A sinister trade has taken root in an impoverished town in central Mexico.
Entire extended families exploit desperation and lure hundreds of young women to the United States to force them into prostitution.
Those who know the pimps of Tlaxcala state – victims, prosecutors, social workers and researchers – say the men from Tenancingo have honed their methods over at least three generations. They play on all that is good in their victims – love of family, love of husband, love of children – to force young women into near-bondage across the border.
The town provides the perfect petri dish for forced prostitution. A heavily Indian area, it combines long-standing traditions of forced marriage or “bride kidnapping” with machismo, poverty and an early wave of industrialisation in the 1890s that later went bust, leaving a displaced population that would roam, looking for elusive work.
Added to that, says anthropologist Oscar Montiel, who has interviewed the pimps about their work, is a tradition of informal, sworn-to-silence male groups. He believes that, in the town of just more than 10,000, as many as 3000 people may be directly involved the trade. Prosecutors say the network includes female relatives of the pimps, who often serve as go-betweens or supervisors, or who care for the children of women working as prostitutes.
One pimp told Montiel that his uncle got him started in the business and he has since passed the techniques on to his brother and two sons. Federico Pohls, who runs a centre that tries to help victims, says established pimps will sometimes bankroll young men who aspire to the profession but lack the money and cars to impress young women.
Dilcya Garcia, a Mexico City prosecutor who did anti-trafficking work in Tenancingo, confirms that many boys in the town aspire to be pimps. “If you ask some boys, and we have done this, ‘Hey what do you want to be when you grow up?’ They reply: ‘I want to have a lot of sisters and a lot of daughters to make lots of money.”‘
The Tenancingo pimps trawl bus stations, parks, stores and high schools in poverty-stricken areas of Mexico, according to prosecutors who have raided their operations in Mexico City – often the “proving ground” where women are tried out as prostitutes before being moved to the US.
The pimps use a combination of threats, mistreatment and unkept promises that send their victims on a slippery slope that usually ends in the filthy alleys near Mexico City’s La Merced marketplace or at a cheap apartment in metro Atlanta. There, the women are isolated and sometimes forced to service dozens of male clients a day.
Garcia, who has dealt extensively with the victims, says some pimps even show up with fake “parents” to convince women they are serious about commitment. “The way they fish for their victims is very cruel, very Machiavellian, but very effective,” says Garcia. “When somebody is isolated, or unprotected, they are the perfect victim.”
A young victim who agreed to speak fit that profile perfectly. She asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation from her pimp’s family. Miguel Rugerio was charming and sweet when she met him in her impoverished hometown in the state of Tabasco.
He wooed her with promises – good jobs in the US with lots of money to send home to build a house in Mexico. After he got her to Tenancingo, he quickly changed. When the girl, just 17 at the time, wanted to go home for her sister’s 15th birthday, he said no. “I thought he was joking and he said he wasn’t joking,” she said. “I told him I would escape, and he said he would find me and make a scene in my hometown.”
He finally said she could go home for a day but that if she did not come right back, he would hurt her family. When she returned to him, he and his family started to mistreat her, abusing her, humiliating her, making her do all the housework. A few weeks later, he brought her to Mexico City and forced her to work as a prostitute. “He told me that if I didn’t do it, he was going to hurt my sister and my family. I was very afraid of him.”
A typical scenario, prosecutors say, involves an elaborate sham of a marriage, sometimes with false papers and names, before the pimp feigns a sudden financial crisis that would put the couple out on the street. The pimp then casually mentions a friend whose wife “worked” them out of the problem, noting, “If you love me, you’d do that for me.” Sometimes the tactics are more violent.
“We’ve always suspected the problem is larger than we know about,” said Brock Nicholson, deputy special agent in charge of the Atlanta division of the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Often, victims are reluctant to comeforward.” While some in Tenancingo will admit pimps operate there, others seemingly are in denial, despite the luxurious houses that crowd the otherwise dusty, impoverished town.
The three-storey homes with elaborate ironwork and Greek-inspired cornices are “safe houses” used by the pimps to awe, then confine, their victims, says Federico Pohls, a human rights activist who works with victims. Not so, says Maximino Ramirez, the secretary of the Tenancingo town council. The structures were “built on hard work”.
He dismissed the claims of the women. “Maybe they went into [prostitution] of their own free will and then, after awhile, they say: ‘You know what? They forced me.”‘ Town residents have another name for the imposing houses. In the local Indian language, they call them “calcuilchil” – houses of ass. State prosecutors’ spokeswoman Judith Soriana says only about a half-dozen people have been prosecuted under laws against human trafficking in the past couple of years.
She denies it is a particular problem in the state, saying “it has been blown out of proportion”. “Pimping isn’t a problem exclusive to this state, it happens everywhere in the world.”