On June 4, the Mexican Army raided a house in the border town of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas and rescued 165 people being held against their will by a 20-year-old identified as Juan Cortez Arrez. Testimonies from some of the victims show that they had been kidnapped for nearly three weeks.
News of their rescue has drawn praise for Mexico’s armed forces, which responded to an anonymous call and implemented an operation that resulted in zero casualties and one arrest. However, this event should also serve to bring attention to a problem which has become graver in recent years: trafficking in persons (TIP).
The group rescued comprised 77 Salvadorans, 50 Guatemalans, 23 Hondurans, one Indian, and 14 Mexicans, all of whom had contacted a supposed “pollero” (a person who assists unauthorized immigrants in crossing the border) in the hopes of reaching the United States. The pollero was really a member of a criminal gang who had other plans for the group.
After the rescue, the Mexican government’s spokesperson for national security, Eduardo Sánchez Hernández, stated that many aspiring migrants end up “being delivered to the hands of criminal organizations,” rather than taken safely across the border. These criminal groups then use their captives for sexual trafficking and prostitution, forced labor, as drug mules, and—as the narcofosas (clandestine mass graves) tragically show—execute kidnapping victims in initiation rituals of new gang members. In 2011, 236 bodies were discovered in narcofosas in the border town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Granted, there is no proof that all of the victims were intended migrants and some might have been killed in other gang-related activities, including inter-cartel wars, but the problem remains.
Human trafficking is not new to Mexico, but it was not until 2004 that the first anti-trafficking in persons law was passed, making this activity a crime punishable by up to 18 years of incarceration. In 2008, the Attorney General’s office created the Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia Contra Las Mujeres y Trata de Personas (FEVIMTRA), a special prosecutor’s team designated to work on crimes against women and human trafficking and whose members have received training from international outfits specializing in these matters. And last year, then-President Felipe Calderón passed a new law making femicide a crime punishable by up to 60 years in jail. Some radio ad campaigns have been launched at a national level to focus on prevention.
These are important steps toward addressing the TIP problem, but clearly more needs to be done to put a dent in this very lucrative business of human exploitation. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), human trafficking is a $32 billion a year business.
According to the U.S. State Department’s TIP Office, there are three “p’s” to tackle to effectively combat human trafficking: protection, prevention and prosecution.
The legal framework for protection is more or less in place in Mexico, and the aforementioned laws protect victims. However, putting the laws in place is only the first step, and local institutions treating victims are a long way from providing proper care to address the problem effectively. The 2012 U.S. State Department’s TIP report notes that Mexico has relied heavily on NGOs, international organizations, and foreign governments “to operate or fund the bulk of specialized assistance and services for trafficking victims.” The message is clear: Mexican authorities need to invest more in building local capacity instead of depending on non-sustainable foreign aid.
There is also a huge amount of work to be done to properly habilitate shelters and migrant houses and to train staff how to properly identify and treat victims. According to the State Department report, victim services are often inadequate and some shelters for migrants and domestic abuse victims are reluctant to house trafficking victims “due to fear of retribution from organized crime.” Anonymous anecdotal testimonies of people working in some of these shelters also tell the story of migrant houses actually hosting traffickers who pose as victims.
On the prevention track, educational campaigns need to hit home through better and more effective channels than a few superficial TV and radio spots. Unfortunately, the Mexican government’s budget allocation has shown other priorities: in 2011, the government reduced the anti-trafficking budget from $4.2 million to $313,000.
Prevention is not just about making sure people understand the crime of trafficking, but also about addressing its causes.
In this regard, immigration reform in the United States is crucial. Robust temporary worker programs that disincentive illegal work would allow the U.S. to meet its demand for certain types of labor and protect those who are willing to fulfill it. Addressing the TIP problem in Mexico without strengthening bilateral cooperation with the U.S.—which draws migrants to their dangerous journey—would be futile.
Prosecution against human trafficking has made some progress in Mexico, but still falls drastically short. In 2011, 14 sex traffickers were convicted, a massive difference from the one conviction achieved the previous year. But effective prosecution is impeded by a lack of law enforcement and embedded corruption.
Effective prosecution also has a long way to go with regards to training public attorneys on the differences between trafficking, prostitution and other related crimes. There is not enough transparency to provide effective statistics on convictions vs. dropped cases in Mexico, but in a conversation with a former employee of the American Bar Association working on anti-TIP projects in Latin America, I learned that most traffickers who are caught go free because of procedural errors during prosecution.
So kudos to the 165 rescued in the first week of June. But if these 165 victims were found just in one location, it does paint a grim picture of the dimensions of the problem in Mexico and of the lack of adequate resources allocated to address it.