MEXICO: Teen's Brothel Escape Triggers Mexico Clampdown

Thursday, July 19, 2012
North America
United States of America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

They were only 14 years old, cousins from a small town in central Mexico, when a fun trip to the local fair turned into a nightmare of drugs and forced prostitution.

As Maria and Lupe - CNN has changed their names to protect their identities - were waiting by the highway for their early evening bus home, they say a semi-tractor trailer stopped right in front of them and two men got out.

There were no conversations. It all happened very quickly, the cousins say. "They were two men who were wearing black masks like hoodies. We couldn't see their faces," Maria said.

Lupe says she didn't even have time to react. "I only felt that they put something on my nose and that's all I remember. The last thing I remember is yelling for help," Lupe said.

Drugged and drifting in and out of consciousness, they lost track of time. They only know they woke up in a dark room where they were kept for several days. There was no food or water and the cousins were cold. But it was only the start of their ordeal.
Several days later, Maria says, a woman showed up. She let them both know that, from now on, they were going to "work for her," the cousins said. At that moment they had no idea what the stranger was talking about.

Lupe was taken out of the room and Maria was left alone with the woman. A man then entered the room and started beating her savagely. She says he raped her; and then both the man and the woman threatened her life and told her to cooperate.
That night Maria says she was forced to have sex with 23 men. "When they left, I stayed there, lying on the floor, bleeding. My entire body ached. The woman told me to get up, that it hadn't been that bad," Maria said.

It was the beginning of several months the cousins describe as torture. They were sold to a pimp who forced them to have sex with multiple men every night. Their hair was dyed. They were forced to wear skimpy outfits. They would get beaten up if they weren't "friendly" with clients.

Meanwhile, in their hometown, their families were desperately looking for them. At first, they thought the girls had got lost and searched around the town. Then they started looking in wooded areas around the town, afraid they might have been killed or fallen off a cliff.

Lupe's father, a laborer, recalls how desperate his family was to find the girls. The family organized search parties. They posted flyers everywhere they could and reached out to hospitals, jails and other places. At one point, someone suggested searching in bars along highways.

Francisco - CNN has changed his name as well - and a brother went to many different bars in Morelos state, neighboring Mexico City.

Francisco says he was disgusted by what he saw: underage girls who should be in school working as prostitutes. "We would see young girls. There are many in the state of Morelos. Some of them were wearing masks. Others had their hair dyed and wore suggestive clothing," Francisco said.

At one of the bars Maria was taken to, she says she was forced to work from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. only to get up again at noon to prepare for another 18-hour shift. "I felt so dirty, that every time I took a shower and every time they put makeup on me I felt like an old lady. I felt as if I didn't have a family," Maria said.

Forced to use drugs and drink alcohol, Maria says she thought her life would soon end. She was horrified when she saw a very young girl brought into the house where she and others were being kept. She asked the girl how old she was. The answer: eight years old.

Maria says she attempted to escape once. She ran away and asked some police officers on the street for help. What she didn't know was that the officers were on the payroll of the pimp and took her right back into the brothel where she got another savage beating.

Maria and Lupe were kidnapped on January 27, 2010. Almost three months later, when Maria says she had lost all hope, she finally saw the light - literally.

Maria says she'll never forget the date: April 14. She woke up to see a ray of light in the room coming from behind an armoire. When she pushed the armoire out of the way, she found an unlocked door.

Maria says she ran as fast as she could. Several hours later, she ran into a young man who appeared genuinely concerned about her. A group of young Christian men fed her, gave her a room to stay the night and bought her a bus ticket home.
After Maria reached home, the girls' families went to the police who raided the brothel. Ten people were arrested and six underage girls rescued, including Lupe. The eight-year-old was not among them.

Lead prosecutor Victor Carranca, the state attorney in Puebla State, says this case allowed authorities to learn about the underworld of human trafficking and the vast networks that kidnap underage girls for forced prostitution.

"The State's Attorney's office focused on targeting sources of financing for these criminal groups. We eventually closed down 600 establishments," Carranca said. "Many of these places were not only illegal brothels, but meeting points where criminal gangs planned their crimes and illegal activities."

The cousins are now getting financial, legal and psychological help from Camino a Casa, an anti-trafficking organization that focuses on assisting victims. The foundation was started in 2005 by Rosi Orozco, a Mexican lawmaker who has launched a crusade against human trafficking.

"There are some people that think they can buy another human being," Orozco says. The Mexican Congressman authored an anti-trafficking bill that was signed into law in June.

The new law makes human trafficking a federal crime, punishable by up to 40 years in prison. And it targets not only those involved in sex trafficking, but also other forms of modern slavery, including forced labor and child pornography.

Orozco is also targeting those who pay to have sex with underage girls. "We all can change if we stop saying 'johns' - they're not johns! The clients are criminals," Orozco said. She estimates tens of thousands of underage girls are sexually exploited every year in Mexico.

With the help of the Camino a Casa foundation, both Maria and Lupe are learning new skills that will help them have a brighter future. They're back with their families. Maria says her mother still cries when she thinks about what her daughter went through.
As part of her therapy, she talks to small groups of people about her ordeal. "I want people to know what they did to me. I'm no longer angry or want to get revenge. That's what I want to say. Vengeance is not good. I have already forgiven those people and I'm happy again," Maria says.

A long and painful road to recovery is ahead, but finally being home, Maria and Lupe say, allows them to dream again of a better future.