Concerned Citizens Take a Stand Against Human Trafficking in Cancun, Mexico

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Human trafficking is the third most lucrative crime on the planet.  Thriving not just in the shadows of third-world countries, but in plain sight in some of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Mexico is the number one supplier of trafficked victims globally.  And Cancun, a city which took in over five million visitors last year, ranks third in the country as a supplier of sex slaves to the United States, Europe, and Canada.  It’s considered a “transient” drop off for victims.

And while human trafficking is a federal crime in Mexico, it’s one that typically goes unpunished for a variety of reasons; corrupt police who look the other way, anti-trafficking laws caught in the tangles of red tape, and journalists who fail to report on the issue.  Either because of confusion of its definition, or fear of exposing the powerful people who continue to profit from it.

But there are those making a difference in Mexico.  Concerned citizens determined to save lives by fighting on the front lines every day.  Making themselves visible so others won’t disappear.

We met four such people while on assignment in Cancun.

Veronica Fajardo 

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A light rain was falling as we sat in the corner of a small, unremarkable café half-an-hour west of touristy Cancun.   Drinking our lukewarm coffee, we waited for Veronica Farjardo, a local journalist, who despite threats from profiteers and road blocks from her editors, continues to write trafficking and social interest stories for Novedades de Quintana Roo.  We met over the phone the evening before.  The concierge at the hotel helped us contact her newspaper.  And as luck would have it, Mrs. Fajardo answered the phone.

Stepping through the door, Veronica shook her umbrella dry and wiped her feet.  She spotted us immediately and made her way over for proper introductions.

We had a long list of questions.  And before we could start checking the boxes, Veronica began dishing out details in areas we were more than happy to have first-hand knowledge of.   The under-the-radar intricacies of how these crimes continue to thrive; local brothels disguised as massage parlors, and web sites allowing access for those “in the know” to trafficking victims.

“There are fake on-line travel agencies.”  She told us.  “Agencies where you can buy packages and get connected to luxury resorts offering ‘special services.’”

The “special services” she referenced were photobooks.  Catalogs where prospected buyers could browse through a collection of kids’ head shots – some as young as five years old – detailing age, weight, height, and cost.

“Some get passed around to as many as twenty people a day.”  Veronica told us.

She talked about bribery within local law enforcement, and corruption at the highest levels of government.  Trying my best to keep up, I flipped through my notebook in search of blank spaces to take down the details.

“Do you know any victims we can talk to about these things?”  We asked.

Some.”  She answered.  “I just don’t know if they will want to talk to you.  Many are afraid to go on record.  You might have better luck with NGO’s.”

NGO’s are non-governmental organizations.  Typically, nonprofit’s that are independent of governments. They’re usually funded by donations and run by volunteers.  They are grassroots.  They are boots-on-the ground.  And they’re the ones we really wanted to meet.

We finished our coffee and called it a night.  Agreeing to meet the following morning in a government building just around the corner.

“I’ll make some calls and see who we can talk to.”  Veronica promised, as she drove away.

The following morning our taxi dropped us off near the steps of the government building.  We were a half hour early, eager to start our day.  It was nearly 100 degrees, not a cloud in the sky or a hint of any breeze.  So, we stepped into a small patch of shade under the portico of the building and waited on a nearby bench.

Forty-five minutes later…no sign of Veronica.  Our texts, calls, and emails all went unanswered.  Just as we were about to call it quits, our phone rang.

“Sorry I’m late.  I was trying to get us an interview. I’m right here.”      

Breathing a sigh of relief, we looked up to see Veronica with a phone to her ear waving from the entryway.  Joining us on the bench in the shade of the portico, she spent the next ten minutes telling us about all the people she’d reached out to.  None of them willing to talk.

The disappointment was interrupted by a cheerful, musical chime that came from under the bench.  It was Veronica’s phone. Taking it out of her bag, she answered the call and quickly moved to the far corner of the entry way and into the glaring sun.  We tried reading her face for any hint of good news, but she remained expressionless throughout her conversation.

A few minutes later she came back.  “My friend will talk with you.  She runs a shelter.  But we must leave now.”

Squeezing ourselves into a small taxi, we drove through one nondescript neighborhood after another, in search of Veronica’s friend.

Paola Feregrino

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In 2003, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho wrote a series of articles about the sexual abuse of minors for Por Esto, a daily Mexican newspaper headquartered in the Yucatán.  With a main office in Cancún, and several other bureaus, Por Esto’s circulation was significant.

In one of the articles Cacho featured a story of a girl who came forward accusing a local businessman, Jean Succar Kuri, of abuse.  The following year, believing local police were failing to follow up on the girl’s accusations, Cacho wrote a book; Demons of Eden.  The book not only accused Succar Kuri of being involved in child pornography and prostitution, it named names.  Important names.  Prominent businessmen and high ranking politicians, who Cacho claimed, were protecting Succar Kuri.

Demons of Eden had spread fear to those unaware the crimes existed in their backyard.  And concern to those who were profiting from it.  In 2006, a tape emerged of a conversation between influential businessman Kamel Nacif Borge and Mario Plutarco Marín Torres, the governor of the state of Puebla.  On the tape, the two conspired to have Cacho beaten and raped for her reporting.

Cacho’s efforts to fight against sex trafficking and violence against women has earned her the distinction, according to Amnesty International, of being, Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate.”  Her reporting has made her famous.  It’s also made her a target.  There have been multiple attempts on her life, and the United Nations Human Rights Council advised she leave the country and seek political asylum elsewhere.  But Lydia Cacho fights on.  In Mexico.

One of Cacho’s earliest achievements was the creation of a shelter called, CIAM – El Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (The Integral Center for Women’s Care).  The Cancún-based organization supports women and children who have been victims of violence, and it’s where Veronica set up our first meeting.

“We’re meeting Paola Feregrino. She took over the shelter from her mentor, Lydia Cacho.”  Veronica said, as we climbed out of the taxi and made our way towards a thick concrete door.  Acknowledging herself to the security camera above, Veronica rang the doorbell and waited.  Seconds later, a buzzer sounded signaling our clearance.

Greeting us on the other side was Paola, the shelter’s Executive Director.  Warm, friendly, and just thirty years young, Paola began our tour of the facility.  Her passion for social causes resonating more and more with each story she told us.

At the end of the hallway was Paola’s office.  Opening the door, she invited us in, took a seat behind a small, black desk and began telling us about her work and the things she’s seen.

A good number of our survivors here have been victims of human trafficking.”  She told us.  “When the shelter started, we didn’t even know what human trafficking was.”

Those coming into the battered women’s shelter to escape physical and sexual violence were suddenly telling stories of being sold to perspective buyers.

“We’d never heard anything like this.”  Paola told us.

Majoring in Clinical Psychology, Paola was the first in her family to get a degree.  And despite the constant threat of physical threats, budget cuts and funding challenges, her approach to educating the community on violence prevention remains both creative and innovative.  One program teaches at-risk kids the importance of gender equality and conflict resolution.  While another, a campaign called, “Yo no estoy en venta!” (“I am not for sale”), teaches young kids to become advocates against human trafficking.

“I think I’ve always been an activist.”  She told us, as that familiar ring tone once again chimed from Veronica’s purse.  Taking the call, she stepped outside while Paola continued.  

Lydia Cacho taught me a lot of things…theoretical and technical.  But above all, she taught me how to develop leadership skills.  To help guide a team in unfavorable circumstances. She gave me confidence. I was afraid to become an Executive Director. I still feel afraid sometimes because it’s a big responsibility.  But this is not about me.  It’s about the lives we can save and the steps we can take to build a better world for all of us.”

Veronica came back into the room, dropped the phone into her purse, and smiled.

I found more people to talk to.”  She said, excitedly.  “They’re waiting for us now.” 

Rosa Maria Marquez & Marcos Basilio 

Saying goodbye to Paola, we exchanged emails, promising to keep in touch, and to look for ways to work together in the future.  Jumping into another taxi, our Amazing Race day continued.

“We’re going to see Rosa Maria, a social activist and her lawyer, Marcos.  He’s a commercial and family law attorney.”  Veronica said.

Neither Rosa Maria or Marcos were all that thrilled to sit down with us.  Veronica, a friend of theirs for nearly 20 years had talked them into it.  Promising to be present at the meeting.  Now, nearly ten minutes late, we wondered whether they’d even be there when we arrived.

It was mid-afternoon, and the restaurant was nearly empty.  Except for Rosa Maria and Marcos, who sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, directly under a slowly rotating fan.

“Traffic!”  Veronica exclaimed, waving in their direction.

We took a seat and ordered a pot of hot tea.  The coolness of the fan was a nice welcome.  As was the greeting from our two new friends.

Rosa Maria started the conversation – taking us back thirty years to when her journey began.  Earning a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), and a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, Rosa Maria had perfected the profession of a civil society activist.  Today, focusing on the defense and promotion of Human Rights causes, she is a pioneer in group organization and a leader of several causes; women in detention, people with disabilities, HIV positive individuals, and a variety of social causes for both younger and older adults.  She has a full plate.  One, which is refilled daily and without complaint.

Quietly sitting next to her was Marcos Basilio, her attorney, friend, and accompanying activist.  Marcos’s story was just as fascinating.  Having practiced law for the past ten years in Cancun, Marcos has carved a niche for himself representing Guatemalan women and children who are trafficked for labor exploitation, as opposed to sexual abuse.

“Human Trafficking isn’t only about sex.”  Marcos told us, shaking his head.  “People always make that mistake.  It also involves a complex web of other illegal activity.”  He continued.  “There is prostitution and gambling, drugs, organized crime, money laundering, and labor exploitation.”    

What impressed us most was not the stories these four had shared.  Rather, how their passion for justice powers them past their everyday occupations.  Continuously focusing their talents on delivering hope for their country and its citizens.  They work independently, yet each are intrinsically connected.  Intertwined in a cause greater than themselves.

Why would, Marcos, a commercial lawyer care so much about humanitarianism?  What makes someone like Rosa Maria dedicate half her life to do so much for so many?  Why would Veronica continue writing stories of human oppression, despite the threats of violence against her?  Any why would Paola put her life in danger – every day – to protect women and children she doesn’t know?

“Why do you do this?”  I asked each of them.

“Because these stories matter.”

“Because people matter.” 

“We do it…” Paola told us…” because someone has to.”

 

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Cuba – Part II

Journeying through historical sights and visiting Cuba’s LGBTQ community…here is Part II of our Cuba series.

Each new day brought with it new excitement and wonder.  We stopped in the Plaza de Revolución; the focal point of the Cuban government and one of the largest city squares in the world.  At 77,000 square feet, the Plaza has been the site of many political rallies, and it’s where Pope Francis famously held mass in 2015.  It’s two steel memorials, featuring two of the most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, is one of the country’s most iconic images.

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We traveled through Fidel’s childhood neighborhood, and ate lunch in a restaurant with his son at the table behind us.  Speaking with some locals, we learned about Cuba’s churches, and how many of them are considered “sanctuary locations.”  Places where groups meet in secret to discuss the hardships of communism while plotting its demise.

We passed pockets of revolutionary groups gathering on street corners and proselytizing communism at the top of their lungs, as they waved pro-socialist literature in the air.  They’re called CDR Watchers (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and their job is to remain vigilant and vocal, while spying on their neighbors…looking for those who oppose authoritarian rule.

By mid-week we’d talked with dozens of people on a wide range of issues.  History, art, food, weather, and the importance of smoking a good cigar.  As well as politics…an often times jailable offense should the conversation happen to spill into the wrong ears.

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And while life on an isolated Communist island is hard enough, being gay and living there presents an entirely new set of challenges.  Maintaining an LGBTQ lifestyle in Cuba isn’t an illegal offense, but it is offensive in the eyes of the government.  We witnessed it on our last night in Havana.

On the other side of Chinatown is a bar called, Cabaret Las Vegas.  We’d read about it earlier in the week, as we trudged along on the government-monitored-wifi-hotspot we’d picked up on in the park.

Las Vegas boasted the biggest drag show, in the biggest gay section of Havana. The term “big” is relative, as the “section” was nothing more than a corner with a bar, restaurant, pizza shop, and the club at the opposite end.  Big or not, it was a popular spot.  Hundreds of people gathered along the sidewalks, laughing and dancing to the muffled sounds of different disco tracks, all blending together from the four locations.  It was a festive party in the street…a mini Mardi Gras, where beads had been replaced with slices of pizza and Caipirinha’s.  Just under the surface, however, a germ of danger was waiting to be exposed.

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Standing at the door to Las Vegas was a gaunt young man in a ripped white shirt, with skinny white jeans and worn out white Converse sneakers.  He reminded me of an emaciated John Lennon walking across Abbey Road.  Although, his hair and height was considerably shorter.

“We don’t open for another hour.”  He said.  Looking at my watch it was nearly midnight.  We asked if there someplace to get a drink.  Someplace other than the crowded spots on the corner.  “Follow me.”  He said, as he left his post at the door.

Walking 10 feet in front he asked us to stay behind.  “It’s better not to draw attention.”  He said.  “I’ll go first.  You follow.  We’ll meet at a table once we get inside.” 

Our new friend entered the coffee shop, briskly brushing past a police officer who was arguing with 3 teenage girls standing on the steps of the shop.  The girls wore matching knee-high denim miniskirts, and shared a terrified look on their face.

We entered the shop thirty seconds behind the mysterious man in white, who had secured us a table.  Gesturing with both hands, he offered us a seat in the remaining two chairs.  It was all very covert.

“What’s the story with the girls outside?”  We asked.

“They’re waiting to get into the club and the police don’t like the way they’re dressed.”  He replied.

“And the police don’t want us talking to tourists.  That’s why I needed to walk ahead of you.”

Through sad brown eyes that stared right through us, he began his story.  His name was Martez; 33-years old, soft spoken, and recently released from prison, having spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  His crime; selling Marijuana cigarettes.  Although, his real crime, he told us, was being gay.  Martez had never left the island and his parents had never clued in on his lifestyle.

“That’s got to be difficult.”  I said.

“It was easy.  I’ve spent half my life in jail.  They never visited.  They never paid attention to me before that.  I don’t have a relationship with them.”  He said.

His words lacked any form of empathy.

We talked about the Pulse shooting in Orlando and asked what the communities response was.  “What’s Pulse?”  he asked?   An asteroid could be hurling towards us with only a few days of human life remaining.   And while the entirety of the world’s population braced for impact, Martez and his friends would be going about their normal routine.  Closed off from all things news and all things social media.   And for a moment his unplugged world seemed comfortable enough.

“Behind you.  Quick!”  Martez said, motioning with his head.  Outside the three young girls had apparently lost the argument with the police office and were being placed in the back of his car.

Finishing our drinks, we made our way to the Cabaret, as Martez resumed his spot – 10 feet ahead of us.

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By the end of the trip we’d met people who were happy, content, frustrated, scared, and downright angry.  And while the political spectrum ran from one extreme to the other, the one thing everyone had in common, was the struggle.  Whether for freedom with capitalistic independence, or communist state-run assistance, everyone was aware of the restrictions and poverty that surrounded them.

And while there’s much to envy about the wealth the rest of the world has, many Cubans we met were mindful of what else those foreign countries endure:  a populous with soaring education debt, low literacy rates, homelessness, out of control gun violence, and a health care system in disarray.  Those things are available in Cuba.  Everyone can go to college.  In fact, many Cubans have multiple degrees.  Crime is barely visible and health care is available to everyone.  And while it seems the younger generation appreciates those benefits, those we met were fully aware of the toll it is taking on them and their country.

Beauty permeates Cuba like flowers poking through a rusted metal fence.  We found it in  music, food, culture, architecture, and most of all her people.  People equipped to live a life, but forced to do so in a controlled and confined space.  Traveling is about understanding cultures and embracing the unknown.  We were fortunate to have been able to take advantage of president Obama’s easing of Cuban/American relations.  Now, with the new administration’s policy rollbacks, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those relations will be impacted.