Monday, 9 May 2011

One woman’s fight to end human trafficking in Mexico

Graeme GreenCongresswoman Rosi Orozco: 'I'll never stop. We have a mission to complete.'
Rosi Orozco is in tears, and it’s not for the first time today. It’s unusual to see a politician in such a raw emotional state, but Orozco’s known for the passion she brings to the fight against human trafficking in Mexico. “I can’t sleep knowing so many children are suffering so much. I can’t believe the suffering of these people, like slaves,” she says, her voice cracking.
She collects herself. “I’m sorry. The First Lady is always telling me, ‘Don’t cry in Congress,’ but I can’t help it,” she says, throwing up her hands. That she can be emotional doesn’t mean she can’t also be tough and determined.
I spend several days with Orozco at the Mexican Congress, the legislative branch of the government, in Mexico City. She strides around the building, always on a mission. Colleagues talk of getting emails from her late at night and early in the morning – they don’t know when she sleeps. “We’ve looked for the switch to turn Rosi off,” one assistant says, “but we couldn’t find it.”
The criminals who profit from human trafficking – many of them the same gangs behind Mexico’s drug trade, which has seen an estimated 37,000 people killed since 2006 – have a strong, committed opponent. This marks Orozco out as a target. She has an armed guard at all times and travels in an armoured car. “I know this is dangerous,” she tells me. “I know my family is in danger. My family is protected, in a way. My daughter doesn’t live in Mexico. That’s the highest cost I’ve paid. We are all at risk, all the ones fighting against organised crime.”
The lawyers are smart, bad, devious. They ask: "Did you never see police?" Sometimes the police were clients
Does she worry about the risk? “No. Because when you know that your life has a purpose, you want to live that purpose with all your heart. I think somebody has to do it. I knew about the problem and I couldn’t sleep. I mean, if you have this in your heart, you cannot close your eyes and sleep if you don’t do anything.”
Orozco, who is 50, was born in Jardines Del Pedrigal in the south of Mexico City. “My parents were generous people,” she recalls. “In my house, I saw my father and mother would do anything for other people. That helped me see that all human beings are very important.”
Her eyes were opened to Mexico’s trafficking problem in 2005 by a film she saw in Washington DC at a Concerned Women For America event. “I didn’t know about it until that movie. I cried the whole week.” She worked with various non-governmental organisations and charities, including Camino A Casa, a safe house for trafficking victims in Mexico City, before entering politics in 2009. She’s now a congresswoman with Felipe Calderon’s ruling government, the centre-right PAN (National Action Party), and president of the special commission against trafficking. Her husband, Alejandro Orozco Rubio, is also a politician. They have three children. Last year, they adopted Betty, a former trafficking victim. Orozco cries again as she proudly discusses the changes in Betty’s life. “She’s already working in a good job at a hotel. She’s won a big prize being the best person in her job.”
The fight against trafficking, Orozco tells me, is her sole reason for being in politics. “I didn’t come here because of politics. I came here for this problem.”
Mexico is one of the world’s hot spots for trafficking. Boys are trafficked but 85% of victims are girls. They are exploited for labour or sex. Former prostitutes I meet reported having sex with 20-40 men a day, charging 160-180 pesos (£8-10) for sex, though they rarely got to see any of the money; most, if not all, goes to their pimps.
The girls come from every part of the country, some kidnapped, some sold by parents – which is illegal but still practised in some parts of Mexico – as forced wives or servants, many lured away from home by false promises of jobs or seduced by pimps posing as boyfriends and future husbands who then force the girls into prostitution. The victims come from outside Mexico too – it is a transit country with emigrants from Central and South America travelling to the United States, Canada or Europe. Child sex tourism is also growing in Mexico, especially in tourist areas such as Cancun, Acapulco and Tijuana.
The trade is closely tied with the country’s infamous drug cartels or narcos, which the Calderon government is fighting, though human traffic makes far fewer headlines than the “war on drugs”. Huge international organised crime networks are at work too, with human trafficking one of the most profitable means of illegal income around the world. Mexico also has serious problems with corruption, including police, judges and politicians. Campaigners say the country has inadequate laws to tackle human trafficking.
Poverty in Mexico helps sustain the trade. As with drugs, the money that can be made selling and exploiting women has a powerful draw in a poor country. While a gramme of cocaine can only be sold once, a girl can be sold again and again. One girl might make her pimp 200,000 or 300,000 pesos (£10,000-16,000) a month. Like the narcos, this money can make being a trafficker or a pimp an attractive career choice.
“It’s cultural,” one local man tells me. “If you ask small kids, ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ they say, ‘I want to be a pimp.’ Why? Because they have girls, guns, money, fancy cars and can get a house like a castle.”
There’s also a social problem with how prostitutes are perceived in Mexico. Some men claim the girls enjoy it, and prostitutes are used as a social convenience. “There are a lot of boys who, when they’re 14 or 15 years old, their father takes them to a prostitute or bordello to learn sex,” Orozco explains. “Culturally we have to start changing the minds of a lot of men who are really like animals.”
Victims I talk to also say many older clients want to sleep with young girls. It’s clear that with the horrifically young ages of the girls – mostly children, not adults –the problem in Mexico is not just of prostitution or trafficking but a prevalence of unacknowledged paedophilia. The main thing Orozco is fighting for is a new national law on human trafficking which will bring all Mexican states under the same rules for combating, preventing and punishing traffickers. It will give more powers to police and judges to target and convict pimps, traffickers and men who use prostitutes; few criminals are punished under the current laws. The women and girls would also receive anonymity and protection, and Orozco hopes there will be funding for rehabilitation projects for the victims.
The legislation is written and has passed through congress once, but seems to have stalled. Orozco and the PAN are in power until next year, so passing the law soon is a priority. She’s hopeful it will pass this year but there are powerful people fighting it.
“There is a big war to pass this law,” she says. “There are people everywhere who are linked to human trafficking and sometimes they are political people. But there are many more people who want to finish this problem. A lot of Mexicans are sick and tired of this, a lot of politicians. We will fight this fight with all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength.”
Araceli Vazquez, from the opposing PRD party, is working with Orozco to push the bill through. She’s critical of the president, though, saying Calderon hasn’t made trafficking a priority. “He has moved too slowly,” says Vazquez. “From 2007, he didn’t really do much; four years have passed and they took too long to address the problem. In Colombia, they changed the law on trafficking relatively fast. This is what we need.” The proof of Calderon’s commitment will be the passing of the new law during his presidency.
While politicians argue over the fine print, the suffering goes on. I’m taken out in a car around Mexico City to Tlalpan Avenue and Tepito, known as Barrio Bravo (“brave” or “fierce” neighbourhood), two of many hot spots, to see the scale of the problem. There are young girls, old women and transvestites lining the streets, watched over by pimps; in the brothels here, I’m told you can buy pretty much anything that you want.
A prostitute spots us taking photographs on a corner of Tlalpan Avenue. She pulls the car door open and starts shouting. Juan Carlos, who’s driving, speeds away from the kerb. For 10 minutes, we’re followed by a white car. Carlos looks terrified, repeatedly checking his mirror. “These people are very aggressive,” he tells me. “They have guns. You don’t know how many of them there will be: one, two, three …”
He weaves in and out of the lines of traffic, hoping to shake the car off. Eventually, desperately, he pulls across four lanes of traffic to the sound of beeping horns and stops the car in a petrol station forecourt. He’s visibly shaken. It’s perhaps just a small indication of the danger Orozco and others face when challenging the livelihood of those who make their money exploiting girls and women.
The next day I visit Camino A Casa, a refuge for victims in the city. Its location has to remain secret, as does the identity of the girls – many of them are in legal proceedings against the pimps and traffickers and their lives are at risk. There’s also a stigma attached to prostitution – some of the girls have been kicked out of schools or jobs when their past became known.
There are 26 girls and women currently at the safe house and, in some cases, their children. A girl from Oaxaca, called Abigail, sold as a wife to a 59-year-old man when she was 13, is in the driveway pushing her son on a tricycle.
The girls come to Camino A Casa with a range of problems: sexual disease infections, malnutrition, drug, alcohol and solvent abuse, emotional damage. Most of them worked as prostitutes, a few in forced labour. Their histories include abuse, rape, addiction, violence, prostitution and slavery.
The girls look so young in their bright pink and purple T-shirts, hoodies and chunky silver jewellery. Their bedrooms are filled with stuffed toys. Many of them are still children now – to think how young they must have been, and looked, and felt when they were forced to work as prostitutes, in some cases years earlier, is shocking.
I meet 17-year-old Susana from San Luis. Her story is common. She was seduced by an older man who said he loved her and wanted to marry her. Once cut off from her family, he moved her around Mexico, to Monterey and then Mexico City, and started pressuring her, saying they needed money. “I felt very separate and like I was never going back home, never,” she recalls. “I felt alone. He said if I didn’t work, he was going to kill me and my family.”
Susana was 15 when she first went with a client. “It was disgusting,” she says. “After they’d gone, I felt dirty. I had to take a shower every single time a client left the room. There were many men who were much older, who wanted to have sex with girls like me. I used to think, ‘Maybe they have daughters my age.’”
The day after I talk with Susana, she will face her abusers again in court. I ask what she wants to happen, what a fair punishment would be for what they did to her. “I feel angry at the pimps and the clients. I thought, ‘It’s not possible that men like this exist.’ I hope they live in jail all their lives because they’ve hurt me so much.” With Camino A Casa’s help, she’s studying at college – she wants to be an attorney and help other victims.
Maria, 20, has a similar story. She was seduced by a man while studying in Vera Cruz and brought to Mexico City to work and get married. But when she got there, her boyfriend forced her into prostitution. “It was so bad, I started crying with the first client,” she tells me.
She’s beautiful and so open and vivacious that it’s hard to believe what she has endured. At a hotel, she was forced to have sex with 30-40 men a day. “It was very hard, physically painful,” she says. “I called him [her boyfriend/pimp] and he said to take some kind of anti-inflammatories. I thought, ‘He can’t love me, because no man could ask this of a woman.’”
I ask how she feels about the man who betrayed her and the people who used and hurt her. “The Bible says I should forgive,” she says. “In my heart, I’ve forgiven them. But they have to pay here to the authorities.”
Camino A Casa is run by Luis Barajas and his wife, Elizabeth. To see Luis with the girls is a beautiful thing – they tease and play with him, like a father. “Most of the time they call me Dad,” he says. They rush to his side to support him when he walks (a diabetes-related operation has left him with a painful limp). Like Orozco, he’s risking his life to help the girls. Also like Orozco, he’s relentless; not only does he help with the girls’ rehabilitation, education, social care, medical care and general wellbeing, he’s also their lawyer, assisting in prosecutions. This is his life’s cause. “We’re with the girls so much,” he tells me. “I cry with them. I suffer with them.”
The current legal process, Luis says, forces the girls into the same room as their abusers to be questioned and bullied. “The lawyers of the defence are very smart people, very bad, very devious,” he says. “They put psychological pressure on the girls. The perpetrator is three metres away from the girl, because this is a right he has. So the girls are intimidated, and then the lawyers start to ask questions like: when was the first time you had sexual relations? The girls have to confront all this for maybe one year. They go to court maybe 10 or 15 times to suffer psychological abuse. They are re-victimised.”
One of the questions often put to the girls is why they didn’t ask for help. “One lawyer asked: ‘You never saw a police car? Why did you never say anything?’ Well, sometimes the police were clients. But also, the pimps break the will of the girls. They take something from them inside.”
The problem is out of control, says Luis. “This is happening in all the country; every town, every state has a hot spot. Right now in congress, 500 men and women are discussing many things. But right now, two blocks from congress, there are girls and women being exploited, forced to be with 20 or 30 clients per day, every day, seven days a week.”
He’s hopeful about the new law. But he’s also frustrated by how slow progress is on getting it passed, frustrated by the authorities’ reluctance to deal with the issue or help victims, frustrated by corruption at all levels.
“Criminals pay the government,” he says. “Money talks. People know this is going on. Everybody is against this trafficking, but it’s happening again and again. It’s ridiculous. Some [politicians and police] make speeches on TV, but behind the scenes they’re taking money.”
Ending human trafficking in Mexico will be a long struggle. The new law Orozco and others are working towards will help, if and when it’s passed. But it won’t be the end of the battle. Not only are there great social and cultural problems to overcome, but the size and power of the cartels and organised crime networks is immense: violent, dangerous, determined and ingrained in Mexican culture, from poor “foot soldiers” right up to gang leaders, cartel bosses and corrupt politicians.
On my last day in Congress, I ask Orozco if she thinks the fight is winnable. She is in no doubt – and points to the struggle to abolish slavery in the 19th century.
“William Wilberforce fought for 18 years and he never stopped,” she says defiantly. “He didn’t see the success, he didn’t see the people being free. He had big battles that he lost, but he won the war.” Her voice becomes high and brittle. “I’m sure we’re going to win, not just me, but Luis and the girls. Some of the girls that have been rescued want to help and do their part. So I’m doing what I have to do: fighting without stopping. I’ll never stop. We have a mission to complete.” 
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