A four-year analysis of human trafficking in Mexico by the National Citizen Observatory has found persistently high levels of impunity for the crime, demonstrating how incomplete and contradictory official information helps bury the true scope of the problem.
The study (pdf), which examines the period January 2010 through July 2013, collates statistics from departments focused on human trafficking in the 31 Mexican states, the Federal District, and the federal government.
Over the time period, 16 states reported a total of 846 victims, while the rest failed to provide information. Jalisco had the highest number of victims, with 283, representing about a third of the total. This was followed by Baja California, with 136, and Puebla, with 122. The national Attorney General’s Office (PGR) registered 347 victims during this time period, and the Ministerial Federal Police (PFM) registered 121.
Information regarding sex, age and nationality was provided for only a portion of the total victims reported by these states. Of these, around 87 percent were women and approximately the same percent were victims of sex trafficking. Over 90 percent of victims were single. The PGR’s numbers reflected a similar tendency, with females representing around 80 percent of total victims.
According to state information, slightly over half of victims of a determined age were under 18. The highest number of both minors and women was reported in Baja California.
States reported that 95 percent of total victims were Mexican nationals, while federal figures showed a different pattern. The PFM indicated a large number of victims were undocumented migrants, and the PGR reported around 48 percent of 276 victims were foreign. Of these, the majority were Guatemalan, followed by Hondurans, Haitians and Salvadorans.
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The number of arrests during the period was small compared with the total number of victims, and the number of convictions much smaller.
According to information from 16 states, a total of 275 arrests were made, with Puebla and Baja California together responsible for half of these. In nine states, 94 judicial processes were opened over the period, led by Tlaxcala and Baja California, with 31 each. Puebla failed to provide information on judicial processes.
Between all responding states, just 17 convictions occurred between 2010 and mid-2013, with seven of these in Tlaxcala and four in Baja California. The Federal District’s Superior Court of Justice (TSJDF) reported 89 judicial processes opened for human trafficking between 2011 and June 2013, and 24 more processes for the trafficking of children and others incapable of resistance, but did not provide information on sentencing.
On a national level, the PGR’s special anti-trafficking unit, FEVIMTRA, opened just 30 judicial processes over the period, according to the information provided to the National Citizen Observatory (ONC).
Regarding the results, the ONC expressed concern not only over the extremely low percentage of sentences compared to victims — just two convictions per hundred victims, based on state figures — but also the failure of both state and national authorities to provide adequate, accurate or timely responses. Supplying this information is, the ONC noted, a legal obligation of these various authorities, and “doing so is not only necessary but indispensable for the generation and objective evaluation of public policies that could integrally address the phenomenon of human trafficking in our country.”
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The study is limited in its ability to illustrate human trafficking trends and patterns due to the large gaps in information collected, with many states and national bodies failing to provide adequate figures. It does, however, highlight the current impunity enjoyed by traffickers, which helps to facilitate the crime.
The number of victims listed in the ONC report is tiny compared to the estimated scope of the problem. A former Mexican congresswoman said in 2012 the country sees 800,000 adults and 20,000 children trafficked for sexual exploitation each year. The regional NGO, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATWLAC), reported in 2010 that around 1.2 million people in Mexico were victims of human trafficking.
The two states the ONC lists as having the highest number of victims are home to three cities that have been identified among 13 human trafficking hotspots: Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara in Jalisco, and Tijuana in Baja California. Tlaxcala, which led the way for convictions, was the site of a major sex trafficking bust in 2011. However, the study fails to reflect the importance of other routes, such as Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas.
Mexico is considered a Tier 2 (out of three levels) country by the US State Department as a source, transit point and destination for human trafficking. It is the second most prominent country of origin for victims trafficked to the United States after Thailand, according to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). Echoing the ONC information, the State Department indicates the majority of foreign victims in Mexico are from its Central American neighbors — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — while victims from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa have also been identified.
The country’s trade is evolving: formerly dominated by small networks, it is now a major source of profits for criminal organizations once dedicated to drug trafficking. Teresa Ulloa, the regional head of CATWLAC, says the trade is a $10 billion a year industry for Mexico’s cartels, with the Zetas one of the groups most heavily involved in recent years. In 2013, a Salvadoran trafficker testified he sold migrants to the group for $800 each.
Methodology is also changing. Many women and children are lured into the sex trade with false promises of better livelihoods or through romantic relationships, but pimps have also reportedly begun using young female victims to recruit other underage girls. Victims of sex trafficking continue getting younger, says Ulloa.
Mexico has not been blind to the problem. The country passed its first federal law targeting human trafficking in November 2007, and legislation has since continued to emerge. By 2012, 23 states had laws specifically targeting trafficking and in June 2012, the country passed a new, more comprehensive law to combat the crime. This general law requires compliance from all levels of government, widens the scope of crimes considered human trafficking, establishes prison sentences up to 40 years for related crimes and provides for increased inter-agency coordination, says the ONC. Further revisions to the 2012 law are currently under review.
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Nonetheless, these legal measures have not stopped Mexico’s human traffickers from enjoying widespread impunity, as the conspicuous lack of prosecutions over the past four years demonstrates. This is a common problem in countries around the region, including Argentina and Brazil: human trafficking legislation advances, but the situation changes little for the victims.
The nature of human trafficking makes prosecution difficult — the chain of exploitation can involve numerous groups and participants, and victims of sex trafficking are often reluctant to testify. However, as the ONC states regarding Mexico, it is also a problem of “capacity, will and awareness.” The region’s judicial systems are notoriously inefficient and overloaded, and officials are often complicit in the crime. Cases of bribery, extortion, falsification of victims’ identity documents, and abuses of victims have been reported among Mexican officials, according to the State Department.
The shortages in information provided to the ONC by the federal and state governments, while damaging to the study, serve to further highlight the current inefficiencies in the system — a lack of transparent or accessible figures reduces Mexico’s capacity to combat human trafficking. As noted by the ONC, the collection of human trafficking statistics is complicated by the unwillingness of many victims to report, out of fear or humiliation. However, the inadequacy of the figures also demonstrates a clear failure to address a massive and growing problem.