Sex trafficking is a common criminal activity in Central America and Mexico, but the business has different manifestations across the region depending on local dynamics.
Mexico’s El Universal has highlighted the work of anti-human trafficking activist Marisa Ugarte, who in 2008 began an investigation into sex trafficking along border cities in Baja California. According to her research, there are more than 5,000 human trafficking cells in the cities of Mexicali, Tecate and Tijuana in which women and children are sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation. For those skeptical of this figure, Ugarte shared an experience she had nearly four years ago, when a cab driver in Tijuana offered to sell her a 5-year-old boy. “He said I could do whatever I wanted with him,” Ugarte told El Universal.
Human trafficking, and especially sex trafficking, in Mexico has attracted a significant amount of attention in recent years, as the security crackdown there has forced drug trafficking organizations to broaden their criminal portfolios. As a result, the country’s cartels are becoming increasingly involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation, which is made easier by a lack of strong penalties for these crimes. As congresswoman Rosi Orozco told the Washington Post recently, “If narcotics traffickers are caught they go to high-security prisons, but with the trafficking of women, they have found absolute impunity.”
But sex trafficking is not simply a problem in Mexico. As the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report notes, the majority of human trafficking victims worldwide become products of commercial sexual exploitation, and the phenomenon is widespread throughout the western hemisphere. In fact, a 2010 report by Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls found that Mexico ranked fifth in terms of the estimated number of trafficking victims in Latin America, putting the country below the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Brazil and Argentina.
In Mexico, as in much of Central America, sex trafficking is closely linked not only with organized crime but also with the migrant smuggling trade. Because of the region’s close proximity to the United States, the flow of migrants ensures a ready supply of new recruits. The economic and legal vulnerability of their situations makes them even easier targets.
Sex trafficking is not just a purely economic phenomenon, however. Some victims are drawn into the trade due to more complex reasons, and then are psychologically conditioned into staying. As InSight Crime has documented, such is the case in Honduras, where young women are increasingly falling prey to false “modeling agencies” which serve as fronts for sex trafficking rings. Seeing an opportunity to fulfill aspirations of fame, young women contact the organizations, when they are often told to arrange an in-person “audition,” alone. From there, a cycle of psychological and physical abuse begins, and these women are often kidnapped or tricked into working in brothels in other Central American countries.
Elsewhere in Central America, human trafficking is more closely associated with tourism, especially “sex tourism,” whereby individuals (generally wealthy North American or European men) travel to a country with the explicit purpose of purchasing sex, frequently with minors. This trend is particularly visible in Costa Rica, which is a major tourist destination. Although efforts have been made to clamp down on this sex trade, and break its ties with the conventional tourist industry, they have generally been unsuccessful. In 2004 the country made headlines for mandating that employees in the tourist industry be made to accept a new “code of conduct” which discourages them from assisting foreigners in finding sex. However, the strong economic incentives offered by the business made this relatively unsuccessful.