Latinas coerced into sex trafficking at cantinas across the U.S., study shows

Location of cantina cases and operating sites reported to trafficking hotlines from December 2007 to March 2016. (Credit: Polaris, 2016 report)

Authorities have long been aware that young Latinas and other minorities are disproportionately affected by sex trafficking in the United States. But a recent report has shed light on another dark aspect of the illicit trade: thousands of these victims have been recruited into sex trafficking in bars and cantinas across the country.

The study was run by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit support network for sex-trafficking victims. By tracking calls to its 24-hour hotlines over the last decade, the researchers found that many victims were calling from cantinas, a type of bar popular in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.

Cantinas operate discreetly, may limit who enters and may not be open to the general public. The study’s author, Tessa Couture, told Reuters that such cantinas may also disguise the cost of commercial sex in very high drink prices and force women to flirt and drink with patrons.

“This is a crime that’s extremely invisible, it’s not on people’s radar when they think about trafficking and sex trafficking,” My Lo Cook, director of Polaris’ Strategic Initiative in Mexico, told Univision News. “We saw indeed it was a lot more prevalent than expected.”

Polaris received reports of 201 cases of sex and labor trafficking, involving 1,300 potential victims at cantinas and bars in 20 U.S. states since 2007. These victims are overwhelmingly female, often minors, primarily from Mexico and Central America.

Some of these women and girls were fleeing violence or abuse in their home countries and were recruited by traffickers after being abducted by smugglers or by accumulating debt to smugglers. Others were promised jobs, reunification with their families in the U.S., or recruited under other false pretenses.

Credit: Polaris

Credit: Polaris

Typically, according to the study, victims were intimidated by threats and abuse or forced into deep debt. Most reported being kept isolated, confined and monitored by their traffickers. Of those who did escape, a third did so with help by potential buyers of sex who discovered the victims’ circumstances.

Helping these victims can be problematic for a number of reasons. Many don’t speak English, and some only speak an indigenous dialect; many of the women distrust authorities, are psychologically manipulated or are so traumatized that they don’t even realize they’re victims, according to the report. Other victims are simply too afraid or ashamed to seek help, or do not realize they have legal rights in the U.S.

Considering the breadth of Central America’s sex trafficking system, the findings are really only a snapshot of the network that operates south of the U.S. border. Just this weekend, 13 sex trafficking survivors were rescued from the back of a seedy bar in Costa Rica, having been smuggled from Nicaragua and forced to live and work in deplorable conditions.

Still, activists hope that understanding the mechanisms behind the region’s trafficking system – including the ways in which victims are recruited and controlled – will be crucial in, at the very least, putting an end to the illicit trade in the U.S.

“In order to eradicate this appalling victimization of Hispanic and Latina women and girls in cantinas, bars and nightclubs, we have to change the equation for traffickers,” according to Polaris’ report. “We need to disrupt their business model and make the crime high-risk and low-profit.”

Polaris also recommended increased training for law enforcement and service providers such as health-care workers, better information sharing among law enforcement and government agencies and more funding for investigations and prosecutions.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com