Mexico’s slavery survivors defy stigma on road to recovery

Their trial is set to be one of Mexico's highest-profile trafficking cases, underlining the country's status as a source, transit and destination country for adults and children coerced into forced labour and sex work.

By: Reuters | Bogota | Published:September 5, 2016 11:58 am
Child trafficking, Human trafficking nexus, bengaluru, bengaluru city police, India child trafficking, bengaluru trafficking network In Mexico, the most common form of human trafficking involves women and girls forced into sex work, with indigenous people and migrants most vulnerable. (Representational photo)

When her captives tied the chains around her waist a little looser than usual, Zunduri knew it was her chance to escape. Wriggling free, she dashed out of the dry cleaning shop in Mexico City where she had been enslaved, beaten and starved for more than half a decade. “There is no part of my body without scars,” Zunduri told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from her home in Mexico’s capital, recalling an ordeal that shocked Mexicans as one of the worst slavery cases to come to light in the city.

“Doctors counted more than 600 scars on my body. A hot iron was put to my head. I ironed and ironed. I didn’t see the light of day. I didn’t know when the sun set or when it rose. I had to drink steam from the iron to get water.” Since her dramatic escape last year, Zunduri has become an icon of resilience in a country where shame and stigma make many slavery survivors reluctant to go public.

And as her alleged tormenters await trial, her example has inspired others to speak out as they seek justice and try to rebuild their lives. “I was an animal to them,” 24-year-old Zunduri said. “I want them to pay for everything I have had to suffer.” Her five alleged captors are the woman who owned the dry cleaners, plus the woman’s two daughters, husband and sister. All are in prison facing charges of human trafficking, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. Their trial is set to be one of Mexico’s highest-profile trafficking cases, underlining the country’s status as a source, transit and destination country for adults and children coerced into forced labour and sex work.

While Zunduri reported the crime to police and gave testimony, prosecutors and activists say thousands of slavery cases remain invisible as many victims don’t come forward due to fear of reprisal from traffickers. Nearly 380,000 people are trapped in modern slavery in Mexico, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.

In Mexico, the most common form of human trafficking involves women and girls forced into sex work, with indigenous people and migrants most vulnerable. Men, women and children are also exploited as forced labourers on farms, in factories and on building sites, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“In Mexico we still have people who are slaves in homes, especially children, who work in exchange for food, water and a bed,” said Rosi Orozco, who heads the Commission United Against Human Trafficking, a Mexican non-governmental organisation. She said the message Zunduri and other prominent survivors promote is that lives can be rebuilt after slavery.

“They are examples to the world that trafficking survivors can successfully reintegrate back into society,” said Orozco, a former congresswoman who helped push through Mexico’s new and tougher anti-trafficking law in 2012. “It takes time for each survivor to take away the shame. But now they are not ashamed about what happened to them.”

For Zunduri, the goal is to raise awareness about the many difficulties facing survivors who are often traumatised and vulnerable. “It’s a long process for the physical scars to heal and disappear. But the main scar is the one I have in my soul, in my heart, and in my mind,” said Zunduri, who has undergone psychological therapy and plans to set up a bakery and learn English.

“LIVING AGAIN IS POSSIBLE”

For Karla Jacinto, a Mexican survivor of sex trafficking, life after slavery can give way to depression and despair. When Jacinto was 12, she was lured from poverty and sexual abuse at home by a man posing as a car salesman who showered her with kind words and gifts. The charming “dream man” became her boyfriend but later turned into her trafficker and tormentor, Jacinto said in a telephone interview.

He forced her to work for four years as a child prostitute on streets and roadside motels in Mexico and threatened to harm her family if she refused or tried to escape. “The first time with a client was the hardest. I was 12. I had to close my eyes,” Jacinto, now 24, said. “I was forced to be with on average 20 to 30 men a day. Around 43,000 men between the ages of 12 to 16.” She said one man who became a regular client helped her escape in 2008.

“At first, I didn’t want to live anymore,” Jacinto said. “Some girls don’t escape. Some die, others commit suicide.” It took two years of therapy before Jacinto could begin to think about moving on with her life. “You need unconditional support from psychologists and your family, like I have with my mother, to get through this and move on,” said Jacinto, who will start studying at university this year.

Her work as an anti-trafficking activist brought her, together with Zunduri, to the Vatican last year where they shared their experiences with Pope Francis. “My message to others is that we can dream. We can survive,” Jacinto said. “There are opportunities beyond the life we once knew. Living again is possible.”

FEW SHELTERS, LITTLE JUSTICE

Both Jacinto and Zunduri hope their gradual recovery can encourage others to come forward and rebuild their lives as Mexico does more to tackle human trafficking. The number of federal and state investigations for trafficking has increased across the country, rising to 665 in 2015 from 449 in 2014, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest report.

Yet prosecutions for trafficking remain low in Mexico, as they do worldwide, in an industry the International Labour Organisation estimates is worth $150 billion a year. Few trafficking victims get justice in Mexico. Authorities convicted 86 traffickers last year – around 2 percent of cases. That’s “a rate consistent with conviction rates for other crimes in Mexico”, the U.S. State Department’s 2016 report said.

Mexico’s conviction rate for human trafficking is high though when compared to Latin American neighbours and other countries worldwide, Orozco said. But support for trafficking victims, especially outside of Mexico City, is limited, leaving many survivors vulnerable to being trafficked again.

In Mexico, there are no shelters for male trafficking victims and most are only for underage girls, Orozco said. She added that more needs to be done to provide long-term personalised care. “There is no one model, no one response to help survivors. Every person is different, and every person needs their own programme, their own personalised help,” Orozco said.

Trafficking victims can only stay in government-run refuges for a maximum of six months. “It’s inhumane and unfair to think that a person can recover and rehabilitate in that space of time,” Orozco said. “The process takes years.”