United States

Latina women forced into sex trafficking at cantinas across the U.S.

A new report details the way women and girls from Latin America are brutally lured into trafficking; many victims are minors.
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8 Sep 2016 – 11:40 AM EDT

The last decade has seen a number of high-profile cases of Latina women trafficked in U.S. brothels. But thousands of Latina women have also been recruited into sex trafficking in bars and cantina-type establishments across the country, according to a new report.

The Polaris Project, a non-profit support network for sex-trafficking victims, identified 1,300 potential victims from Latin America in 201 cases of sex -- or combined sex-and-labor -- trafficking at cantinas from December 2007 to March 2016.

Most came from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean and 11% were U.S. citizens. Brutal violence is often used to coerce and control victims, over half of whom are minors.

“This is a crime that’s extremely invisible, it’s not on people’s radar when they think about trafficking and sex trafficking,” says My Lo Cook, who leads Polaris’ efforts to stop trafficking from Mexico. “We saw indeed it was a lot more prevalent than expected.”

For nearly a decade, Polaris has been operating a 24-hour hotline for trafficking victims to seek help and services. Originally intended to be a protection tool, the hotline soon also became a way to capture data and unearth trends about how people are trafficked and victims are recruited. Since 2007, the hotline has received reports of more than 14,500 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.

Two years ago, Polaris began to focus more closely on trafficking from Mexico and Central America. And cantinas, it emerged, were a relatively common place for trafficking to occur.

“Not only was this among the top in prevalence, but it was also an incredibly egregious sub-type of trafficking because of how violent it was,” Cook says. “We also began to see connections and intersections between [trafficking] and gangs.”

Cases involving cantinas were often characterized by the use of “threats, physical abuse and sexual abuse to control the victims,” according to the Polaris report.

A small number of cantina-based trafficking cases have been prosecuted in Houston, Texas.

In January, 68-year-old cantina owner Hortencia Medeles-Arguello was sentenced to life in prison for running a large sex-trafficking ring where women and girls were recruited in their home countries and brought to Houston, where they were forced to have sex up to 50 times a day. Twelve victims testified at the trial.

“Testimony revealed that pimps recruited the young girls by convincing them they were in love, making threats to their families as well as threatening the girls themselves,” the Department of Justice reported after the sentencing. “Some victims were as young as 14 when the traffickers recruited them, using fraud and false pretenses to lure them into the traffickers’ control.”

Beyond Houston, Polaris identified cases at cantinas and bars in 20 states, from Massachusetts to California to Washington state. Most cases were called in by victims. In 21 cases, the traffickers were reported as being “affiliated with gangs or organized crime groups,” the report says.

Cook says the cases verified for the report are likely a vast underestimation of reality.

Polaris calls for a number of steps to lower the likelihood of this form of cantina-based trafficking, including better training for law enforcement and immigration officials. Cook also says Latino communities should be aware of warning signs.

“Latino communities in the U.S. need to to be the ears and eyes for these victims and their communities,” Cook says.

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