Trafficking in Women and Girls and the Fight to End it

By  |  26 / November / 2014

Teresa Ulloa is the Director of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women/Latin America-Caribbean (CATWLAC) based in Mexico City. She has been defending women’s rights for decades and gone up against powerful interests to protect the vulnerable.

The following is an interview we did for Interview From Mexico in which she describes her work searching for trafficking victims, new forms of trafficking and the scandalous case of a sex ring run out of the headquarters of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in Mexico City.

LC: Teresa, can you give us an idea of just how widespread the problem of trafficking is here in Mexico?

The governments don’t have hard figures, or reliable statistics. From what we have worked on, with the support of a demographer from the College of Mexico, we’ve done some projections.

We calculate that in Mexico and Latin America it’s largely undercover, because there is a huge number of unknown cases. This has to do with the high levels of corruption or collusion that are hard to eradicate, and with economic interests that involve political figures at the highest level, or even the financial or business people because they make a huge profit. Also we have a very serious problem: our neighbor on the other side of the Rio Grande, which has the largest market for sex in the world, for sex for pay.

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The estimate we have is more or less 500,000 victims in the entire region, in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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In this context, Mexico is like a filter. We’re a country of origin, transit and destination. In the whole northern part of the country, it’s very hard to see how Americans cross over looking for sex, especially with girls or boys. In the areas of Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Ensenada they come around these dates [fall and winter], a lot of retired men from the United States, and they rent houses near the ocean to pass the winter. They bring packages of used clothing; they bring a lot of toys and candy, and they use these to begin to attract children to their rented houses. This, for example, is an alarm bell for us.

The estimate we have is more or less 500,000 victims in the entire region, in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Mexico since we still don’t have reliable data, since 2006 we implemented the system of “red alert”. This has enabled us to gather data–first just by publicizing the system. Then later we had to add the component of legal assistance and legal advising, later psychological attention–first for the family in the period of searching, then for the women themselves. Then we established an emergency refuge, and we have a network of references and counter-references for shelters. We have an education program, vocational training in productive projects and transition homes that help them to prepare to reintegrate into society.

Based on this, we were able to begin to generate a database, a system of statistical and geographically referenced information that became the first instrument with hard data on real cases. We don’t put the names on because we have to protect privacy, but behind each file the authorities know there is a real case. We’ve been rescuing Venezuelans, Colombians, Argentines and Mexicans too. Once we carried out a rescue thanks to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Argentina in New Delhi, of a Canadian woman and an Argentine woman.

LC: Do the victims’ families contact your organization?

Yes, they call us or they send us an email. Last year we received 118 new cases, when we had been receiving an average of 50-some. And this year we have about 55 so far. But this year has been especially difficult because we’ve had threats from a politician of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. They’ve come to the office to threaten us, and left messages in my cell phone with rape threats. This means that we have to design more sophisticated ways to filter the cases that we receive. There’s also been funding cutbacks–I imagine that they want to silence us.

LC: What are the tendencies? Is trafficking rising? Are there new forms being employed by human traffickers?

I think so–that there has been an increase in cases, at least in what I have the best measure for, which is Mexico. The profile generally in age, where we have the most cases, is 12-18 years. The method of recruitment of most of the victims is by force, followed by deceit–offering promises that are not kept– and last seduction.

And in this we have to be very careful because it’s linked to getting them to fall in love through the social networks. Now they don’t even bother to go the place to seduce them, but just use the social networks and the girls walk right into the arms of the person who will exploit them. Fortunately, in the new law against trafficking we managed to get included that consent on the part of the victim is not a defense against legal responsibility if there is any type of exploitation.

Furthermore, obviously prostitution in this country, like in all countries of Latin America, is not a crime. What is a crime is to exploit women; what is a crime is to earn money at the cost of–or any kind of benefit– that derives from exploiting the prostitution of another person. And we try to cover -we still haven’t managed it–the whole chain of exploitation: from the recruiter to the consumer.

LC: Clearly, this is a huge problem in Mexico and the region. What does your organization do to confront the problem?

We work based on the 4 “P”s; those are our strategies. Prevention on all levels with schools, with students at all levels and all ages, with models of community intervention; we design educational material, and do a lot of activities in the issue of prevention– although unfortunately, when it comes to the budget for prevention it does not reflect the commitment or the intention that it should due to the importance in the public agenda. Now we’re concerned, for example, because they’re going to give -or already gave out- to all fifth grade students in Mexico the famous pads, and they have not designed a course in the school curriculum so that they know that while Internet can bring information and eliminate distances, which is marvelous, it also has its dark zones of high risk and there should be recommendations that they should be giving to girls and boys. So that’s prevention.

Protection and assistance, which is where the red alert system is. All have a strong publicity component, through social networks, through communications media, through the web page of the organization. We try to keep it very up-to-date and clean, and the tweets in twitter that I write or we send to have better outreach.

We did a very successful campaign this year, for example, that was launched on March 8 against sexual tourism in the World Cup in Brazil. A country that in 2012 included prostitution in its list of recognized employment, with an educational level between 4th and 5th grade of elementary school. We think this violates all the international treaties that Brazil has ratified, because it just encourages high levels of sex tourism and sexual exploitation of girls and boys. In the map that UNICEF and CEPAL did recently, our region is really bad –Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are identified as the worst countries for sex tourism.

Later we have the issue of prosecution. In the area of prosecution, that’s where we provide legal support to make sure the culprits are published, and to assure that the crime is not repeated and that includes integral justice. It’s here where we have to spend a lot of time and effort. Because I think it’s part of how victims begin to empower themselves, to conceive of themselves as survivors. We help to create action protocols, models of attention, we help and offer advice to design national programs, to change laws –we’re working in 25 countries of the region through regional networks.

LC: The Coalition reports that there is a 98% impunity rate on cases of human trafficking. Why is this and what can be done about it?

I think it’s still not fully understood how important the reform to the first article of the constitution was, where international human rights treaties form an integral part of the constitution. This was in 2011. 2012 was when the new victim’s law was passed and I think that there hasn’t been enough attention given to training the individuals who form part of the justice system. It’s a task still pending.

It’s true that we have accomplished, little by little, increased sensibility in the way that crimes are proven. But still we have a lot of impunity. In fact, it has become so normalized, so naturalized in society that the only thing that happened is that when the Mexican government increased its battle against drug trafficking, what the cartels did was to diversify their illicit activities– they went into extortion, kidnapping, arms trafficking, irregular trafficking of migrants and sex trafficking. And they realized at once that it was a great business–infinite– that makes a lot of money with very little investment. If I were to take a dose of cocaine into the United States, or if anybody wanted to–I don’t do it– in the moment of selling this dose of cocaine, I can sell it between 40-60 dollars and the income is over. On the other hand, a girl, a teenager, a woman can be sold 10, 20, 30 times –we had a victim in New York who was sold 70 times a day, she made a thousand dollars a day for the pimp and she never saw a penny of it.

LC: You work with women and girls in situations of high risk. But you and your organization have also received threats lately related to the case of Cuauhtemoc Gutierrez, former leader of the PRI in the capital accused of running a prostitution ring. Can you tell us a little about that case?

Yes, what can be told. It’s a modus operandi that we can prove since 2002 when there were some girls who filed a complaint because they were fired for refusing to have sexual relations with him. Later he continued to operate in the same way and the next case is in 2011. Then recently some announcements went out in El Universal and some girls went to apply, but in the interview–also, the announcements were deceitful because they said ‘Employment in government offices’ and it turns out that a political party is an entity of public interest but it’s not a government office even though its operations are funded with taxpayer money. They went to a famous reporter and gave their testimony and she decided to investigate.

A reporter went undercover and went in as an applicant and she managed to record almost the whole part where they explained what type of sexual relations she would have to perform, if it was vaginal it was with a condom, if it was oral it was without a condom and that she’d have to swallow the semen, and that all this was very normal, etcetera. They fired him, or rather they suspended him temporarily. Then the Party of the Democratic Revolution filed charges against him and we were working with 3 victims–we have more, but they are very afraid to come out–who in the end decided to file charges.

And now we are at an impasse as they define whether the Mexico City prosecutor is the office that should investigate or no. Meanwhile, they came to my house, the leaders of the PRI in Azcapotzalco. They came to the office, they came in with false names, telling lies, and they tried to drag me out of the office. Then they began to call the office almost daily and forcibly wanted to know the names of people who work here on cases that had nothing to do with trafficking.

Then starting May 10th I began to receive coded messages collect on both my telephones using sexual language that you could say were like threats of rape. We found bullets on the roof. And then lately, on Sept. 1 in a peaceful demonstration where we tried to close and in fact closed the Electoral Institute of Mexico City, we were attacked by persons who went to defend him. He and the party said they weren’t involved but we’re sure that they are his people, that he sent them. We have the signs and videos where they yelled “the women stand by Cuauhtemoc Gutierrez”. And they took down our banner, they surrounded us and the police had to come in to get us out of there. And it’s still going on, and I think it will continue to happen until the case is decided and until we manage to break down all these walls of impunity that are protecting him.

LC: Teresa, despite everything, you’ve made a difference too. Can you tell us about a success story?

Yes. The Red Alert has led to the rescue of 1,337–rescue or location, because 5% were found dead. But we have one very successful case of two girls about 5 or 6 years old, twins, who are Luisa Fernanda– here above– and Luisa Maria. Their mother was in a situation of irregular migration in New York and a Mexican exploited her sexually. They are the parents of the girls. But he always beat her a lot and she got fed up and reported hm. The judge ordered that once a week the father could see the girls. On one of those visits, he stole them and took them by land to Mexico. Well, at first we didn’t know that. But we managed to find where he had the girls, with the help of the National Attorney General’s office, just with the telephone number of his family. We found them, we rescued them and they were returned to their mother in New York City where they receive all the benefits of the Protection Act. So they get the help from the United States that they need to move forward, with the cooperation of ICE and Sanctuary for Families in New York, which is the largest and most important organization that works on issues of trafficking, sex trafficking, and violence against women.

LC: So you work across borders on your cases?

Not always. Because there is also internal trafficking in every country. I think internal trafficking is like 150 or 200 times greater than international trafficking. What happens is that the government, in the simulation that there is here, doesn’t want to look bad with other governments so when there is a request for international cooperation it places more emphasis on it. But, for example, here in Chiapas they still sell or they still have the custom of paying for girls as brides, no? And many other forms that we have here in Mexico and in other countries within their own borders.

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