Tue, Apr 07, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Mexican town is violent capital of sex slave traffic to the US

Tenancingo’s notorious crime families have grown rich by luring poor, uneducated girls into fake romances, then forcing them into a life of prostitution

By Nina Lakhani  /  The Observer, TLAXCALA, Mexico

Maria Mendez was a live-in domestic worker when she met Ricardo Lopez on her way to the supermarket. She was 15, from an impoverished family in the state of Mexico, and had been cleaning houses since the age of eight. He was a cocky, charming 16-year-old from Tenancingo, a small town in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala. He courted her, promising marriage and a home. She desperately wanted it to be true, and within a fortnight moved with him to Tenancingo.

At first Lopez and his family treated her well, but it quickly turned violent.

“He sent me to work as a prostitute in Tijuana, Guadalajara, Torreon, Aguascalientes — all over the country to make money selling my body,” said Mendez, now 59. “He said the money was to buy land so we could build a little house, but it was all false — even the name he had given me was false. He made me live a very sad, ugly, desperate life. I was so ashamed.”

Mendez, like thousands of other vulnerable women in Mexico, was hoodwinked by a family of traffickers in Tlaxcala, the nation’s smallest state, about two hours south of Mexico City. It is a deeply religious place, where the indigenous Nahua people united with the Spanish to conquer the mighty Aztecs, but which over the past five decades has transformed into an unlikely hub of human trafficking.

In the US, five of the 10 most-wanted sex traffickers are from Tenancingo, where Mendez’s nightmare began. Trafficking networks rooted in Tlaxcala are the biggest source of sex slaves in the US, the US Department of State has said.

This improbable crime story began in the 1950s after Mexico’s industrialization, when working-age men returned home from neighboring states to find few opportunities beyond badly paid factory jobs.

Pimping and trafficking, which they had seen while working away, was a way to get ahead, and many set up small, family-run sexual exploitation rings.

Some of the most powerful Tlaxcala families are believed to collaborate with Mexico’s most feared cartels.

In 2008, trafficking was detected in 23 of Tlaxcala’s 60 municipalities. By last year, this had increased to 35, according to research conducted by local human rights group the Fray Julian Garces center, which has identified six “red zones” where sexual exploitation is most concentrated. (A Mexican government official told the Observer that there were no red zones in Tlaxcala).

In Tenancingo, population 11,000, the presence of organized crime is breathtaking. Huge, tawdry houses are scattered among rows of ordinary, modest homes. Everyone knows who owns the big houses, though, despite pressure from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to improve transparency and target trafficking proceeds, there is no public land registry.

The mansions look like fancy multilayered wedding cakes adorned with sculptured eagles, lions and swans. The grandiosity continues into the cemetery, where tombs are ornate and extravagant — not unlike those seen in villages of the northern state of Sinaloa, home of many drug cartel leaders.

NOTORIOUS HOTSPOT

In Tenancingo’s main square, a striking colonial church towers over taco stalls and shoe-shiners, a typical lunchtime scene apart from the new white Ford Mustang and Chevrolet parked beside a bar.

Here, a group of men in their 30s and 40s sporting designer jeans and T-shirts knock back cold beers under the piercing afternoon sun. Two police officers are stationed less than 150m away.

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