• Connect with us on Linkedin

Men who Sold Women: Human Trafficking Networks in Central America

  • Written by Oscar Martinez*
  • Sunday, 28 October 2012

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

"Where did they do it to you?"

"On my right calf. They took us to a place where we did the tattoo. They made  us eat something and inhale something that put us to sleep. When I woke up and had the tattoo. It's a butterfly on a branch, which forms the 'Z' for Zeta. That was the marking; it meant that I was theirs, that I was merchandise."

Linkedin
Google +

[See the complete special report by El Faro in Spanish here]

Grecia has gone. Twice she recounted how an organized crime group used her body as a container for whatever they wanted. Then she had to leave. She reported to the authorities in El Salvador and to those of Mexico. Grecia no longer lives in El Salvador. She is a refugee in another country. For her own security, few people know where.

I know Grecia is 29 years old, has two children aged six and three, and a ten-month old baby. She is married and was unemployed when she decided to migrate. The only time I have heard Grecia’s words come from a 52 minute recording of my own voice reading the words in the statement she gave to a Salvadoran judge.

In a hearing before the Ninth Court of Peace of the city of San Salvador, in front of a man who she recognized as one of her assailants, at 9 a.m. on the morning of July 2, 2010, Grecia answered questions about what had happened to her and how she survived.

***

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

- You were cited by this court to seek justice for the crimes of kidnapping, rape and trafficking committed against you. When did you begin the trip to the United States?

- On April 13, 2009.

- With what intent did you travel?

- Because of the economic situation of the country.

- Who did you travel with?

- With Ovidio Guardado.

- Describe Ovidio.

- He’s male, about 69 years old, white skin, short wavy graying hair, height of approximately 1.77 meters, he has no teeth. He has a scar on his head.

- What did this man do?

- He tricked me. He never told me he was a “coyote”. He said we were going to the United States, but when we arrived in Mexico he showed his true intentions.

- And what were his intentions?

- His intention was to rape me, but he wasn’t able to.

- How many people accompanied you on this trip?

- Only Mr. Ovidio.

Ovidio is a peasant, tan and wrinkled, but still strong, like a dead tree with no leaves that will remain standing for years. Ovidio is a relative of Grecia’s husband. Ovidio is a neighbor of Grecia’s mother and mother-in-law. Grecia trusted Ovidio.

***

Just as it happened in Grecia’s case, the hook in most cases where women are converted into commodities is the hope of escaping poverty.

Another such case is that of the Barberena network that not only talks about the origin of the victims, but reveals many other facets of the groups of traffickers in the region. The structure of Barberena included  12 men and one woman and it operated until 2006 in the rural town of Barberena, in the Guatemalan department of Santa Rosa, on the Pacific coast of the country. The murderous network even had a corn farm where they performed bloody rituals to sow panic in their victims. It was a corrupt network that was fortunate enough to have a Salvadoran judge set most of its members free. 

The Barberena network operated from a bar called El Pantanal. The pattern of deception was simple. They sent Salvadoran men or women to cantons and villages of the border departments of Santa Ana and Ahuachapan in El Salvador. They would approach humble homes with the excuse of being employees of a supermarket and a new diner in Barberena where they needed staff. They offered $70 per week plus all travel costs to Barberena, and even a $50 bonus for the “new hire’s” family.

The four countries of the northern part of Central America are the source, transit points and destination for victims of trafficking and in all four countries there are cases of sexual slavery. Officials say that Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras are the origins of the victims. And Guatemala is the place where most of those victims are enslaved. All four countries are, thanks to the thousands of migrants these countries produce, a vast pool from which Mexican traffickers take their pick. Experts -- non-governmental organizations, prosecutors, police, international organizations -- say the proximity to Mexico and the huge influx of migrants passing through Guatemala make that country an ideal place for human trafficking gangs.

The scammers who search for victims in villages and hamlets live in the area, know the people, pose as benefactors, and settle there under false names. Some of the “recruiters”, according to Silvia Saravia -- who is charged with the psychological care of trafficking victims for the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office -- know much about their targets: their age, habits, even if they have been raped or abused. Traffickers smell helplessness and vulnerability like sharks smell blood.

The desperate women who accepted these offers had to travel an hour to reach the gates of El Pantanal bar. Without delay, they were received by armed men and a Guatemalan woman, Sonia Garcia. Sonia would tell them to change their conservative, almost evangelical clothing and don the miniskirts and shirts with plunging necklines and garish colors that were offered to them. They were told they had to go to the main room of the house and convince drunk men to pay 50 quetzals (about seven dollars) to "blow off steam" with them for 30 minutes. They, the victims, usually said no. They would protest that this work was not what they had signed up for. Then the men who surrounded Sonia, Salvadorans mostly, explained to the women with fists and baseball bats that this was not an offer but an order.

When I met in mid-August in the Apanteos prison with Rigoberto Moran Martinez, one of the six people convicted for being part of the Barberena network, he said that almost none of the women worked the first week. Most of them would spend that time with purple, disfigured faces. And the customers of El Pantanal did not like purple-faced women. That was how it was during the first two years he worked in El Pantanal anyway. 

In late 2007, 16 survivors of El Pantanal testified in a Salvadoran court. Twenty-six women in total had been rescued in a joint operation between Guatemala’s Interpol and the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office. Twenty of them were Salvadoran. The other six were Nicaraguans and Guatemalans. Most of the recruiters, it seems, were from El Salvador.

The annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime this year says that in El Salvador 79 percent of the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation detected by the police between 2005 and 2010 were Salvadoran nationals. In contrast, in Guatemala, in the same period, only 4 percent of the victims were from that country; 89 percent came from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Experts agree, though, that all of the victims from Central America have one origin in common: poverty.

One Salvadoran rescued from El Pantanal was underage. To protect her as a witness during the hearings she was called Carmencita. Asked why she accepted at 15 to leave her family and go to work to Barberena, she responded: “There were days that my mom didn’t have enough money to buy beans.”

What she endured to get those beans was quite simply brutal.  

“There were days when I was with as many as seven men," she testified. "But since I didn’t like any of that, I would throw tantrums. One day the owner went nuts. He started hitting us with a machete and wounded my leg. Crying, I told him to take me to hospital. The wound became infected. He just told me to clean it because it disgusted the customers."

What the customers felt for a 15 year old girl with a deep wound in the leg was disgust. 

***

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

- And then what happened?

- One evening, Mr. Ovidio took me to a barn, which is about four hours from a river called Las Palmas. It was about 11 p.m. I only saw three horses. He told me that his God had spoken to him and that I had to be his.

- Did you do anything?

- I got angry and didn’t let him touch me. (Ovidio) became violent, he threatened me with a long fingernail and said that it wouldn’t be the first time he'd killed someone with a fingernail. I told Mr. Ovidio I was going to go to the bathroom. Then (I) tried to flee. I ran. I got to a place called The Battalion. I ran for 45 minutes. I told them I was fleeing because Mr. Ovidio wanted to abuse me. A soldier told me not to worry, that I could stay in that place and sleep.

According to her account, five days after leaving El Salvador, while in the Mexican state of Tabasco, Grecia separated from Ovidio. Before she fled, he warned Grecia that she would know hell on earth.

After sleeping one night in front of the Mexican garrison, Grecia made it back to the train tracks in Tenosique, the Mexican city that marks the beginning of the Atlantic Route of the so-called "Tren de la Muerte" (Train of Death), which Central Americans board as stowaways for a ride to a better life in America. Grecia found a group of migrants from different countries in the area and asked if she could join them, telling them what Ovidio had tried to do to her during the trip. They welcomed her and together they approached the tracks, which Grecia describes as follows: "There are huts, shops. In the front there is an abandoned hotel. There is also a swamp. There were other undocumented people and people who were armed."

Tenosique, which nearly borders Petén, Guatemala, is one of the accursed cities of migration. The hotel Grecia mentioned in her testimony was used by criminal groups to hold kidnapped migrants kidnapped before they took them to other northern cities. Ironically, the name of the hotel was California.

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

- What do you mean armed people?

- They are responsible for taking people up north. They wore jeans and T-shirts. They dominated the place. They gave the orders and controlled area around the train tracks. They mentioned they were from an organization called the Zetas, which ruled the area.

[See InSight Crime's Zetas profile]

- How many people were there?

- About 20.

- What kind of weapons did they have?

- They were guns, big guns, pistols. A Honduran who was there said it was an Uzi...

***

Rigoberto is a 48-year old man who had one year of schooling. As a kid, he worked on the cornfields. In 1982, when he was 18 and the Salvadoran civil war was just starting, he was drafted into the army. When the war ended he continued to work carrying a gun, as a private security guard.

“Who guarded the women in El Pantanal?” I ask him. We are talking in a courtyard known as the green zone of the Apanteos prison in El Salvador.

“It was people trusted by him, his family,” he says, referring to Adan Cerritos, the leader of the  Barberena gang. They guarded the women all the time, Roberto adds.

The Barberena gang is typical of traffickers in Central America. It relied on people with close ties to each other, relatives if possible, to administer the brothels. Below them there were a few employees without power -- recruiters and thugs who beat the women. Though it worked internationally, it was really a small group. Rather than resembling the monstrous structures of drug cartels, the Barberena group chose to consolidate its stronghold in a remote and rural area of Guatemala. But small does not mean it acted alone. 

“Why didn’t you ever report what was happening there?” I ask Rigoberto, granting him the benefit of the doubt -- he had said, after all, that he was merely a "sweeper, a handyman" at the bar El Pantanal. Rigoberto, after two years on the run, was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2011 for human trafficking. The maximum sentence in El Salvador for selling someone to be used as an object is ten years, three months and three days. You can only get this sentence if there are aggravating circumstances such as if the victim is a minor. Rigoberto's version is that he went to El Pantanal deceived by a Salvadoran woman, who was a recruiter for the Barberena network. He was in love, he told me.

“I couldn’t (report it) -- the police had been bought off. No one could. I would have risked my life. I could have been killed. I don’t know how much money (Cerritos) would give them,” he says. 

The sun is setting.

“You never saw women escape or ask for help?” I ask.

“It was impossible,” he says. “Maybe I would have helped them, but I couldn’t because (Cerritos) had bought off the entire police force in Cuilapa, in Barberena. When [investigators] would come from the capital city to search for women, the police would warn him to hide the women. He would leave some of the ones who were legal, but the others were hidden in the bar. Or he would take them out the day before to a farm where there was plenty of coffee and corn.” 

The Barberena network, though small and discreet, with just one brothel, operated like a large-scale trafficking ring through corruption. Rigoberto says cops in Barberena and Cuilapa, a neighboring municipality, would collect weekly payments form Cerritos, and that they were  VIP clients in El Pantanal, as were some municipal employees.

The partnership did not end there. Rigoberto says members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang in Ahuachapán on the Guatemala border, also acted as recruiters. In fact, a Salvadoran gang member, Marco Antonio Godoy, is serving time because of his role in this group.

The Barberena network, though small and discreet, operated like any big scale criminal network: They were involved in all types of crimes within their reach, as long as they were profitable. During the trial, two women rescued from El Pantanal repeatedly said the business owners sold the newborn babies of the trafficked women for up to $5,000.

***

Salvadoran prosecutors managed to win nine trafficking cases against small groups in 2011. And even though the number of victories sounds small, it was the most successful Central American country in prosecuting these crimes that year.

Human trafficking is a crime of opportunity. The victims belong to the legions of nobodies in this region; and the perpetrators are not necessarily hardened criminals with long rap sheets but entrepreneurs of the underworld. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) points to the grim prospects: only one in 30 victims of trafficking in the region will ever be detected.

The Barberena ring, compared to other traffickers, were a cohesive network. Contrast them, for example, to the Salvadoran group of Mauricio Angel Ayala, Kevin Oswaldo Girls Lobato and Joshua Joel Mendoza who were sentenced in 2011 to six years and eight months in prison for coercing two Nicaraguans seeking employment in the eastern province of San Miguel into prostitution in a beer hall. One of the victims was considered too old to service customers, so she was forced to work without pay as a cleaning lady. She was 24 years old.

Then there was Orlando Nelson Campos and Juan Humberto Ramirez Carranza, who tricked two teenage Guatemalan women. Instead of modeling clothes, the women ended up crushed underneath sweaty men in a beer hall. Nelson and Ramirez are serving nine and eight years, respectively. 

Or think of Juan Alfonso Cuellar, who sold a Salvadoran migrant headed for the United States in Mexico. The Salvadoran was exploited in a case similar to Grecia’s. And Cuellar was sentenced to four years in prison and could get parole in two.

"He sold a human being!" Violeta Olivares screams indignantly, referring to Cuellar.

Olivares is the coordinator of a specialized unit in the Attorney General’s office charged with human trafficking. In this unit, the sentences are seen as laughable.

"A petty shit of a punishment," a prosecutor who is part of the unit said in a moment of candor.

In El Salvador, a man assaults a bus, then takes passengers' cell phones, wallets and rings, and is arrested and convicted, would spend more years in prison than Cuellar, who sold a woman. The thief would receive between six and ten years. The human trafficker received four.

El Salvador has recognized this crime in its penal code since 2003, but it is only since September 2011 that the issue is gaining recognition with the creation of the National Council Against Trafficking. 

***

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds. 

- How did the people you mention dominate the area? 

- They went around in cars, armed.

- How many days were you there?

- Three days until Mr. Ovidio arrived.

- What did the armed men do?

- They told us to join the organization, that they would give us work and food. They were the group called the Zetas.

- What kind of work did they offer?

- They said I would cook for the people who were kidnapped. That was April 20 or 22, 2009.

To recap: At this point Grecia was in Tenosique, Mexico, at the beginning of road for migrants heading north. She was in a town dominated by the Zetas. Grecia had escaped from Ovidio after he tried to rape her in an abandoned pasture, and she had taken refuge in a group of undocumented Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

- What happened when Ovidio arrived?

- He stared at me with a mocking smile and went to the Zetas house. He went to talk to Chicho, a guy between 24 and 29 years old with a scar on his left cheek. He was part of the organization. They talked about 45 minutes with Ovidio. They looked at me, pointed at me. I was with the group of people which I had joined.

At that point in the story, Grecia embarks on the journey by train along with other kidnapped migrants, guarded by armed men who threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape. The Zetas used the train to transport their hostages. The Tenosique train travels to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and along the way makes a series of stops in small towns and isolated villages. In one of those lost villages Grecia recalls that a Salvadoran of the Zetas who was called El Pelon tried to sell her to a man. It appears that El Pelon wanted to do Grecia a favor, and told her that where they were going, there was a lot of suffering. However, the sale didn't pan out. With time, Grecia found out that El Pelon was right: there was a lot of suffering in store. 

A prosecutor asks: 

- When you mention the act of selling, had you seen that before?

- Yes, Mr. Ovidio...Right in front of me, they gave him the money for me.

- Mr. Ovidio was on the train?

- No, he went to El Salvador with the money they gave him.

- How much did he get?

- They say that $500...Chicho (one of the Zetas) told me.

- Then what happened?

- We were loaded onto buses and driven to Reynosa ... From Veracruz to Reynosa it takes a day and a half. It was April 26, 2009. It was a Sunday.

From that point, Grecia described a classic kidnapping of undocumented migrants by the Zetas.

Reynosa in Tamaulipas State, is a Zetas stronghold. It was there that 72 bodies of illegal migrants appeared in August 2010; it was there in September 2011, that authorities captured El Coss, considered a leader of the Gulf Cartel, the organization that gave birth to the Zetas; it was there that 49 more headless, limbless bodies were discovered last May under an enormous Z painted on a bridge over a highway.

The group of about 300 migrants was split up in three safe houses. They were locked in damp dark rooms with no ventilation. They were visited by men with guns and bats that warned that those who did not give the phone number of a family member who would pay a ransom would be tortured. As always some migrant would resist giving a phone number, refusing to pay the $300, $500, or $700 dollars, and would try to resist the torture that followed. Grecia’s whole group had to watch how the gunmen would make those people scream. Then the gunmen would promise to come back if anyone else wanted to resist. That is how Grecia spent the first three days. On the third day, Omega appeared.

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds. 

- Can you describe him?

- Tall, fat, a large double chin, white. He was called Omega, Kike or Apa. He was told that there were some Salvadoran women the way he liked them. He took us from the room to see if we were pretty because in the room there was very little light.

- Did you stay in the same house?

- No, I was taken to a residential neighborhood, 10 minutes away, in the same buses that were used to take us to Reynosa. There were several people, and again we lay down on the floor. There I was raped by Omega. He hit me in the face because I told him to wear a condom. He said I was in no position to demand anything. The abuses were constant, and not just by him.

- Could you recognize these people in person or in photos?

- Yes.

- What else happened?

- He raped me about eight or nine times. He said that he enjoyed it, and that I had to enjoy it too. That I wasn't to suffer. He beat me. The same happened to other people, but the women that he liked, he was the first to rape them.

Grecia remembers several weeks of abuse and beatings. Grecia says she spent three months there and, despite the fact that her relatives in the US had already deposited the ransom money for her, she was sold again.

- How long did this go on?

- Three months, and my family had already paid all the money, but they were going to profit more from me. I was sold again to a bar called La Quebradita. They took me there to be a prostitute. The first day we were rejected. The lady who was in charge of the bar told us we didn’t have the mark -- several of us were taken to a bar -- and we had to be branded. I didn’t know what that meant, but it's a tattoo.

- Where did they do it to you?

- On my right calf. They took us to a place where we did the tattoo. They made us eat something and inhale something that put us to sleep. When I woke up I had the tattoo. My leg burned because it bled, though not much, just a few drops. It's a butterfly on a branch, which forms the “Z” for Zeta. That was the marking; it meant that I was theirs, that I was merchandise. There were five other women. I saw the marking on four of them on different parts of their bodies: arms, back, chest, and they were different colors. The one I have is between black and green. After being branded, we went to the place and started prostituting ourselves with customers who were part of the same mafia. The customers paid for us, but we didn’t get any of the money. I don’t know how much they paid.

Grecia’s customers forced her to smoke crack and to snort cocaine. Grecia says her customers never agreed to use condoms. A month went by. Grecia says that during that time she never went out, that her life was the safe house, the bar La Quebradita and some motels where clients would take her. If a client took Grecia to a motel she was always accompanied by a man from the bar man who guarded her. Grecia says that it was normal to be beaten, especially for not wanting to drink alcohol or for being less than enthusiastic when giving up her body to customers of La Quebradita. One man hit Grecia so hard that he broke her nose. 

Both the broken nose and the tattoo were found by doctors at the Institute of Legal Medicine in El Salvador, and are part of the prosecutor's file.

Grecia never tried to escape. Few would want to do if they had seen what Grecia saw.

- Did something else happen?

- Yes, Sonia. They let her go because her family had paid the ransom. She went to report to migration authorities. The migration authorities turned her back over to the same guys (the Zetas). They burned her alive, they beat over and over with a bat. They told her that she shouldn’t have done that. That they were not playing around. That she had lost her chance to be free. They told us that it would happen to us as well if we said anything.

- What was the result of Sonia’s beating?

- Death.

- How did they beat her?

- With a bat, but as she was dying, they set her on fire with gasoline. She screamed in pain, and they beat her more. Half an hour, 45 minutes. The body was unrecognizable, charred, you couldn’t see her feet. Bald charred flesh. She was placed at an altar to la Santa Muerte there.

***

Court records show that the Barberena case was uncovered because a victim reported the group to the authorities. That survivor is one of the 16 women who testified at trial with their identities protected.

The owner of the bar El Pantanal, Adam Cerritos, had an estate with cornfields surrounded by coffee plantations. The farm was in one of the more rural areas of the municipality, on the outskirts. This network at the same time it operated a sexual exploitation ring, also used forced labor in the fields. The same women who worked Monday through Thursday in the cornfields, were abused by dozens of men in El Pantanal from Friday to Sunday.

That farm, according to the testimonies collected by the prosecutor, and according to the trafficker I spoke to, was also a safehaven and a place where the group metted out punishment. Women were hidden there when corrupt cops warned them of police sweeps from the Guatemalan capital. It was there where women who had been beaten so badly they were not fit to work at El Pantanal, were forced to work in the fields. There they were also shown that disobeying carried consequences.  

On one occasion, survivors reported to prosecutors, they were made to form a circle at night on the farm. In the middle of the circle, there were two men and a woman. Outside the circle, armed men were on guard to make sure no one tried to make a run for it. The two men beat to death a woman in the circle during a ritual that lasted for several long minutes. The woman had tried to escape from El Pantanal.

She was not the only victim. The anonymous woman who later became a witness experienced a similar situation. Her constant refusal to seduce the customers of El Pantanal won her a beating so fierce that the traffickers thought they had killed her. They left her bloody body heaped on the farm and decided they would get rid of it the next day. The woman awoke in the night and slowly dragged her beaten bones to the road. From there, in a way that is not detailed in court records, the survivor reached the border, and, on the Salvadoran side, collapsed in front of the cops. When she came to, she recounted her ordeal. In less than a week, the Salvadoran Attorney General established an operation in coordination with Interpol in Guatemala. Coordinating prosecutor Violeta Olivares, is very clear when explaining why they did not call the Guatemalan police: "We did not trust them."

In 2006, a special judge in Santa Ana, Tomas Salinas, decided that none of the eight Salvadorans linked to the Barberena ring needed to be held in custody during the trial. They were allowed to leave but were required to appear for hearings. Some members of the network who had gotten word about the operaiton at El Pantanal, had changed addresses in El Salvador, and were trying to hide when they were captured. The judge thought the men who were caught trying flee would not flee. Everyone has fled. The prosecution appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed Judge Salinas’ ruling. Arrest warrants were issued. Of the eight that Judge Salinas freed, six have been caught, the last of whom is Moran Martinez. Two remain at large.

***

Gunmen murder. Drug traffickers destroy, kill or threaten. Car theft gangs are lightning fast. Human traffickers are like water that wears away the stone: harsh, persistent. They need their victim alive and scared. Alive and terrified. Alive and submissive. Beatings at the Barberena farm were used as a corrective for those who resisted. The beatings were a warning to other women: see what can happen to you if you disobey.

The stick, fists and rape are the main method of punishment. Both the head of the prosecution unit in Guatemala, Alexander Colop, and his Salvadoran colleague Smirna de Calles, said the leaders of these gangs often rape the victims.

"They are the first to cut them down, to use them, to impose themselves on them," said Colop. 

Just like what Grecias lived through. 

Julio Prado, the anti-trafficking prosecutor of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), says not all groups are alike. Prado said that in the worst places where he has participated in rescue operations of victims, women were forced to surrender to any man for 15 minutes in exchange for 50 quetzals ($6), which were collected by the dealer. He has also seen cases of Russian and Colombian women for which some customers pay $500 per hour.

"The question," says Prado, "is what kind of customers can pay that amount for one hour to have fun."

Beginning in 2006, Guatemalan authorities investigated a network of trafficking and prostitution that catered to high-income customers. Prado was involved in the raid on a nightclub called Caprichos. It was owned by a businessman named Herman Smith. Smith was accustomed to hobnobbing with officials and celebrities of the country. Police found underage Salvadorans, Hondurans and Russians and a system of  hidden doors and tunnels that connected with neighboring houses. At the houses there were self-help and self-improvement books, and  numerous tomes on economic theory. Some of the victims said that Smith, who was called "Papito," used to tell them that despite having reached the place under false pretenses, they could become entrepreneurs if they learned to see their bodies as a commodity. Smith convinced his victims that he was not their assailant but their benefactor. The trial was never completed because a gunman shot Smith in the temple on May 6, 2008, in the Caprichos nightclub. The gunman fled.

Guatemala has already convicted several Colombians for human trafficking. They were accused of belonging to a ring known as the Pereira network, which was dedicated to bringing voluptuous women from that region of Colombia under the guise that they will be models. These networks, according to Colop even molded its victims, offering breast and buttocks implants, assuring them that they were necessary to succeed in the world of fashion.

"They were first taken to Honduras, and when they were bored with them there they would be brought here," explains Colop.

The women would be locked up and told that they had to pay with sex for the implants, transportation, food, and clothing. It was a debt that could never be paid off. 

In El Salvador, the highest authority in charge of creating strategies to combat the crime of human trafficking is Deputy Minister of Justice and Security Douglas Moreno.

"There is a structure of people with great economic power that has profited from this situation and we did not know about it,” he says. “There are people involved who you would never have imagined would be involved in this business but unfortunately we still don’t have evidence linking them to it."

Networks like Smith’s or the Pereira ring represent that other side of trafficking networks. These networks try to justify slavery in some way: because you owe me, because I'm helping to improve yourself, because you have no papers and you must give me something for my protection. Other networks, like the Barberena ring that use local corruption and small arms, prefer the cheaper mechanism to get their victims to do what they order them to do: fists, bats, fire, fear.

Silvia Saravia, leader of a team that helps trafficking survivors before Salvadoran prosecutors prepare them for trial, has seen dozens of cases of women who faced this modality of local networks.

“Those who have been locked up show extreme fear, tremendous fear for themselves and for their families, who suffer the consequences of her escape,” says Saravia. “They are emotionally blocked. They are shut in. Many require psychiatric care. They have suicidal thoughts. They believe they can’t trust anyone. They know that people are not playing around, they know that the assailant will carry out their threats. They have anxiety disorders, insomnia, loss of appetite. 

“Grecia, for example, will need process of comprehensive care,” she says.

***

After almost three months of being forced to service clients in the Quebradita, a week after seeing Sonia set afire, and after her aunt deposited a $3,500 ransom, Grecia was freed by Omega. They gave her $300 pesos (about $25), left her at the bus station in Reynosa and ordered her to go away. One of the prosecutors who interviewed Grecia during the trial says that she told them that something was happening at the time, and that it seemed the Zetas group was dismantling the houses where they kept hostages and were fleeing. With 300 pesos, Grecia only managed to buy a ticket to Monterrey. There, Grecia said a kind taxi driver took her to the migration service office, a government shelter where the woman in charge understood Grecia’s symptoms. According to the medical checkup she received, Grecia had a vaginal infection and an inflammatory pelvic disease.

***

One of the prosecutors asks. Grecia responds.

- What happened at the migrant house?

- The woman in charge of the house saw that I was crying, screaming, I didn’t act normal and she started to ask. Gradually I started telling her...They found me shelter at a house of the archdiocese, especially for people who have been through the crime of human trafficking...I saw a psychologist...I moved from Monterrey to Mexico City...For five months [I] was given psychological treatment and legal advice.

- Did you participate in an investigation?

- Yes, the whole time I was there.

- Was anyone arrested?

- Yes, charged with kidnapping and human trafficking. They showed me some pictures, and there are approximately ten to twelve detainees between Hondurans and Mexicans.

On November 23, 2009, Grecia was already in Mexico City, in the hands of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of Violence Against Women and Human Trafficking (FEVIMTRA). According to the prosecutor, in the first session of psychological care she was: "Depressed, distrustful and unable to cry."

It took 11 sessions to get her statement. Thanks to what Grecia told Mexican authorities in 2009, raids were conducted on several houses in Reynosa and 12 suspected members of the Zetas were captured. The case against these men continues, as do the scars on Grecia.

When, in December 2009, Grecia returned to El Salvador, her situation got worse. Grecia explained that Ovidio, as she feared, had threatened her mother and her mother-in-law. In the psychological review that was conducted by the Institute of Legal Medicine of El Salvador, it was noted that Grecia: "Cannot sleep at night, she feels every sound is a gunshot. She has gone without food for two or three days. Lighting a fire she remembers Sonia. Her sexual appetite is gone. She pushes her partner away when they have relations." 

The report concludes with a summary sheet.

Thought: depressive, anxious.

Orientation: In her statement there are holes because she does not remember. Blackouts.

Current psychological functioning level: neurotic.

***

On Wednesday May 26, 2010, a 29-year-old Salvadoran woman saw a newspaper photograph of someone who looked familiar being lowered from a pick-up truck handcuffed to two other men. Police had arrested him the night before in the parking lot of the nightclub Kairo's, on the Boulevard de Los Heroes, along with four Salvadoran men and a Salvadoran woman in a black SUV with Guatemalan license plates. Inside the van, in a secret compartment that opened with electrical switch, the police found a Galil rifle, two M-16s, a 30.30 rifle, two shotguns, a revolver, a grenade, military lighting and 11 telephones. The 29-year-old woman thought she knew the fat man in the photo, but tried not to think about it during the day. On Wednesday evening, the fat man reappeared on the news, and when he said a few words, she heard his shrill voice. The woman could not just ignore the fat man she knew. She knew him very well. The woman was Grecia and the fat man, Omega.

Omega's real name is Enrique Jaramillo Aguilar. Age 35, he was born in Apatzingan, Michoacan, Mexico. In December 2011, he was sentenced to nine years in prison in El Salvador on charges of possession and carrying of weapons and false documentation. Currently he's locked up in the prison of Apanteos.

Jaramillo identified himself as a Guatemalan to  Salvadoran authorities, showing a false document. His arrest that Wednesday, May 26, was the result of a police operation linking him to the Zetas. An informant had said he learned that the false Guatemalan was linked to the November 2008, massacre in Agua Zarca in Huehuetenango, on the border with Mexico, when alleged Guatemalan members of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas clashed for several hours and left 19 bodies scattered in the area. That is still remembered as one of the most important events in recent underworld history because it showed just how deeply large Mexican groups had penetrated Guatemala. Jaramillo was arrested accused of being one of the Zetas who participated in the fighting in Huehuetenango, but the prosecution failed to prove it before a Guatemalan judge.

When Grecia recognized the man who she says raped her in Reynosa, sold her to La Quebradita, and took $ 3,500 from her aunt, she decided to report it to the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office. Grecia gave an affidavit before a judge, two prosecutors, two defense lawyers hired by Jaramillo and Jaramillo himself. Grecia asked to testify ahead of the trial because she planned to leave the country. She was terrified that Omega would send someone to hurt her. After that, Grecia, with the support of the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Agency for Refugees, left the country for an unknown destination, got a new identity and is trying to rebuild her life.

***

Wednesday July 4, 2012. Specialized Sentencing Court B of San Salvador. 8:30 a.m. Final arguments against the accused and Enrique Jaramillo Aguilar and Jesus Ovidio Guardado. 

Jaramillo waits by Ovidio outside the room. Jaramillo’s double chin hangs loose. He has lost a lot of weight since those pictures when he was arrested at Kairo's nightclub. He has lost hair too. He wears a gray horizontal striped polo shirt and pink jeans with a tear on the left knee. His wrists and ankles are handcuffed. Ovidio looks even more awkward, more consumed, after a year in jail, awaiting trial. The white button-down shirt and khaki pants hang off him. 

Inside the courtroom, the two private lawyers hired by Jaramillo take away from the solemnity of what will happen in the room. They joke about an alleged suicide attempt that Grecia survived as a teenager.

“They say she took 200 pills, she was narcotized,” says one lawyer to the other. “What I'm wondering is where the hell she would fit so many,” the other responds. They both laugh out loud. 

Then one of them puts on a reggaeton tune on his cell phone and turns up the volume. The clerk asks him to please leave the room.

The two prosecutors make closing arguments: Ovidio sold her on the railroad...At the Quebradita bar she is treated as a commodity...Jaramillo constantly raped her...She was tattooed on her right leg...The expert said the damage to her was caused by what happened in Mexico...For Ovidio, it was attempted rape and aggravated human trafficking...For Jaramillo, repeated rape and aggravated trafficking. Prosecutors ask for the maximum penalty for both.

Jaramillo's lawyers answer: What is this about the Zetas? Where does it say that? Lies...The expert talks about blackouts...The victim says one thing and then another...She is an unstable person...Her seven-year old boy dresses like a girl...She is a victim who does not deserve credibility.

Ovidio’s public defense attorney says attempted rape does not exist. “Was there penetration or wasn’t there?” 

Then, suddenly, Jaramillo asks to speak. With his shrill voice he addresses the judge as “your honor” and tries to exculpate himself. First, he says Ovidio is too old to be involved in migration. The second part is a little more confusing. He says Grecia said that Ovidio had only five teeth, but when asked if she knew how many a person normally has she said yes, 36. “And as far as I know, there are 32,” he says.

The third part of his defense is that he does not live in Reynosa, or know anyone there; that he is from another state, Michoacan (however, the background file sent from Mexico says he has been on the run since 2006, mostly in the state Tamaulipas, where Reynosa is).

The fourth part of his defense is that he has never been a soldier, and that the Zetas are military. He says he’s heard songs that say that the Zetas are 30 strong, and he is not one of them.

***

Friday 6 July. Reading the verdict.

Acquitted.

In sum, Judge Roger Paz Rufino Diaz decided that Grecia contradicted herself. The main reason is that Grecia gave different versions to Salvadoran and Mexican prosecutors. There, she omitted Ovidio from the story and said she had been sold to the Zetas by people linked to a shelter in Veracruz. The prosecutors in the case say that Grecia did that because she knew that Ovidio was in El Salvador. He knew where her family lived, and he lived very close to his mother. Grecia, say prosecutors, was afraid that if she denounced Ovidio in Mexico, it would be reported to the Salvadoran authorities, and once he got word, he could harm her family. So she erased him from the story when she was there, and was only able to include him when, back in El Salvador, she knew that her family was fine and she could warn them of the risk. The officials explained that Grecia’s psychological evaluation makes that version credible. Grecia, as the psychologists who evaluated her said, was afraid. Very afraid. 

Lead prosecutor Smirna de Calles calls a press conference that same day. She regrets the decision, and explains that victims of this crime must deal with their traumas as they testify. She says she would appeal to the Supreme Court. The appeal has not yet been decided.

Grecia will not testify again. Not even the prosecutors know where she is. She is somewhere, surviving.

*Oscar Martinez is the editor of Sala Negra, El Faro's investigative unit on organized crime.

[See the complete special report by El Faro in Spanish here]

 

By Oscar Martinez

A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

- Where did they do it to you?
-On my right calf. They took us to a place where we did the tattoo. They made us eat something an inhale something that put us to sleep. When I woke up and had the tattoo. It's a butterfly on a branch, which forms the “Z” for Zeta. That was the marking; it meant that I was theirs, that I was merchandise.

 

***
Grecia has gone. Twice she recounted how an organized crime group used her body as a container for whatever they wanted. Then she had to leave. She reported to the authorities in El Salvador and to those of Mexico. Grecia no longer lives in El Salvador. She is a refugee in another country. For her own security, few people know where.


I know of Grecia that she is 29 years old, has three children aged six, three years and ten months; she is married and was unemployed when she decided to migrate. The only time I have heard Grecia’s words come from a 52 minute recording of my own voice reading the words in the statement she gave to a Salvadoran judge.

 

In a hearing before the Ninth Court of Peace of the city of San Salvador, in front of a man who she recognized as one of her victimizers, at 9 am on the morning of July 2, 2010, Grecia answered questions about what had happened to her and how she survived.


***
A prosecutor asks. Grecia responds.

- You were cited by this court to seek justice for the crimes of kidnapping, rape and trafficking committed against you. When did you begin the trip to the United States?

-On the 13th April 2009.

- With what intent did you travel?
- Because of the economic situation of the coutnry.
- Who did you travel with?
-With Ovidio Guardado.
-Describe Ovidio.
- He’s male, about 69 years, white skin, short wavy graying hair, height of approximately 1.77 meters, he has no teeth. He has a scar on his head.
- What did this man do?
- He tricked me. He never told me he was a “coyote”. He said we were going to the United States, but when we arrived in Mexico he showed his true intentions.
- And what were his intentions?
-His intention was to rape me but he wasn’t able to.

-How many people accompanied you on this trip?
-Only Mr. Ovidio.


Ovidio is a peasant, tan and wrinkled, but still strong, like a dead tree with no leaves that will remain standing for years. Ovidio is a relative of Grecia’s husband. Ovidio is a neighbor of Grecia’s mother and mother-in-law. Grecia trusted Ovidio.

***
Just as it happened in Grecia’s case, the hook in most cases where women are converted into commodities is the hope of escaping poverty.

 

Another such case is that of the Barberena network that not only talks about the origin of the victims, but reveals many other facets of the groups of traffickers in the region. The structure of Barberena included  12 men and one woman and it operated until 2006 in the rural town of Barberena, in the Guatemalan department of Santa Rosa, on the Pacific coast of the country. The murderous network even had a corn farm where they performed bloody rituals to sow panic in their victims. It was a corrupt network that was fortunate enough to have a Salvadoran judge set most of its members free.

 

The Barberena network operated from a bar called El Pantanal. The pattern of deception was simple. They sent Salvadoran men or women to cantons and villages of the border departments of Santa Ana and Ahuachapan in El Salvador. They would approach humble homes with the excuse of being employees of a supermarket and a new diner Barberena where staff were needed. They offered $ 70 per week plus all travel costs to Barberena, and even $50 in hand for the “new hire’s” family.

The four countries of northern Central America are the source, transit points and destination for victims of trafficking and in all four countries there are cases of sexual slavery. Officials explain that Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras are the countries from where most of the victims of trafficking come. Guatemala is the place par excellence where those victims are enslaved. And all four are, thanks to the thousands of migrants that these countries, a vast pool from which Mexican traffickers take their pick. Experts – NGOs, prosecutors, police, international organizations -- explained that the proximity to Mexico and the huge influx of migrants passing through Guatemala make that country an ideal place for trafficking gangs.


The scammers who search for victims in villages and hamlets live in the area, know the people, pose as benefactors, and settle there under false names. Some of the “recruiters”, according to Silvia Saravia, who is charged with the psychological care of trafficking victims for the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office, know so much about the women they have their eyes on that they even know if they have been raped. Traffickers smell the helplessness and vulnerability like sharks smell blood.

The desperate women who accepted had to travel almost an hour to reach the gates of El Pantanal bar. Without any delay, were received by armed men and a Guatemalan woman, Sonia Garcia. Sonia would tell them to change their conservative, almost evangelical clothing and don the miniskirts and shirts with plunging necklines and garish colors that were offered to them. They were told that they had to go to the main room of the house and convince drunk men to pay 50 quetzals (about seven dollars) to blow off steam with them for 30 minutes. They, the victims, usually said no, they would protest that this work was not what they had signed up for. Then the men who surrounded Sonia, Salvadorans mostly, explained to the women with fists and baseball bats that this was not an offer but an order.


When I met in mid-August in the Apanteos prison with Rigoberto Moran Martinez, one of the six people convicted for being part of the Barberena network, he said that almost none of the women worked the first week during the two years he worked in El Pantanal. Most of them would spend the first week with purple, disfigured faces. And customers of El Pantanal, did not like purple-faced women. But the conversation with Rigoberto, a man who all his life has used a gun as a tool, will teach us other lessons.


In late 2007, 16 survivors of the sexual slavery ring at El Pantanal testified in a Salvadoran court. Twenty-six women in total had been rescued in a joint operation between Guatemala’s Interpol and the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office. Twenty of them were Salvadoran. The other six were Nicaraguans and Guatemalans. This is because most of the recruiters were from El Salvador.

The report published this year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that in El Salvador, 79 percent of the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation detected by the police between 2005 and 2010 were Salvadoran nationals. In contrast, in Guatemala, in the same period, only 4% of the victims were from that country. 89% came from Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Studies and experts agree, though, that all of the victims from Central America have one origin in common: poverty.

 

One Salvadoran rescued from El Pantanal was underage. To protect her as a witness during the hearings she was called Carmencita. Asked why she accepted at 15 to leave her family and go to work to Barberena, she responded: “There were days that my mom didn’t have enough money to buy beans.”

On what she endured in her quest to get those beans, Carmencita said:  “There were days when I was with as many as seven men, but since I didn’t like any of that, so I would throw tantrums. One day the owner went nuts, he started hitting us with a machete and wounded my leg. Crying, I told him to take me to hospital. The wound became infected me, he and just told me to clean it because it disgusted the customers.

What the customers felt for a 15 year old girl with a deep wound in the leg was disgust.


***
One of the prosecutors asks. Grecia reposnds.

- And then what happened?

-One evening, Mr. Ovidio took me to a barn, which is about four hours from a river called Las Palmas. It was about 11 pm, I only saw three horses. He told me that his god had spoken to him and that I had to be his.


- Did you do anything?

-I became aggressive and didn’t let him touch me. (Ovidio) became violent, he threatened me with a long fingernail that he had said that it wouldn’t be the first time he killed someone with a fingernail. I told Mr. Ovidio I was going to relieve myself. Then tried to flee, I ran, I got to a place called The Battalion. I ran for 45 minutes. I told them I was fleeing because Mr. Ovidio wanted to abuse me. A soldier told me not to worry, that I could stay in that place to sleep.

 

According to her account, five days after leaving El Salvador, while in the Mexican state of Tabasco, Grecia separated from Ovidio. Before she fled he warned Grecia that she would know hell on earth.

After sleeping one night in front of a Mexican garrison, Grecia made it back to the train tracks in Tenosique, the Mexican city that marks the beginning of the Atlantic Route of the so-called Tren de la Muerte (Train of Death), which Central Americans board as stowaways for a ride to a better life in America. Grecia found a group of migrants from different countries in the area and asked if she could join them, telling them what Ovidio had tried during the trip. They welcomed her and together they approached the tracks, a site that describes Grecia as follows: "There are huts, shops, in the front there as an abandoned hotel, there is also a swamp, there were other undocumented people and people who were armed."


Tenosique, almost bordering Petén, Guatemala, is one of the accursed cities of migration. In fact, the hotel Grecia mentions is a hotel that operated until early 2009, and was used by criminal groups to accommodate migrants kidnapped before transferring them to other northern cities. Ironically, the name of the hotel was California.


One of the prosecutors asked. Grecias responds.


- What do you mean armed people?

-They are responsible for taking people up north. They wore with jeans and t-shirts. They dominated the place, they gave the orders and controlled areas of the train tracks. They mentioned that they were from an organization called Los Zetas, which ruled the area.

- How many people were there?


- About 20.


- What kind of weapons did they have?

-They were guns, big guns, pistols, a Honduran who was there said it was an Uzi ...



***
“Who guarded the women in El Pantanal?” I ask Rigoberto in a courtyard known as the green zone of the Apanteos prison in El Salvador. Rigoberto is a 48 year old man who studied one year at school, he cultivated cornfields throughout his childhood and adolescence, who in 1982, when he was 18 and the Salvadoran civil war was just starting, was drafted into the army. When the war ended he continued to work carrying a gun, as a private security guard.

 

“It was people trusted by him, his family,” says Rigoberto of Adam Cerritos, the leader of the gang of traffickers Barberena. They guarded the women “all the time,” he says.

 

The Barberena gang is typical of traffickers in Central America. It relied on people with close ties to each other, relatives if possible, to administer the brothels, and, beneath them, there were a few employees without power, recruiters and thugs who are responsible for occasionally beating down the women. Though international because the Barberena gang tricked women in three countries, it was a small group. Rather than resembling the monstrous structures of drug cartels, the Barberena group chose to consolidate its stronghold in the comfort in remote and rural Guatemala. But the fact that it was small does not mean that it acted alone.

 

“Why didn’t you ever report what was happening there?” I ask Rigoberto  granting for a moment the benefit of the doubt when he said he was merely a "sweeper, a handyman" at the bar El Pantanal. Rigoberto, after two years on the run, was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2011 for the crime of human trafficking. The maximum sentence in El Salvador for the crime of selling someone to be used as an object is ten years, three months and three days if there are aggravating circumstances such as if a victim is a minor. Rigoberto's version is that he went to El Pantanal deceived by a Salvadoran woman who was a recruiter for the Barberena network, with whom he had fallen madly in love.

“I couldn’t (report it) -- the police had been bought off No one could. I would have risked my life. I could have been killed. I don’t know how much money (Cerritos) would give them,” he says as the sun sets.


“You never saw women escape or ask for help?” I ask. “It was impossible,” he says. “Maybe I would have helped them but I couldn’t because (Cerritos) had bought off the entire police force in Cuilapa, in Barberena. When people would come from the capital to search for women, the police would warn him to hide the women. He would leave some of the ones who were legal but the others were hidden in the bar or he would take them out the day before to the farm where there was plenty of coffee and corn.”

 

The Barberena network, though small and discreet, with just one brothel, operated like a large-scale ring through corruption. Rigoberto says cops in Barberena and Cuilapa, a neighboring municipality, would collect weekly payments form Cerritos, and they were also VIP clients in El Pantanal, as were some employees of the municipalities in those same municipalities.


The partnership did not end there, Rigoberto explains that members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Ahuachapán on the Guatemala border, also acted as recruiters. In fact, a Salvadoran gang member, Marco Antonio Godoy, is serving a sentence as part of the group of traffickers.


The Barberena network, though small and discreet, operated like any big scale criminal network: they were involved in all crimes within their reach as long as they were profitable. During the trial, two women rescued from El Pantanal repeatedly said that the business owners sold the newborn babies of the trafficked women for up to $5,000.

***

El Salvadoran prosecutors managed to win nine trafficking cases in 2001 against small groups. And even though the number of victories sounds small, is the most successful Central American country in prosecuting these crimes to 2011.


Human trafficking is a crime of opportunity. The victims belong to the legions of nobodies in this region; and the perpetrators are not necessarily hardened criminals with long rap sheets but entrepreneurs of the underworld. The UNODC points to the grim prospects: only one in 30 victims of trafficking in the region will ever be detected.


The Barberena ring, compared to other traffickers, were a cohesive network.

In contrast, for example, in El Salvador, Mauricio Angel Ayala, Kevin Oswaldo Girls Lobato and Joshua Joel Mendoza were sentenced in 2011 to six years and eight months in prison for coercing two Nicaraguans seeking employment in the eastern province of San Miguel into prostitution in a beer hall.  One of them was considered too old to service customers, so she was forced to work without pay as a cleaning lady. She was 24 years old.


Orlando Nelson Campos and Juan Humberto Ramirez Carranza tricked two teenage Guatemalan women and, instead of modeling clothes, they ended up crushed underneath sweaty men in a bee hall. The men are serving nine and eight years, respectively.

 

Or Juan Alfonso Cuéllar, who sold in Mexico a Salvadoran migrant headed for the United States who ended up being sexually exploited there in a case similar to Grecia’s. He was sentenced to four years on 9 August last year. That means that on August 9, 2013, when he has served half his sentence, if he has been a exemplary inmate, he could get parole.

 

"He sold a human being!" complained indignantly Violet Olivares, the coordinator of a specialized unit in the Attorney General’s office charged with human trafficking. In this unit, the trafficking convictions are viewed as laughable. "A shit of a punishment," a prosecutor who is part of the unit said in a moment of candor. In El Salvador, a man who commits the offense of theft, for example, assaulting a bus and take cell phones, wallets and rings, and is arrested and convicted, would spend more years in prison than Cuellar, who sold a woman. The thief would receive between six and 10 years. The human trafficker received four.
El Salvador has recognized this crime in its penal code since 2003, but it is only now that the issue is gaining recognition with the creation of the National Council Against Trafficking in September 2011.

 

One of the prosecutors asks. Grecia responds.

- How did the people you mention dominate the area?
-They went around in cars, armed.
- How many days were you there?
-Three days until Mr. Ovidio arrived.
- What did the armed men do?
-They told us to join the organization, that they would give us work and food. They were the group called Los Zetas.

- What kind of work did they offer?
- They said I would cook for the people who were kidnapped. That was April 20 or 22 2009.


To recap: At this point Grecia was in Tenosique, Mexico, at the beginning of rod for migrants. She was in a town dominated by Los Zetas. Grecia had escaped from Ovidio after he tried to rape her in an abandoned pasture, and had taken refuge in a group of undocumented Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

- What happened when Ovidio arrived?
- He stared at me with a mocking smile and went to the Zetas house. He went to talk to Chicho, a guy between 24 and 29 years old with a scar on his left cheek. He was part of the organization. They talked about 45 minutes with Ovidio. They looked at me, pointed at me, I was with the group of people which I had joined.


At that point in the story, Grecia embarks on the journey by train along with other kidnapped migrants, guarded by armed men who threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape. Los Zetas used the train to transport their hostages. The Tenosique train travels to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and along the way makes a series of stops in small towns and isolated villages. In one of those lost villages Grecia recalls that a Salvadoran of Los Zetas who was called El Pelon tried to sell her to a man. It appears that El Pelon wanted to do Grecia a favor, and told her that where they were going, there was a lot of suffering. However the sale did not pan out and Grecia was to find out that El Pelon was right.

 

The prosecutor asks:
- When you mention the act of selling, had you seen that before?
- Yes, Mr. Ovidio ... Right in front of me they gave him the money for me.
- Mr. Ovidio was on the train?
- No, he went to El Salvador with the money they gave him.
- How much did he get?
- They say that $500 ... Chicho (one of Los Zetas) told me.
- Then what happened?
- We were loaded into trucks and driven to Reynosa ... From Veracruz to Reynosa it takes a day and a half. It was April 26, 2009, it was a Sunday.


From that point, Grecia described a classic kidnapping of undocumented migrants by Los Zetas.
Reynosa in Tamaulipas State, is a Zetas stronghold. It was there that 72 bodies of illegal migrants appeared in August 2010; it was there in September that authorities captured El Coss, considered a leader of the Gulf Cartel, the organization that gave birth to Los Zetas; it was there that 49 more headless, limbless bodies were discovered last May under an enormous Z painted on a bridge over a highway.


The group of about 300 migrants was split up in three safe houses. They were locked in damp dark rooms with no ventilation. They were visited by men with guns and bats that warned that those who did not give the phone number of a family member who would pay a ransom would be tortured. As always some migrant would resist giving the number, would refuse to lose those $300, $500, or $700 dollars, and would try to resist the torture. Grecia’s whole group had to watch how the gunmen would make those people scream and promise to come back if anyone else wanted to resist. That is how Grecia spent the first three days. On the third day, Omega appeared.


One of the prosecutors asks. Grecia responds.
- Can you describe him?
- Tall, fat, a large double chin, white. He was called Omega, Kike or Apa. He was told that there were some Salvadoran women the way he liked them. He took us form the room to see if we were pretty because in the room there was very little light.
- Did you stay in the same house?
- No, I was taken to a residential neighborhood, 10 minutes away, in the same trucks that were used to take us to Reynosa. There were several people and again we lay down on the floor. There I was raped by Omega. He hit me in the face, because I told him to wear a condom. He said I was in no position to demand anything. The abuses were constant, and not just by him.
- Could you recognize these people in person or in photos?
- Yes.
- What else happened?
- He abused me about eight or nine times. He said that he enjoyed it, and that I had to enjoy it too. That it wasn’t for me to suffer. He beat me. The same happened to other people, but the women that he liked, he was the first to abuse of them.

Grecia remembers several weeks of abuse and beatings. Grecia says she spent three months there and, despite the fact that her relatives in the U.S. had already deposited the ransom money for her, she was sold again.


- How long was this?
- Three months, and my family had already paid all the money, but they were going to profit more from me. I was sold again to a bar called La Quebradita. They took me there to be a prostitute. The first day we were rejected. The lady who was in charge of the bar told us we didn’t have the mark – several of us were taken to the bar -- and we had to have the branding. I didn’t know what that meant, but it's a tattoo.
- Where did they do it to you?
- On my right calf. They took us to a place where we did the tattoo. They made us eat something an inhale something that put us to sleep. When I woke up and had the tattoo. My leg burned because it bled, though not much just a few drops. It's a butterfly on a branch, which forms the “Z” for Zeta. That was the marking; it meant that I was theirs, that I was merchandise. There were five other women, I saw  the marking on four of them on different parts of their bodies: arms, back, chest, and they were different colors. The one I have is between black and green. After being branded we went to the place and started prostituting ourselves with customers who part of the same mafia. The customers paid for us but we didn’t get any of the money. I don’t know how much they paid.


Grecia’s customers forced her to smoke crack and to snort cocaine. Grecia says her customers never agreed to use condoms. A month went by. Grecia says that during that time she never went out, that her life was the safe house, the bar La Quebradita and some motels where clients would take her. If a client took Grecia to a motel she was always accompanied by a man from the bar man who guarded her. Grecia says that it was normal to be beaten, especially for not wanting to drink alcohol or for being less than enthusiastic when giving up her body to customers of La Quebradita. One man hit Grecia so hard that he broke her nose.

 

Both the broken nose as the tattoo were found by doctors at the Institute of Legal Medicine in El Salvador, and are part of the prosecutor's file.


Grecia never tried to escape. Few would want to do if they had seen what Grecia saw.

- Did something else happen?
- Yes, Sonia. They let her go because her family had paid the ransom. She went to report to migration authorities. The migration authorities turned her back over to the same guys (the Zetas). They burned her alive, they beat over and over with a bat. They told her that she shouldn’t have done that that they were not playing around that she had lost her chance to be free. They told us that it would happen to us as well if we said anything.
- What was the result of Sonia’s beating?
- Death.
- How did they beat her?
- With a bat, but as she was dying, they set her on fire with gasoline. She screamed in pain, and they beat her more. Half an hour, 45 minutes. The body was unrecognizable, charred, you couldn’t see her feet. Bald charred flesh. She was placed at an altar to la Santa Muerte there.


***

Court records show that the Barberena case was uncovered because a victim reported to the authorities. That survivor is one of the 16 women who testified at trial with their identities protected.


The owner of the bar El Pantanal, Adam Cerritos, had an estate with cornfields surrounded by coffee plantations. The farm was one of the more rural areas of the municipality, on the outskirts. This network at the same time it operated a sexual exploitation ring, also used forced labor in the fields. The same women who worked Monday through Thursday the cornfields, from Friday to Sunday were abused by dozens of men in El Pantanal.


That farm, according to the testimonies collected prosecutor, and according to the trafficker I spoke to, was also a place of punishment and a hiding place for the criminal group. Women were hidden there when corrupt cops warned them of police sweeps from the Guatemalan capital. It was there where women who had beaten so badly on that they were not fit for consumption by customers of El Pantanal, were forced to work in the fields. There they were also shown that punishments were serious.



Linkedin
Google +

---

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We also encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, provided that it is attributed to InSight Crime in the byline, with a link to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

InSight Crime Search

The Complete Organized Crime Database on the Americas

banner-eng

Related Articles

In the Shadow