Lupita is in her 30s and works as a laundry maid in several houses in Mexico City. She can still remember the first time she saw a girl taken from her home village.
“She was very pretty,” said Lupita. “She had freckles. She was 11 years old.”
Lupita was 20 when five men drove into the small community near Dos Bocas, outside the port of Veracruz, Mexico.
“When they got out of the van, all we could see were the machine guns in their hands. They wanted to know where the pretty one was, the girl with freckles. We all knew who that was. They took her and she was still holding her doll under her arm when they lifted her into the van like a bag of apples. This was more than 12 years ago. We never heard from her again,” she said.
The girl’s name was Ruth, Lupita said.
“She was the first one they stole. Then we heard it had happened in other villages,” she said.
The men who visited the villages worked for the local drug cartels, snatching girls to be trafficked for sex.
“There was nowhere in our village to hide,” Lupita said. “Where do you hide? So we dug holes in the ground and if we heard there were narcos around, we’d tell the girls to go to their holes and be very quiet for an hour or so until the men left.”
She remembers how one mother would leave paper and a crayon in the hole for her daughter.
“This worked for a while until even the narcos began to know about the holes,” she said.
Two years later, Lupita left the village and came to Mexico City looking for work.
The lists compiled by Mexican government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for missing girls in Mexico read like this:
Karen Juarez Fuentes, 10. Female. Disappeared going to school in Acapulco. Brown skin. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Ixel Rivas Morena, 13. Female. Lost in Xalapa. 1.5m tall. 50kg. Light brown hair. Light brown skin. Oval face. Thin. Left earlobe torn.
Rosa Mendoza Jimenez, 14. Female. Disappeared. Thin. Brown skin. Dark brown hair. Long. No more data.
They go on and on. According to Mexican government figures, kidnapping in the country increased by 31 percent last year. Those statistics tend to refer to victims who have been kidnapped for ransom, as people are more likely to report the crime when money is demanded. However, there is another kind of kidnapping that goes unreported. When a girl is robada — which literally means stolen — she is taken off the street on her way to school, leaving the movies, or even stolen out of her own house. No ransom is sought. Her body is all the criminals want. The drug cartels know they can sell a bag of drugs only once, but they can prostitute a young woman many times in a single day.
To avoid the traffickers, families are now taking extreme measures. Some women hide in secret shelters and homes, buildings disguised from the outside to look like shopfronts. Many poor farming families have secret places in their shacks where they can hide their sisters and daughters from the constant raids from drug traffickers.
A woman who sells beaded necklaces on a beach in Acapulco tells me how her parents created a small crawl space between the wall and the refrigerator where she would be sent to hide if they heard that there were drug traffickers roaming around in SUVs or on motorcycles.
“There were shootings and kidnappings all the time,” she said.
“We don’t live there any more. Nobody lives in that village any more,” she added.