Lupita is in her 30s and works as a laundry maid in several houses in Mexico City. She can still remember the first time she saw a girl taken from her home village. “She was very pretty,” says Lupita. “She had freckles. She was 11 years old.”
Lupita was 20 when five men drove into the small community near Dos Bocas, outside the port of Veracruz. “When they got out of the van all we could see were the machine guns in their hands. They wanted to know where the pretty one was, the girl with freckles. We all knew who that was. They took her and she was still holding her doll under her arm when they lifted her into the van like a bag of apples. This was more than 12 years ago. We never heard from her again.”
The girl’s name was Ruth, Lupita tells me. “She was the first one they stole. Then we heard it had happened in other villages.” The men who visited the villages worked for the local drug cartels, snatching girls to be trafficked for sex. “There was nowhere in our village to hide,” explains Lupita. “Where do you hide? So we dug holes in the ground and if we heard there were narcos around, we’d tell the girls to go to their holes and be very quiet for an hour or so until the men left.” She remembers how one mother would leave paper and a crayon in the hole for her daughter. “This worked for a while until even the narcos began to know about the holes.” Two years later, Lupita left the village and came to Mexico City looking for work.
The lists compiled by government agencies and NGOs for missing girls in Mexico read like this:
Karen Juarez Fuentes, 10. Female. Disappeared going to school in Acapulco. Brown skin. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Ixel Rivas Morena, 13. Female. Lost in Xalapa. 1.5 metres tall. 50 kilos. Light brown hair. Light brown skin. Oval face. Thin. Left ear lobe torn.
Rosa Mendoza Jiménez, 14. Female. Disappeared. Thin. Brown skin. Dark brown hair. Long. No more data.
They go on and on. According to government figures, kidnapping in the country increased by 31% last year. Those statistics tend to refer to victims who have been kidnapped for ransom, as people are more likely to report the crime when money is demanded. But there is another kind of kidnapping that goes unreported. When a girl is robada – which literally means stolen – she is taken off the street, on her way to school, leaving the movies, or even stolen out of her own house. No ransom is asked for. Her body is all the criminals want. The drug cartels know they can sell a bag of drugs only once, but they can prostitute a young woman many times in a single day.
Women and girls aren’t just abducted for prostitution, they are abducted, raped and forced into marriage by violent men. There is a refuge for women and their children escaping violent husbands and boyfriends in a 17th Century convent run by nuns who are all over 75:
I ask the nuns what would happen if one of the women’s husbands or boyfriends should appear on their doorstep with their gang, carrying AK-47s under their arms. The nuns tell me, without hesitation, that they would stand together and create a wall with their bodies and die for the women and children they protect.
The women and girls who are forced into prostitution often end up in jail, but, in an ironic twist, many of them are happy in jail, because it’s the only place they feel safe:
Almost every woman I meet in the prison testifies that her life here is better than it was outside. Proof of this is that the jail authorities never tell the inmates when they are going to leave. Instead, very late at night, a prisoner is taken from her cell and released quietly. The prisoner, or her friends, might otherwise do something (place drugs or a weapon in the cell or attack a guard) in order to remain in jail. Luis Manuel Serrano tells me that, once released, women often commit crimes so they can return: “Here, for the first time in their lives, many are safe and cared for.”