HomeInvestigationsOf Slaves and Serfs: Guatemala's 'Occupied' Bodies

Of Slaves and Serfs: Guatemala's 'Occupied' Bodies


Organized crime networks dedicated to human trafficking have had a great deal of time to perfect their system and ally themselves with new players in Guatemala, including drug traffickers. Small criminal structures exploit indigenous women, trafficking them from rural areas to the capital. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women are trafficked from other countries to Guatemala by larger criminal organizations. Sexual exploitation -- in a country with high crime rates, a woeful human rights record and a judicial system that is only just starting to recognize it as a crime -- is flourishing.

[See the complete special report by Plaza Publica in Spanish here.]

Her Body is Her Body

In the nameless bar everything is a little grim, a little dirty, a little sad. A little like a funeral. One of the men grabs a woman by the belt, and they slowly stagger against the brightly lit jukebox without looking at each other. On a chair against the wall sits another woman with an older man, separated by a table cluttered with empty beer bottles. She is trying her hardest not to fall asleep, waking herself every now and again to serve a beer. In the corner of the room, there is, relative to the rest of the place, a festive atmosphere: A heavyset man sits with a woman clothed in luxurious güipil fabric, the colorful embroidery that distinguishes the various Mayan tribes in this country. The güipil is a sign of who is doing well economically -- these Mayan blouses use some of the finest cloth available in Guatemala.

The light in the room is dim. The walls -- dirtied and peeling -- are covered in posters of blonde, bikini-wearing models advertising beer. They stand in stark contrast to the Q’eqchi indigenous women who serve it.

The woman who was dancing with the man against the jukebox disappears from the scene. That will happen all night long: suddenly one of the four women will vanish with a man, returning half an hour later from one of the cheap motels around the corner.

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The canteen is located on Ninth Avenue in the middle of Guatemala City. It is a dimly lit area with dirty walls, barred windows and pick-up trucks coughing smoke. Some refer to this place as “Tijuanita,” or “Little Tijuana.”

The area is in flux, as the government tries to rejuvenate the central district. Only three blocks away is the rejuvenated pedestrian area along Sixth Avenue, which is littered with newly opened cafes. Also, three blocks from Ninth, sits the government-sponsored National Culture Palace. 

The women in the bar are suspicious at first and try to hide their surprise that we -- two women -- would enter a space where the unspoken rule is that only men are welcome. The usual clientele are those who pay double for a beer, a price that includes time with one of the “ficheras,” or escorts. Escorts earn commission based on the amount a “customer” of theirs drinks, essentially making it their job to get drunk with these men. Sometimes they will drink up to 24 beers a night, the escorts later confess to us.

The woman who was nearly falling asleep raises her glass in a toast and bursts into laughter. The man next to her drinks in silence. The one who was dancing passes. We ask her who owns the place. She answers by pointing to the happier contingent in the room: “Madam over there.”

The heavyset man, who is sitting next to the supposed “owner” in her güipil garment, approaches our table. He raises his voice in a feigned foreign accent, thinking we will understand him better.

“Good evening ladies. Welcome to my establishment,” he says, before asking us more directly what we are doing.

We tell him that we are out on the town -- which is a lie -- and that we came in the bar because we like jukeboxes -- which is the truth. We are feeling nostalgic, we tell him, and just want to get drunk. He is convinced, sits at our table and assures us that this is his bar; that the woman in the corner is just a manager.

He then dives in, without caution. He has a BMW. He went to university, though he mumbles when saying what exactly he studied (criminology maybe).  He claims he is a former Kaibil, a member of Guatemala’s elite military commando unit.

“Do you have security problems here?” we ask, trying to be casual, like we are asking about the weather.

“No,” he answers, “And do you know why?” He lowers his voice, “I don’t give a shit, because I work in the presidency.”

Hidden under his shirt is an ID card, which he proudly shows us. On it is his photograph and the government logo. He quickly tucks it away. We get his name, but not his institutional affiliation.

“One time the police came and tried to extort me," he continues. "But I have a buddy in the Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP). I rang him, told him what was happening and within 10 minutes they arrived.”

At this point it’s impossible to know how much of what he says is true and how much is just posturing.

“Usually I come by here in a government car, but I never come in when I do that. I just come by to collect money,” he says.

“Have any of the girls ever had problems with violent customers?” we ask him.

“That’s their problem,” he replies without thinking. “I don’t give a shit. They need to know how to look after themselves. A woman’s body is her body.”

Her body is her body. Their bodies are always drunk. They vanish between the curtains and reappear in a motel room with a stranger for under 100 quetzals ($12). It’s not uncommon to find unidentified women murdered in these types of motels. Her body is her body.

He talks on, declaring he is also the owner of a private security firm. Then he receives a phone call, and leaves abruptly.

There are a few women left, and a table with some kids aged somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. And there is a solitary man and a youth in a baseball cap trying aggressively to get people to dance.

We invite the sleepy woman to join our table. She is tiny, dwarf-like. She puts Calle 13 (a Puerto Rican rap group) on the jukebox and now seems more awake. She is a single mother and former maid who tells us she started here after one of her friends invited her. She assures us she only drinks with the men and does not turn tricks. But the money is better than cleaning houses, and she makes enough to send back to the village where her three children still live.

With time, more emerges. They treat her poorly. They do not feed her enough. At least at the other place she worked, they fed her well. The conditions are startlingly inhuman. The girl sleeps in a back room where she is hidden away by a curtain behind the bar. These mattresses are normally placed on the floor in a crowded, busy area of the place, another sex work tell us later.

It’s the same in other Tijuanita places, that same sex worker tells us. They get 800 quetzals ($100) a month for this work. This is about 40 percent of the legal minimum wage (2,040 quetzals). The salary is padded if the clients “occupy” them. In El Salvador the words “occupy” and “use” are synonymous. The dictionary says: “occupy: to take possession or take over a territory. To fill a space, a place.”

Three people are sitting at our table now, including the manager. Only the youngest of the girls stays behind the makeshift bar to serve beers. The customers are now drinking alone, though they remain intent on buying drinks for the girls and inviting them over to join them. We talk with the girls, smoke, listen to music and laugh together.

They are single mothers who come from small villages where they leave their children in the care of relatives. They have few employment options and so take jobs like this in non-descript places with names such as El Trebol, El Cerrito or La Terminal.

The manager is technically also the owner.

“The titles are in my name,” she says proudly.

However, this carries risk. She is responsible for any transgression or police raid. Our friend from the presidential palace has little to worry about in this regard.

We ask the manager about violence against women here. She smiles.

“You can’t be stupid. You can’t think about it too much. You think about the money. Money is money,” she says.

Money is money. That is the mantra. You can't think about the rest.

The police arrive on Ninth Avenue to carry out their routine weekend inspections. There is a 12-car convoy with armed officers at the back. The flashing lights illuminate the dilapidated area. Two agents enter the bar

“They already left,” says one woman, referring to local drug traffickers.

The dealers often sell on street corners, but sometimes bring their trade inside the bar, whispers another woman.

“Nothing going on here,” another woman says to the police. “My cousin is a cop,” she adds.

The agents have a quick look around and leave. Nothing happens.

One of the clients in the bar admits to being a police officer. He pulls out a photo of himself in uniform. The women start to whisper among themselves that they must be careful with this one, as well as with the customer who has been aggressively trying to get people to dance. He has been stealing cell phones in the area, they say.

The dwarf-like woman perks up again, telling us she has a boyfriend and that he doesn’t like the fact she has to work here. She lowers her voice so the boss doesn’t hear and confides in us that the next day she will go to work at another bar called El Trebol where they feed their workers.

Suddenly, the manager -- the one who seemed so sure of herself; the one who said you just have to focus on the money and not the violence -- breaks down crying. She says her husband is in prison and that she is working to support her children who are being cared for by her mother in another province.

“Tomorrow I’m going to see my husband in prison,” she says between sobs.

Soon, the regime's modus operandi becomes clearer. The dwarf-like woman says the male boss carries a gun. It's not surprising. In Guatemala, there are 14 million people and over 1 million guns, 800,000 of which are not properly registered. 

It’s still raining outside when we leave. The women stay at the table. The mood is downbeat. Thinking of their children has made them sad.

The noise of the rain and cars on the street drown out the sounds. Couples continue to enter cheap motels. You can no longer hear the sound of the jukebox in the nameless bar.

In the Maze

That nameless bar seems normal, harmless almost. The women are not tied up and seemingly not forced to be there. There are no open displays of force, or armed men walking around. The owner of the nameless bar is just a one man.

But in reality, this man forms part of a micro-criminal network. In Guatemala, sexual exploitation -- including brokering or "pimping" sex -- is against the law. The network that operates in bars such as the one we visited lures victims into working there, then enslaves them. 

In businesses scattered throughout the Guatemalan capital, and in urban areas throughout the country, this system plays out in the following way: captors seek women in small villages, deceiving them with the promise of work to get them to leave; or paying their families for their "services." In isolated cases, they simply take the women by force. They bring the women to bars where they live in poor conditions under the “care” of fellow females, who are in charge of administering the criminal network.

Not all the workers are physically coerced. Another category of women enter the trade out of sheer necessity after reaching the brink of economic collapse, in order to support themselves and their families. These same desperate women later recruit others like them, and the vicious cycle continues.

Most of these women end up low-scale bars -- nicknamed “cevicheria,” “chicarroneria,” or “comedor.”  But some find their way to more luxurious places, which work as “night clubs.” All of them are sexually exploited. 

Sex trafficking networks are woven together with invisible threads. Experts, prosecutors and academics all say that the crime is difficult to detect. The victims sometimes do not even know they are being victimized. Discovering the extent of the networks is also difficult.

The United Nations says the phenomenon is gigantic, that human trafficking networks are global and that their victims may number in the millions. The majority are women and children, trafficked between countries or in their own countries through deception, manipulation and force. The sum total of these crimes points to one conclusion: this is modern-day slavery.

Kevin Bales, author of the book “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy,” says there are important things that distinguish it from traditional means of slavery: there is no paperwork to prove who is the owner of the slave; the low cost of acquisitions and the high returns; and the temporary nature of the abuse that means a constant turnover of victims.

After drug and arms trafficking, human trafficking may be the most lucrative illicit business in the world. Bales says there are up to 27 million slaves in the world, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the business generates up to $32 billion in annual profits.  

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Launering proceeds from this business is easy in places like Guatemala. The country is one of only nine in the world where the Treasury cannot legally verify whether declared income matches the amount deposited into bank accounts.

Enslavement has many different faces and masks. It’s not necessary to have victims chained to stop them leaving. The shackles are far heavier and more perverse: poverty, desperation, the lack of opportunity, deception, violence, blackmail, and emotional manipulation. Detecting this crime is like trying to find a fish in a lake that is clouded by oil.

Sexual exploitation has long been a crime in Guatemala, but nameless bars and “night clubs," and the clients that frequent them, normally escape scrutiny. Society and the law give them a pass. The women are the focus, but the fact they are forced to be there seems to be overlooked.

In 2009, the National Commission for Adolescents and Children estimated that some 15,000 children and adolescents were victims of human trafficking in the country. The true number is unclear, however, especially when looking at figures from the Interior and Public Ministries. Activists responsible for providing shelter to victims say the issue is far more serious than the government estimates.

Leonel Dubon, director of the non-governmental organization Casa Alianza and founder of the Shelter Home for Children, which specializes in housing victims of sexual violence and trafficking, has registered 120 human trafficking cases so far this year and says there are certain regions of the country -- Alta and Baja Verapaz in particular -- where cases of missing women are detected far more regularly than official figures register.

Alexander Colop, a lawyer who leads human trafficking investigations for the Attorney General's Office, doesn’t risk giving figures. The system that his office has used up until now does not differentiate between the various forms of trafficking (illegal adoption, sexual and labor exploitation). Colop avoids making projections regarding the phenomenon due to ongoing investigations by the Attorney General's Office.

“You hear a lot of stories about trafficking, but without detailed studies we can't get reliable information,” he stated.

Through August this year, the Attorney General's Office received 446 reports of trafficking. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, had only registered 80 reports through July. Colop recognizes the statistical deficiency and says that the Attorney General's Office is implementing a new system to track and record the crime. However, the Attorney General's Office, the Interior Ministries, and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office all present varying reports on human trafficking.

In 2009, as part of the law against sexual violence, exploitation and human trafficking, the government created the Secretariat against Violence, Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking (SVET). Three years later, this August, the SVET submitted a report and signed an agreement with the International Migration Organization to carry out monitoring.

The SVET signed the accord during a visit by Najat Maalla M’jid, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. During her visit, Maalla found that it was impossible to get an accurate picture of the state of child trafficking in Guatemala, “due to the varying data from different government institutions.” She also found that the institutions did not understand their roles.

Maalla’s conclusion can be extrapolated to the case of adult trafficking. Guatemalan law criminalizes “the promotion, facilitation or favoring of prostitution,” meaning that it prohibits the practice to the same extent as say, Sweden. However, there is a kind of tacit agreement between institutions -- the police and municipal governments, for example -- that if there are no allegations of wrongdoing, sexual exploitation will not be investigated.

There are a number of state institutions, secretariats and ministries involved in the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking, yet it appears that they all function in isolation rather than working together. They would, it seems, prefer to tackle cases as they arise instead of going after the root of the problem.

Until a few months ago, despite the law against prostitution, sex workers were obliged to carry a health card which showed whether or not they had any sexually transmitted diseases. The law implied that the Health Ministry sanctioned prostitution. This double standard leaves women vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

There's Nothing Good in this Kind of Life

Carolina is tired. She has teeth missing and rough skin, with caramel colored eyes and hair tied in a bun. She carries a baby strapped to her back. They have come from a clinic where she had to wait in line for several hours. Today, she will find refuge in this well-lit house with high ceilings and white walls.

This is the Organization for Women’s Empowerment (OMES). Here, sex workers learn to make crafts and jewelry. They receive sex education classes and psychological therapy. In one of the rooms you can hear the teacher recite: “Your body is your body.”

OMES tries to make it clear that sex work is an option, but that the women should know that no one has the right to exploit them. It teaches them about other life options. Dozens of women go through its doors, many of them between 50 and 60 years old. OMES director Yanira Tobar says one of their regular visitors is an 84-year-old woman who prostitutes herself in the main bus terminal.

Tobar is a sex worker. The key for her is “dignity,” and making one’s own decisions. But she recognizes that it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the choice has been made by the individual or whether they have been trafficked, exploited because of their desperate situation.

One woman at OMES agrees to speak to us. "Carolina" asks that we only use her working name. Her real name is a beautiful play on words, but few people know it: she has spent too long now being Carolina.

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She was born in San Vicente, El Salvador. She never knew her father and her mother died when she was 9 years old. She grew up with her grandparents until they died, then went to live with her aunt. At 14, her aunt took her to Guatemala, telling her she would work cleaning houses.

“The first night I arrived the madam of the house made me wash a pile of dishes," she recounts. "She told me to wash and then go to a little room where I'd find some clothes. I asked, ‘You mean to sleep?’ And she replied, ‘No. Your aunt didn’t tell you what you’re going to be doing here? This is a brothel.’ Luckily, I had studied until third grade and understood what she meant.”

Carolina continued, “'I’ve never worked as a prostitute before,' I told the woman. She simply said, ‘No you haven’t, but you’re going to start here.’ I told her I was scared and she said again that I would start here, and that I was going to see how quickly I would start to like it.

“I bathed and she gave me a towel. ‘In the closet is a pair of shoes you’re going to wear,’ she said to me. When I opened the closet there was a big man there. He startled me. ‘I came to get some shoes,’ I said. ‘You’re not going to find shoes in here,’ he replied. ‘Take off the towel. I’m going to be your first customer. You’ve come here to be a whore.’

“I started to shake. He was drunk; I could smell it on his breath. ‘If you don’t do it willingly, you’re going to have to do it the hard way. Lie down,’ he said. I lay down, very afraid. ‘You’ve never been married?’ he asked. ‘No.’

“He took out his penis and put Vaseline on it. He then started to touch me, grabbing me hard on the back and violating me with his fingers. ‘Don’t move because nobody is going to help you here,’ he said. Fearing something worse would happen, I did nothing. I bled a lot. I was only 14 years old. My back hurt afterwards, and I had a headache -- maybe it was emotional, maybe fever. ‘I feel like I have the flu,’ I told the madam of the house. She just threw me some pills.”

Carolina was locked in the house for three years. There were two other minors in the house, she says. The owner would tie her hands and feet, and beat her. Occasionally she was allowed to go to the market with another person, but always dressed as a boy. 

As she talks, Carolina is holding her baby, the child she had in confinement.

Who was the father?

One of the clients, she replies.

The owner of the house never paid Carolina. She said Carolina should take it up with her aunt, and that Carolina owed the madam money for the shoes, clothes and makeup she used. Carolina suspected that the woman paid the police in cash. She said some officers were also clients. There was even a lesbian officer who used to come to the house, she says.

At 17, Carolina took her child and told the security manager she was going to buy tortillas. She fled, but not far. In another part of the city, she started selling herself on the streets.

“I kept working as a prostitute," she recounts. "You’re treated slightly differently there, but ultimately it is all the same because you're still a victim. They sexually abuse you and don’t pay. They beat you. There's nothing good in this kind of life.”

Eventually Carolina went to another brothel. Then she lived with a man with whom she had seven children. He was an alcoholic who beat her. Still, that was better than her previous existence. “He gave me a decent life,” she says now.

Her first child, the one who was born while she was locked in the house for three years, was killed in Mazatenango a few years ago. Another child died at 5 months. She eventually left her partner because of the abuse and went back to the streets where she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. There, she fell in love with a man who lived on the streets and had a child with him as well. This is the baby she carries in her arms as she speaks me at OMES. 

Carolina’s story is typical. At the time she was sold there were no laws against what her aunt did. And for a long time, she believed she was helping her aunt pay off some kind of debt.

Rodolfo Kepfer, a psychiatrist who has dedicated his life to working victims of violence, says this type of exploitation is not new.

“It has always existed,” he says. “Remember, in the 1970s you had many Salvadoran women working here in brothels. Many indigenous women began arriving from rural areas as well and the bars took them in with open arms."

Kepfer speaks about the 1970s. What happened to Carolina was in 1985. In other words, human trafficking and sexual exploitation has existed in Central America for decades. How many women have been exploited? How many women like Carolina are scarred, still imprisoned or on the streets? How many trafficking networks have been strengthening and perfecting their operations?

A Common Story, Retold

Alexander Colop, recognized by many as a diligent and honest prosecutor, does not theorize or make generalizations. This man, who has led cases against many traffickers and dismantled numerous trafficking networks, prefers to use examples. One case he uses to illustrate how traffickers work is that of the “Nicaraguan woman.”

Dinora is from Leon, Nicaragua, a single mother and a victim of domestic abuse. She was raped by her stepfather. She dropped out of sixth grade and started working at a job that didn’t provide enough to live on. A man who she had had a relationship with and who lived nearby told her that he could find her a job as a waitress or a maid.

Dinora went to Guatemala City and was taken to a place named Cow Boys III. It is on Marti Street, a busy thoroughfare where all traffic coming from the Atlantic Coast passes through on its way downtown. Cow Boys had legal paperwork that defined it as a nightclub. Once Dinora arrived, her passport was taken away and she was forced into prostitution.

Guatemalan prosecutors began investigating Cow Boys after receiving reports from Nicaragua. When they spoke to Dinora, but she remained silent, saying she was there voluntarily. The other girls did the same while the girls’ “caretaker,” or more accurately their trafficker, pretended to be one of the sex workers.

When immigration officials arrived, they decided to simply expel all of the sex workers from the country. Since there was no formal complaint about what was happening in the nightclub, and since the women did not file a report, none of them was considered a victim. The victims and their caretaker got on a bus that was to take them to their country of origin. But at the border a taxi was waiting to bring them all back.

This time, the women were taken to a house in another area where they were locked up and exploited. After a few months, Dinora managed to escape, made it to the police and begged them to take her back to Nicaragua. Instead, the police took her to immigration services where they tell her she must pay a fine for exceeding her time allowed in the country. The fine is a ruse to extract money from her: Guatemala and Nicaragua form part of the CA4, which allows the free movement of citizens between four Central American countries and permission to stay for six months in a country without obtaining a visa.

Desperate, Dinora called a client of hers, who gave her money for a taxi and told her to go to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. There she met Sandra Gularte, the head of the Attorney General's Unit for the Prevention of Human Trafficking. Gularte could tell immediately that Dinora was a victim. Gularte remembers her well.

“[She was] a dark skinned girl without any hair, wearing a hat. I never asked her why she had no hair because there was little point in doing so,” she tells us.

Gularte handed the case to the Attorney General's Office where an investigation enabled them to unravel the network operating Cow Boys III. Dinora gave evidence to the authorities and was given a full psychological exam before being returned to Nicaragua, where she lives under a false name.

Colop, the prosecutor, managed to build what seemed like a solid case, including evidence submitted by another victim who worked at the same place as Dinora, and by Nicaraguan authorities. The defense lawyers, however, said there was no evidence that any crime had been committed. They said the psychological assessment showed Dinora had not suffered from the trauma normally associated with a trafficking victim, and that Dinora had come to Guatemala voluntarily. The defendants were acquitted.

Colop has not given up. He and Sagastume are certain that Dinora is a victim, but the burden of proof is on them and, of course, Dinora, since the victim must themselves be convinced that they have been victimized. Adding to this is the transnational nature of the crime. Guatemala is country where many migrants transit and many end up staying. A large number of these are women. The question is: how many of them end up being victims?

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The country's nearly-constant tumult makes it a prime recruiting ground: its 36-year civil war, the 1976 earthquake, ongoing violence, a state which neglects the outlaying provinces, the stream of rural migrants moving to the cities. According to the Institute of Economic and Social Research (IDIES) in the Rafael Landivar University, 57 percent of Guatemala’s internal migrants are women who in the majority of cases go to the capital or other urban areas. Many women go to work in domestic services. Many others end up as sex slaves.

Then there are the foreigners. Thousands of migrants from Central Americans pass through Guatemala on their way north. One in every five Hondurans lives in the United States, and one in three Salvadorans. Claudia Lopez of the National Bureau for Migration (MENAMIG) says there is no information on how many undocumented migrants remain in Guatemala, nor is there information on how many become victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The Turbulent River

Suchiate River, which separates Guatemala and Mexico, is like a duty free zone but rather than smelling like perfume, it smells like shit. Goods, migrants and temporary workers are moved down the river on wooden planks strapped to tractor tires. The journey is treacherous. During the rainy season people sometimes die, and their bodies wash up 20 kilometers downriver in the ocean.

Makeshift rafts piled up with soap, toilet paper, two-liter bottles of soda, pipes, biscuits and sweets come from Mexico to Guatemala via the river. Second-hand clothing, fruit and vegetables go the other way. Men line up like ants to help unload the goods. Official check points are just a kilometer away from the rickety flotillas. There are also police pick-up trucks on both sides of the border. But no one interferes with all the informal economic activity.

People also cross here. Some of them arrive penniless and have to stay, scratching out a living. The Suchiate becomes a place where people wait in a state of limbo, either for a job, a lucky break, or a guy who will pay for sex.

A motorcycle taxi driver signals to one of the liquor stores with wooden walls and beer advertisements painted on it. It’s midday, and a group of women stand outside, waiting.

On the Mexican side of the river, it’s illegal to open a bar at this time of day. They can only operate when the sun goes down. “No drugs, no guns and no uniformed men,” it says on the outside of the bars. Women prefer to work in Mexico because in Guatemala everyone carries a gun, a few of them told us. In Ciudad Hidalgo, the Mexican side, the brothels and liquor stores lie along the abandoned train line.

In one bar called Charlie’s, there are three women. A tall, strong, dark woman from Honduras, a flirtatious Mexican woman of medium height, and a short, very quiet Guatemalan. Mariana, the Honduran, is the “administrator.” The girls only provide company. They don’t turn tricks. If she wanted, Mariana says, pointing to the Guatemalan, she could make good money turning tricks.

Clients are always looking for something new, she adds, referring to the young girls, who seem to cross the Suchiate to the Mexican side every day.

Sex workers lose their value as they get older. Those who are 30 to 35 are too old.

“We’re like shoes, “ OMES director Tobar explained. “We get worn out.”

Mariana folds napkins while the fan whirs in the background. She is keen to tell us that the bar where she works -- the owner is also the boss of a grocery store on the corner -- is not like the other ones up the street. In those bars there are hidden rooms where there are “many Central American minors,” who are forced to work, she says.

On the surface, the town seems quiet, normal. In the police station there is a board with a list of positive and negative “events” on it. The positives are captures; the negatives crimes. The list is dominated by traffic accidents and fights, with three or four murders registered in the year. There is no mention of human trafficking or sexual exploitation. The police officer sitting at a computer doesn’t know why these crimes are not part of their purview. They patrol the bars, he says, but just to make sure there is no fighting.

Not far away is the Migrants' House in Tecun Uman. It is a neat, solid building, painted blue, with a mural that tells the story of the migrant's flight: a tree with its roots torn up.

Brazilian priest Ademar Barilli is the director. Barilli is critical of the press, and of the academics who after a few days of interviews write books expounding on the phenomenon of migration. Critical, above all, of the politicians and governments that turn their back on the migrants' situation, on what is happening in the country that causes them to flee. He mistrusts government forums and conferences, and organizations that waste tons of resources and time discussing the problems that he is trying to solve in this place he founded 15 years ago.

“There has always been trade in a certain form," he explains. "Now the situation is more dramatic with organized crime, the groups. I don't blame everything on the Zetas. Not everyone is part of the Zetas. Now is the moment of the Zetas and the Alfas and the gangs. But all this has been possible because migration has been criminalized. If Mexico gives out visas, everyone will get on a plane and the violence ends. There wouldn't be a need for the coyotes, the traffickers. The same policies in the United States have created and fomented and enriched the trafficking of persons. They are also guilty of causing violence.”

Barilli says that almost all the Central American women have had to “take jobs” when they arrive along the border, because they have no money.

“When I say 'job' you know what I mean," he says, without a hint of irony. "Dancing, prostituting themselves, serving everyone, because it's not just the narcos, it's the whole world that looks for those places, [and the women] need money. They're victims, but the same system that criminalizes migrants keeps them from reporting [abuse]. The majority of them have children, and they need to support their families.”

For Barilli, the key is prevention.

“We know that each migrant is a possible victim of trafficking and that women are the most vulnerable because they are women," he says. "The crux of the matter is keeping them from becoming victims. Why do we have to wait until they die to help them?”

Barilli speaks from experience, his encounters with the drama of the migrants. From the blue house he sees human beings go by who perhaps, despite his warnings, could fall into the net of human trafficking.

There's no better description for these organizations than that of a “net.” It's a fabric that crosses borders, rivers, and carries its victims in planes, in trucks or pickups. It attracts poor women from the towns of Verapaces to rundown cantinas in the capital, or those who seek to go north.

It's difficult to identify victims. They are in the shadows. But it's even more complicated to identify those who exploit them: they are the shadows.

The Hands that Weave the Nets

There's a diverse range of niches in the market and a diverse range of organizations that take advantage of them. Sandra Gularte, of the ombudsman's office, defines three types of traffickers. First, there is the lone trafficker who is a relative or acquaintance of the victim. This person sells her. There is no relation to organized crime, though the consequences are similar for the victim.

Then there are the small networks of three or four people who buy or coerce women -- including those who feign romantic relationships in order to convince them. These groups trick women by offering them work as maids or waitresses and then selling them in bars. These “medium” networks, as Gularte defines them, supply women to businesses with a “lower and middle class market.” The Guatemalan victims are often taken from a poor region and transferred to a less poor one -- for example, the Q’eqchi women in the nameless cantina at the beginning of this story.

Finally, there are the big networks that coordinate with networks in other countries. “Mafiosos, politicians, military men, businessmen, industrialists, religious leaders, bankers, police, judges, assassins, and average men make up an enormous chain in the international map of organized crime that has existed throughout centuries,” asserts journalist Lydia Cacho in the investigation “Esclavas del Poder” (Slaves of Power). For this large machine to function, the gears have to be oiled. And one of the principal oils, without doubt, is that of the officials who ignore the problem and, even worse, are part of it.

“The ones who get caught, normally, are the lone traffickers and those in small networks," Gularte says. "But the traffickers from the big networks aren't brought to justice. Those aren't touched.”

Colop from the Attorney General's Office says he has no cases that implicate government officials. He only remembers one case in which it was rumored that the owner of a brothel was a police captain, but it was never proven. Carlos Menocal, interior minister during the government of Alvaro Colom (2008-2012), says it's hard to know who runs these networks. They use third parties and figureheads.   

There are other explanations: impunity, lax migratory controls, an overwhelmed justice system, under-prepared personnel. Or, even worse, that the networks are shielded by economic and political powers. But the one constant in the booming trade of trafficking and sexual exploitation is drug trafficking.

The Long Shadow 

July 2011 must be marked in red on the calendar. That month two isolated incidents would reveal to authorities the workings of organized crime in Guatemala. On July 11, gunmen killed Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral in Guatemala City. On July 12, police raided a country house in Ixcan, Quiche, in northeastern Guatemala on the border with Mexico, and captured a number of suspected drug traffickers.

Cabral was murdered while on his way to the airport with a Nicaraguan concert promoter called Henry Fariñas. Fariñas didn't just organize concerts, though. He used his nightclub as a center of prostitution and to launder drug money. The Fariñas case -- the victim turned assailant -- was eventually transferred to Nicaragua, where he was tried and convicted for drug trafficking, money laundering, identity fraud, and organized crime.

See InSight Crime’s investigation into the Fariñas case.

According to the Nicarguan attorney general, Fariñas' businesses have laundered $3 million since 2005. The one charged with killing Cabral is Alejandro Jimenez, alias “El Palidejo.”  Jimenez is on trial in Guatemala for murder and attempted murder. He does not face the charges that the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican attorney generals have placed against him: drug trafficking and money laundering.

The murder of Cabral revealed information about the Central American trade and the system of money laundering through “legal” businesses. But at the same time it leaves a big question unanswered: Why are neither of the two, Fariñas or Jimenez, being tried for human trafficking or sexual exploitation?

The party the day after the murder of Cabral in July of 2011, with horse races, liquor, girls, and music, didn't end how the organizers hoped it would. Investigators had their eyes on unusual activity in the tiny town. The party had hardly begun when a leak alerted party-goers to the pending raid. They fled -- in vehicles and on foot, into the mountains -- leaving behind a home video, weapons, and cash. The evidence was enough for authorities to make a series of arrests and raids which would yield valuable information about the Zetas in Guatemala. Indeed, over the next few days, 21 people were arrested, among them four Mexican women.

Read InSight Crime’s special investigation about the Zetas in Guatemala.

“In addition to moving drugs, the capo traffics young women, to prostitute them and introduce them into clandestine networks of prostitution,” says Carlos Menocal, who was Guatemala's interior minister at the time of the raid. The “narcofiesta” on the farm in Ixcan is the clearest example, he says.

“The young [Mexican] women confessed to the investigators that they were victims of forced recruitment," he says. "Almost all of them were from Tamaulipas. They came clandestinely and in many cases in collaboration with the police, who even transported them while on patrol.” 

The former minister explains that the women, who were freed and repatriated to Mexico, didn't identify any members of the organization, though he says they did “contribute to the clear understanding that the problem of trafficking is not one that just goes from south to north, but also that the narco himself brings young women from Mexico to Guatemala.”

The former minister said the authorities found evidence of trafficking in other Zeta-controlled territory as well, including Coban, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, and Quiche.

“There's documented evidence of young women on the payroll,” he says.

But even with these facts, with this evidence, there are contradictions in how the networks work.

“I was in charge of hiring the prepaid girls,” says Mariela, a false name given to the woman who worked for the Zetas. “Prepaid” women are the sex workers who agree in advance on a meeting place and the price for their services.

Mariela says one of her duties was to make contact with agencies to hire women, especially Colombians, who were taken to private parties. She doesn't mention if there was some kind of business directly related to the sex trade or exploitation inside “the company,” as she calls the organization.

Menocal says there are various branches within the Zetas' organization: one for arms trafficking, one for drugs, and many for the sex trade. It's possible that one wing could contract women and not make use of the organization's own networks.

There are two cases that illustrate how these specialized networks function. One was a well-oiled structure that tricked women into coming from Colombia and kept them in Guatemala by force. They also told the women that if they fled, the traffickers would kill their families in their home country. One of the women threw a piece of paper out of a window, which helped investigators rescue the victims and arrest the Guatemalan and Colombian traffickers.

Then there was the “Jordan network.” According to Menocal, this network lured Guatemalan women to Jordan using false promises of domestic work to trap them into prostitution in subhuman conditions. It also was involved in human trafficking within Guatemala. The “Jordan network” revealed how one organization can work with different types of clients and in different places. While it was taking women to Jordan, it was also exploiting women in exclusive brothels and running various businesses in the city.

And that is how the victims are revealed, little by little -- because they succeed in escaping, because they find support, because some investigations work, because a raid is successful or because of some lucky break. The identity of the owners of these criminal networks is, however, harder to determine. 

In the end, these stories are like a trapeze act in a sordid circus. The audience, drunk and macho, watches the show while applauding hysterically -- with glassy eyes and full wallets, with credit cards. The networks: big, medium, small, violent or manipulative. Tense, well-spun. Waiting. The trapeze artists: their sweaty hands are holding on to a feeble bar. They're balanced, each with a different story, but with chapters in their biographies that seem exactly the same. With leotards of mended possibilities. The invisible and lethal revolver of necessity, of children to care for, of absent parents, of domestic violence, of lack of education, is aimed at them.

They leap. And they fall.

*Alejandra Gutierrez Valdizan is a reporter for Plaza Publica.

[See the complete special report by Plaza Publica in Spanish here.] 

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