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The invisible victims of human trafficking, sexual exploitation

It’s a modern form of slavery, the third largest criminal industry in the world after drug and weapons dealing, and the fastest growing.

Human trafficking is a real issue around the world that affects many victims who are engaged in prostitution, pornography or exotic dancing. It also occurs in forms of labor exploitation, such as domestic servitude or restaurant work, sweatshop, factory work or migrant agricultural work.

To prevent and discuss ideas that could help to intervene and eradicate human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation at this border, the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC) — an alliance of over 60 government and nonprofit agencies in the U.S. and Latin America — convened a panel with national and foreign experts.

BSCC director Marisa Ugarte said last year the group registered more than 2,000 calls and 349 cases of labor and sexual exploitation in San Diego.

“The number of victims for human trafficking and exploitation is incalculable. Some organizations suggest that at least 350,000 kids are being exploited in the U.S. but there are no real surveys to prove it, because most of the time the victims are invisible to us,” she said.

BSCC is headquartered in National City with a sister office in Tijuana. Ugarte has led the organization since 1997. She knows that the problems are even more dangerous in border cities and the tourist destinations.

Child pornography, sexual and labor exploitation, sex tourism, and panhandling, are some of the issues happening in Baja California and California frontiers, Ugarte said.

In specific areas such as El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, National City and Vista in San Diego County or the Zona Norte in Tijuana, the problems are more notorious.

Women, men and children from Mexico, the U.S. and many other nations are being trafficked and exploited at the San Diego-Tijuana border region, she said.

Enough proof is the case of Salim Boughader, a Tijuana restaurant owner that was sentenced to 60 years in a Mexican prison in 2008. He was accused of leading a trafficking network and brought more than 200 Lebanese into the U.S., including sympathizers of the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Boughader smuggled people without problems through Mexican airports and some successfully crossed the border between Tijuana and San Diego.

Reverse trafficking
Many American teenagers and young women are victims of human trafficking and exploitation, said Anna Rodriguez, founder and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Japan, Aruba, Thailand, South America and Europe are some of the destinations where these girls are taken to, she said.

Rodriguez said that at first they are recruited in their hometowns to participate as models or dancers in live shows; once they obtain the job, they travel overseas with legitimate documents and paid by the contractors.

Prostitution is legal in Tijuana's Zona Norte area but exploitation is common.

“Then they arrive alone to a foreign country and they are forced to work as prostitutes or lap dancers at strip clubs, with no other choice than stay because most of the time the contractors take away their passports,” she said. “If they want to escape, they need first to pay for their travel expenses and then collect enough to go away.”

American customers
All day and night in Tijuana’s downtown, very close to the border fence, many women and men practice legal prostitution, in the tolerance area called Zona Norte.

“Just one visit to those streets is necessary to find out that many of the people that buy these men and women are Americans,” Rodriguez said. But in Zona Norte, not everything is legal. There are also children that are forced to have sex with adults, Ugarte said.

“Human trafficking has proliferated in our border and in our cities because dogs don’t smell it, the product is not a drug and the criminals don’t sell it,” she said. “They recycle it and exploit it many times until the girl or boy is no longer attractive for the customers.”

Under the U.S. PROTECT Act of 2003, a law aimed at preventing child abuse, citizens or residents of the United States are subject to 30 years in prison if engaged in sexual activity with boys or girls under 18, even if the offense is made in another country. (PROTECT stands for “Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today.”)

“We have a law that punishes Americans that commit these crimes in another country, but we are not seeing more cases of this kind,” Rodriguez said. “Then where are we failing?”

Mexican efforts
There are three types of countries for human trafficking crimes: the countries of origin, transit and destination.

“The seriousness of the problem of trafficking in Mexico is that this is an origin, transit and destination country,” said Fernando Batista of the Mexican Human Rights Commission.

“Certainly this is a problem that has been gradually strengthening in our country, not just in the border states. However, the border is a very active place for the transit of persons who are subjected to this terrible crime,” he said.

Batista said that in Mexico, indigenous people, women, children, and immigrants are potential victims for human trafficking.

While organ trafficking, and sexual and labor exploitation are some of the most frequent crimes in Mexico, most of the time the perpetrators are not punished.

“In the commission, we have promoted the approval of many state laws and public policies implemented to prevent human trafficking, as well as any other action made to enforce the Palermo Protocol,” he said.

The Palermo Protocol, adopted by the United Nations in 2000, offers practical help to states with drafting laws, creating comprehensive national anti-trafficking strategies, and assisting with resources to implement them.

The commission is also looking forward to the federalization of the human trafficking crime in Mexico, as a strategy to bring national attention in this issue.

“We want those who commit this crime in Mexico be brought into our justice institutions, be convicted and that no impunity reign in our country,” he said.

Tania Navarro is SDNN’s Tijuana correspondent.