tenancingo, among them Maria, who is cooperating with authorities in order to send her tormentor to jail. “We have many clients who actively want to help in the investigations,” noted Cohen, as Maria nodded vigorously at her side. “They want to prevent this happening to other girls. For many years they were led to believe they had no value. Now they can talk to a judge who validates them.”