More than 1,000 women and girls have been apparent victims of sex trafficking in illicit bars in the US that operate largely beyond the reach of law enforcement, according to the anti-slavery group Polaris.
Half of the trafficking cases in cantinas – a type of bar popular in Mexico and the American south-west – arose in Houston, Texas, a city near the Mexican border with a large Latino population, said Polaris in a study that tracked calls to its trafficking hotlines from over the past decade.
Cantinas, social gathering spots popular in Latino communities, may disguise the cost of commercial sex in very high drink prices. Women are forced to flirt and drink with patrons, the study’s author, Tessa Couture, said.
Cantinas may limit who enters and may not be open to the general public, the report said.
Hotlines run by Polaris received reports of 201 cases of sex and labour trafficking, involving 1,300 potential victims at cantinas and bars in 20 US states, between 2007 and 2016. More than half the victims were underage, said Polaris.
At one illicit cantina in Houston, some women were forced to have sex as often as 50 times a day, according to the study. The cantina owner, convicted of sex trafficking, conspiracy and other charges, was sentenced to life imprisonment earlier this year.
While cases of trafficking in brothels have been the subject of high-profile prosecutions, only a small number of prosecutions have focused on cantinas, mostly in Houston.
Cases can be hard to investigate and prosecute because traffickers and owners may hide their ownership of cantinas or alcohol licenses, and because victims are too scared to testify in court, afraid that traffickers will retaliate by hurting their families.
“Those organised crime networks reaching back into Mexico and Central America are very real. People know that there’s a very real possibility their families will be hurt,” Couture said.
Many traffickers are involved in drug cartels or gangs, and victims were often lured to the US with job offers or other false promises, Polaris said.
Both traffickers and victims in the illicit cantinas tended to be from Mexico or Central America, according to the study.
Typically, the women and girls are intimidated by threats and abuse or forced into deep debt. Most reported being kept isolated, confined and monitored by their traffickers, said Polaris. Of those who escaped, a third were helped by potential buyers of sex who discovered the victim’s circumstances, the report found.
Cantina-style cases were reported in California, Washington, New York and elsewhere. Polaris recommended increased training for law enforcement and service providers such as healthcare workers, better information sharing among law enforcement and government agencies, and more funding for investigations and prosecutions.