Mexico’s New War: Sex Trafficking

The “War on Drugs” as viewed in Mexico and the U.S. is changing. No longer are President Felipe Calderón, the police, and Mexican military forces fighting just drug trafficking; now they must do battle against the rising trafficking of sex. Over the past decade there has been a dramatic rise in violence linked to the drug trade within Mexico. Even though Calderón has met with some success in reducing the amount of drugs trafficked across the border through drug seizures, his promise of a country free from cartel violence seems increasingly unlikely. His administration’s inability to effectively control the cartels is increasingly rooted in the fact that the war Calderón thinks he is fighting has expanded.

Mexico’s drug cartels have been at least a step ahead of the Mexican government since Calderón launched his campaign against them. Although some of the top drug lords have been captured and jailed, they can be—and often are—effectively replaced. The capture of several drug lords by military forces has not actually benefitted Calderón’s efforts. In fact, the removal of various cartel leaders has actually led, on some occasions, to the creation of new cartels- the Beltran Leyva Cartel being but one example. As Calderón has been distracted with drug control he has inadvertently allowed for the growth of human trafficking, a lucrative business left largely unregulated by Mexican law.

Human trafficking accounts for 6.6 billion USD a year in Mexico alone,1 a figure that is growing as human trafficking continues its rise in profitability. The vast expansion of human trafficking from Mexico to the United States is notable in its absence from the media; instead, a wealth of analysis of drug related problems continually takes the spotlight. Conservative estimates conclude that over 100,000 women, a number predicted to increase by the end of 2010, are trafficked out of Latin America annually for the purpose of prostitution.2

Human trafficking has been attacked on a global scale with countries across the world focusing more of an effort on their own problems and using reports like the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) to publicize their efforts. Mexico however, remains an anomaly. The reason that the mainstream media does not focus much attention on human trafficking coming out of Mexico is not because it is not newsworthy; it is instead because drug violence dominates the headlines. Thousands of women and children are subjected to a modern-day form of slavery, with many raped and subjected to unimaginable conditions. Brothels hold women across the country, in places as far away from the border as New York City, where the conditions of living are so severe as to cause one U.S. physician to claim “the first time I went to the camps I didn’t vomit only because I didn’t have anything in my stomach.”3

In one example, the police in Plainfield, New Jersey reported a raid upon a sex slave house described as a “19th-Century slave ship, with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and a stash of penicillin, morning-after pills, and misoprostol, an antiulcer medication that can induce abortion.”4 Women are placed into such brothels on both sides of the border and subjected to multiple sexual acts a day, living in fear that if they do not comply with their captor’s demands they, or their family, will be killed. Women and girls trafficked into the United States are thus dispersed across the country, making this an issue that is much more than just a border problem.

The position of women in Mexican society has contributed to the growth of human trafficking rings, leaving them extremely vulnerable to the abuse of cartels and trafficking coyotes. The nature of sex and remaining ‘pure’ is negated as a very important ideal for woman in the largely Catholic country. Without the support from their government less than one percent of rape cases lead to any sort of conviction,5 with women who become the victims of sexual violence often choose to remain silent. Providing economic support for their families has become increasingly challenging in Mexico for these women as well. As the nation becomes more entrenched in drug-related violence, many Mexican women find themselves with little money and become desperate for ways out, especially because legitimate opportunities to make a decent wage remain scarce in their own country. Male laborers often leave Mexico to come into the United States to work, and they send a large portion of their wages back home to their families. The women they leave behind often find themselves in an unfortunate position. The desperate need to make money often leaves women susceptible to coyotes’ tempting offers that promise them money in exchange for “running” their drugs across the border, luring them into a life of trafficking. This is happening in the most troubled border muncipality, Ciudad Juárez, where women go missing daily and are never heard from again. Young women who go to Juárez lack the rights and protections of men because they are seen as replaceable laborers, so if one girl goes missing from the maquiladoras there is little effort spent to find out why, especially since the border towns between Mexico and the United States are increasingly occupied with drug violence.

It is the dispensability of these women that make them a target for drug and human traffickers. Often, young women, mostly under the age of eighteen, are placed unwillingly into a system of trafficking, and their families receive ransoms demanding money. Usually, the family is too poor to afford to pay the demand. This common occurrence creates a climate of terror. According to an interview by CNN, Claudia, who was fifteen at the time of her placement into a prostitution ring in the United States, stated that the cartels threatened to kill her family if she tried to escape.6 The women who end up in these prostitution rings are often moved from one brothel to another and subjected to high levels of sexual abuse. Claudia reported that she was forced to have sex with twenty men on her first day in the brothel. Her horrific encounter is just one example of what thousands of women experience each year, as they are forced into these prostitution rings.

The recent conflict over immigration has become another factor in the growth of human trafficking rings, as their levels of strength increase exponentially. Since 11 September 2001, the issue of border security has generated an overzealous reaction on the U.S public’s part, galvanized by politicians hungry for an issue, to keep “others” out. As a result, the U.S.-Mexico border became almost impenetrable. However, heightened border security backfired on the U.S. government as it forced many Mexicans into the areas of illegal trafficking groups in hopes that they will give them a better chance of getting across the border. As the debate over immigration continues, stringent U.S. laws will surely play an important role in the growing reliance of Mexicans on illegal trafficking groups. Recent laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which critics argue encompass racial profiling, are causing increasing harm to many victims of human trafficking. Amanda Kloer of explains that the law will “up the chances that undocumented trafficking victims will end up detained or deported and documented traffickers walk free.” Kloer reasons that victimizing those who have been subjected to trafficking, via laws like SB 1070, is likely to keep many from coming forward to law enforcement officials out of fear that they will simply be deported back to Mexico. Any change in the classification of “illegal immigrants” has to take into account that not all of those criminalized by existing U.S. laws are there by choice.

Unfortunately, Calderón’s attack on drug cartels has left few resources to combat human trafficking. Mexico has tried to address the issue through legal changes to combat trafficking as recently as 2007, when “federal legislation to prohibit all forms of drug trafficking”7 was passed. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking of Persons Report 2010, “some local officials tolerate and are sometimes complicit in trafficking, impeding the implementation of anti-trafficking statutes.”8 This limits the law and at times makes it completely ineffective in combating the issue. Last year, according to the same government report, the federal government in Mexico investigated only 48 cases of human trafficking. Only one trafficking ring was apprehended and the leader still remains at large. Obviously, the laws are not doing nearly enough to stop what is happening by passing laws that, in reality, do very little.

The problem with human and sex trafficking is that it has become a side business for many cartels to supplement their lost income in the “war on drugs.” Kloer again explains it best: “When a drug cartel traffics a pound of cocaine into the U.S., they can only sell it once. When they traffic a young woman into the U.S., they can sell her again and again.”9 Calderón has unwittingly allowed the cartels to become involved in other illicit business, such as human trafficking, and his administration has done little to address this issue. As human trafficking becomes a growing problem shared by Mexico and the U.S., it becomes the responsibility of both governments to properly address the issue. Due to both countries’ stance on immigration policy, the current violence taking over the country, and the insubordination of women’s status in Mexico, female trafficking has become the loophole in cartel’s moneymaking abilities and is an issue that can be stopped if given the right attention and awareness. Calderón, as well as other leaders in Latin America, must start attacking the cartels’ human trafficking activities to help combat the growth of this industry. The United States also has a responsibility to help those that become labeled as “victims” of human trafficking. In situations like this, the United States needs to assert their role as a guiding light in the Western hemisphere and aid victims who are not being helped by their own government.

References for this article are available here

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10 thoughts on “Mexico’s New War: Sex Trafficking

  • October 14, 2010 at 3:17 am

    Interesting article, but it needs serious editing and proofreading. Plus… "the United States needs to assert their role as a guiding light in the Western hemisphere…"? Does the author really think that the US is a guiding light? Does COHA think the US is a guiding light? Wow!

  • October 14, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I agree with the previous comment. I also note that the article is based on very few sources and that it relies on overly stereotyped ideas about Mexican culture, ideas that contain some kernel of truth but that are easily abused to make facile assumptions. The topic is certainly important but it deserves more careful writing and more rigorous research.

  • October 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Interesting article but it is unclear when referring to the status of women i Mexico
    "and the insubordination of women’s status in Mexico," – what does this mean?
    "The position of women in Mexican society has contributed to the growth of human trafficking rings, leaving them extremely vulnerable…"
    What is this position?
    What about women's support groups – what are they trying to do to help?

  • October 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    None of the initial posters offer any real challenge to the allegations made by Melissa Graham. Before they carp on details–even if those carps might be valid–they should say what they're own understanding of the truth is, especially if it's genuinely different from Graham's. Myself, I'd be very surprised if the core facts are much different from what Graham proposes, although I don't think that the formal governments of either nation can do much to change the situation because to some degree their powers are more limited than we might imagine or compromised by the very perpetrators they would control. The other thing that needs to be addressed is the issue of the culpability of American citizens who purhcase these drugs and prostitutes. How do we change that behavior without blowing up our prison population?

    • October 14, 2010 at 7:29 pm

      This is a great point. I've noticed that a lot of the criticisms made of COHA articles and online articles more generally offer little in the way of alternative opinions. It begs the question what is point of being critical if you are not even attempting to be constructive? I personally think this article raises some really pertinent questions. Let us discuss them rather than simply pointing out disagreement.

  • October 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Living here in Tijuana, we appreciate this article. Too bad Melissa wasn't a keynote speaker at the Tijuana Innovador, instead we got Larry King.. And to all of you naysayers, ahem ahem, please come on down and see for yourself. Like the doubting Thomases you are, you obviously have a need to stick your hand in the wounds. I think it might even shock you.

    Thanks Melissa,


  • October 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

    "Although some of the top drug lords have been captured and jailed, they can be—and often are—effectively replaced."

    Drug cartels are multi-billion dollar enterprises. They are extremely complex organizations, and it is naive to think that new leaders can automatically be as effective as previous leaders were. There is significant value in capturing the leaders of these nefarious cartels.

  • October 27, 2010 at 12:14 am

    With such an intense hard-hitting topic at hand, why is anyone being critical of the writer? I'm proud of this writer for attacking this subject. The truth is, human trafficking is happening in Mexico and the US alike. Seattle, WA is the 3rd largest port for it and I-5 is the largest corridor fortransportation of victims. This is NOT including willing immigrants! I am currently making a documentary about this epidemic and would like to hear more from this author. I believe her name is Melissa?

    • October 27, 2010 at 10:34 am

      I appreciate your interest in my article and agree that this is very important and complex issue. If you would like to further contact me feel free to email me ( and we can carry on this discussion.

      Melissa Graham, Author

  • March 11, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I find the article misleading about the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation on a number of levels. First, it makes cultural presumptions about Mexico that create an offensive, but also short sighted, understanding of the problem. My own research on this issue suggests that a lack of neglect by the state is not the result of heightened concentration on drug trafficking, but a general lack of capacity on the state's part to invest money in understanding and combating the issue. As those I've spoken with on this issue have suggested, this is in part due to the cultural understandings about sex, but in a larger way related to the absence of accountability, prevalence of corruption, and general absence of rule of law in Mexico. In addition, I feel the article downplays the role economic destabilization has played in creating both an incentive for sex trafficking as well as the vulnerable conditions that put women (and men) in conditions of sexual exploitation. I think in best addressing this issue, it's important to take a serious look at the sociological consequences of free trade policy in Mexico and their effect on communities, on access to quality state services, ect. Further, the compensatory measures taken to address the fallout created by free trade has lacked the capacity as well as necessary planning to make significant strides in alleviating issues of human trafficking in Mexico.

    I think the reason the article is so weak, though, has a lot to do with the sources used (and the sources not used). The only significant piece here cited is Ugarte's et al's piece, which really only goes into the issue in a historical sense, but provides little in the way of significant analysis as to the causes of the issue (of course that's not the concern there). I think more research and deeper analysis (not just the kind of IR talking points you here from research like this) is needed to make this article stand out (see concluding paragraph for an example of what I'm talking about).. Though to be fair, there's no new research or analysis here, just a regurgitation of what other folks have written–which as some have pointed out, is a problem with the way the problem is understood and explained in the discourse, rather than say Ms. Graham being entirely responsible for her commentary here.


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