From The California Report—
“The border between San Diego and Tijuana remains one of the most heavily trafficked international crossings in the world. And that traffic has a dark side: people, especially girls, are being bought, sold and forced into labor or sex. An early January bust in San Diego netted dozens of arrests for sex trafficking. But there are few resources for victims on the Mexican side of the border. Now, a San Diego resident has opened a shelter in Tijuana for victimized girls, one of only two of its kind in all of Mexico Reporter: Brooke Binkowski
The 19-year-old girl has a baby face covered in pancake makeup, and her bracelets jangle when she gestures. She tells her story tonelessly and hesitantly, but she wants people to know what she went through, she says in Spanish.
An old friend showed up in her life again, she says. He said he needed her help, asking her again and again. She finally agreed to help him. That’s when he kidnapped her and took her to Mexico City from her native Guadalajara, keeping her in a hotel and forcing her to work as a prostitute. She was trapped for seven months.
“I lived under beatings, rapes and offenses,” she said.
She means rape.
“I had sex with 20 to 25 men a day,” she said.
Zuria, not her real name, finally managed to escape last year with the help of a friend. She now lives in Tijuana, at a safe house for trafficked girls called La Casa del Jardin, or The Garden House.
La Casa del Jardin is run by Alma Tucker, 50. She calls her home “The Garden House” because she sees each young victim of human trafficking as a flower that she wants to see grow and bloom.
Tucker’s effort is one of only two in Mexico. It’s the only one in Baja California, home of the San Ysidro-San Diego border crossing, the most crossed land border in the world. Tijuana has long had a reputation for being a playground for the shadowy underbelly of both Mexican and American society. But despite substantial increases in border security, people — especially young women — continue to be bought, sold and forced into labor or the sex trade. Human trafficking in both countries continues to be a very real, and growing, problem.
Mexico is called a “Tier 2” country by the U.S. State Department, which means that the country is stepping up efforts to fight trafficking but lacks sufficient coordination between state and federal departments. People fall through the cracks. Then there’s the issue of what to do about the victims — sometimes they get sent home to the very people who originally sold them, and sometimes they have nowhere to go at all. Until last June, when Alma Tucker opened La Casa del Jardin, it meant that many victims simply ended up in jail or on the streets, caught up in a spiral of prostitution and often addiction and perpetuating the problem.
Tucker sees it as her mission to stop this spiral.
“If those girls are not treated right, as adults sometimes they can turn to be victimizers. Then it’s one circle,” Tucker said. “Then we, as a community, as authorities, we need to stop that circle. We need to give the opportunity to heal.”
Tijuana is Tucker’s hometown, although she has lived in San Diego now for more than 20 years. She first became aware of the issue of trafficking when she was working for the Department of Protection in San Diego’s Mexican Consulate. After she left, she vowed to do more to help its victims, and started the International Network of Hearts in 2010 to raise awareness. Then she realized that nobody was doing anything to help people directly, so she started La Casa del Jardin last June.
Now she takes in girls who are sent to the house after they’re rescued by authorities in Mexico and the United States. She takes a multidisciplinary approach to the group home. In addition to regular classes, the girls get music, art and yoga — and medical treatment and therapy.
A few miles north, in Chula Vista, City Councilman Rudy Ramirez is one of Alma Tucker’s biggest champions. He helps her put together events to raise awareness and funds for new beds and additions that La Casa del Jardin desperately needs. It’s a large building, but there’s always demand for more room. Ramirez says that heightening awareness is particularly important because the issue of human trafficking is difficult to grasp.
“It’s not the sort of thing that you expect happens anymore, right?” he says. “You think this happens somewhere else, some other continent somewhere, so it is surprising to hear that it happens here.”
Ramirez also says that “human trafficking” can mean many things, and its scope is so vast that it becomes difficult to understand.
“I mean it happens in lots of ways where, in some cases because of issues in the home, these young ladies will leave their home, and as a result be taken in by somebody who just wants to exploit them, basically, and enslave them,” he said. “And they do, in the sex trade or in other work, domestic work — there are all kinds of different cases that you hear about.”
People might keep slaves in their homes as maids, preventing them from escaping by threatening to tell the authorities that they have no papers. Or, like Zuria, they might be forced into prostitution.
The issue of trafficking is many-pronged, and as such requires an approach from a number of different fronts, says Alma Tucker. With a stronger economy, cultural changes, more of a voice for young people, more government involvement and better security, human trafficking and slavery might become things of the past. But for now, she has a lot of work to do.
“They don’t choose what they go through,” she says. “They are victims and they need to be rescued. All those girls that are there, and all those girls that are already victimized, they deserve a better life.”
Zuria, the teenager who once was forced into prostitution, says she gets through her life day by day. But she thinks her experiences have made her stronger. It also helps her to be able to share with others, she says, who have had similar things happen to them.
She hopes one day to be either a bilingual secretary or get a job in law enforcement, working on the issue of human trafficking.”
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