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Crossing the Border

In November, I followed by helicopter the twelve-foot-high sheet-metal fence that represents the United States Mexico boundary from Imperial Beach, California, south of San Diego, fourteen miles across the gritty warrens and havoc of Tijuana into the barren hills of Tecate. The fence drops off abruptly at Colonia Nido de las Aguilas, a dry riverbed that straddles the border. Four hundred square miles of bone-dry, barren hills stretch out on the United States side. I hovered over the end of the fence with Lester Mc-Daniel, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On the United States side, "J-e-s-u-s" was spelled out in rocks ten feet high across a steep hillside. A fifteen-foot white wooden cross rose from the peak. It is here that thousands of girls and young women-most of them Mexican and many of them straight from Calle Santo Tomas-are taken every year, mostly between January and August, the dry season. Coyotes-or smugglers-subcontracted exclusively by sex traffickers sometimes trudge the girls up to the cross and let them pray, then herd them into the hills northward.

A few miles east, we picked up a deeply grooved trail at the fence and followed it for miles into the hills until it plunged into a deep isolated ravine called Cottonwood Canyon. A Ukrainian sex-trafficking ring force-marches young women through here, Mc-Daniel told me. In high heels and seductive clothing, the young women trek twelve miles to Highway 94, where panel trucks sit waiting. McDaniel listed the perils: rattlesnakes, dehydration, and hypothermia. He failed to mention the traffickers' bullets should the women try to escape.

"If a girl tries to run, she's killed and becomes just one more woman in the desert," says Marisa B. Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a San Diego organization that coordinates rescue efforts for trafficking victims on both sides of the border. "But if she keeps going north, she reaches the Gates of


One girl who was trafficked back and forth across that border repeatedly was Andrea. "Andrea" is just one name she was given by her traffickers and clients; she doesn't know her real name. She was born in the United States and sold or abandoned here-at about four years old, she says-by a woman who may have been her mother. (She is now in her early to mid-twenties; she doesn't know for sure.) She says that she spent approximately the next twelve years as the captive of a sex-trafficking ring that operated on both sides of the Mexican border. Because of the threat of retribution from her former captors, who are believed to be still at large, an organization that rescues and counsels trafficking victims and former prostitutes arranged for me to meet Andrea in October at a secret location in the United States.

In a series of excruciating conversations,Andrea explained to me how the trafficking ring that kept her worked, moving young girls (and boys too) back and forth over the border, selling nights and weekends with them mostly to American men. She said that the ring imported-both through abduction and outright purchase- toddlers, children, and teenagers into the United States from many countries.

"The border is very busy, lots of stuff moving back and forth," she said. "Say you needed to get some kids. This guy would offer a woman a lot of money, and she'd take birth certificates from the United States-from Puerto Rican children or darker-skinned children-and then she would go into Mexico through Tijuana. Then she'd drive to Juarez"-across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas-"and then they'd go shopping. I was taken with them once. We went to this house that had a goat in the front yard and came out with a four-year-old boy." She remembers the boy costing around five hundred dollars (she said that many poor parents were told that their children would go to adoption agencies and on to better lives in America). "When we crossed the border at Juarez, all the border guards wanted to see was a birth certificate for the dark-skinned kids."

Andrea continued: "There would be a truck waiting for us at the Mexico border, and those trucks you don't want to ride in. Those trucks are closed. They had spots where there would be transfers, the rest stops and truck stops on the freeways in the United States. One person would walk you into the bathroom, and then another person would take you out of the bathroom and take you to a different vehicle."

Andrea told me she was transported to Juarez dozens of times. During one visit, when she was about seven years old, the trafficker took her to the Radisson Casa Grande Hotel, where there was a john waiting in a room. The john was an older American man, and he read Bible passages to her before and after having sex with her. Andrea described other rooms she remembered in other hotels in Mexico: the Howard Johnson in Leon, the Crowne Plaza in Guadalajara. She remembers most of all the ceiling patterns. "When I was taken to Mexico, I knew things were going to be different," she said. The "customers" were American businessmen. "The men who went there had higher positions, had more to lose if they were caught doing these things on the other side of the border. I was told my purpose was to keep these men from abusing their own kids." Later she told me: "The white kids you could beat but you couldn't mark. But with Mexican kids you could do whatever you wanted. They're untraceable. You lose nothing by killing them."

Then she and the other children and teenagers in this cell were walked back across the border to El Paso by the traffickers. "The border guards talked to you like, 'Did you have fun in Mexico?' And you answered exactly what you were told, 'Yeah, I had fun.' 'Runners' moved the harder-to-place kids, the darker or not-quite-as-well-behaved kids, kids that hadn't been broken yet."

Another trafficking victim I met, a young woman named Montserrat, was taken to the United States from Veracruz, Mexico, six years ago, at age thirteen. (Montserrat is her nickname.) "I was going to work in America," she told me. "I wanted to go to school there, have an apartment and a red Mercedes Benz." Montserrat's trafficker, who called himself Alejandro, took her to Sonora, across the Mexican border from Douglas, Arizona, where she joined a group of a dozen other teenage girls, all with the same dream of a better life. They were from Chiapas, Guatemala, Oaxaca-everywhere, she said.

The group was marched twelve hours through the desert, just a few of the thousands of Mexicans who bolted for America that night along the two thousand miles of border. Cars were waiting at a fixed spot on the other side. Alejandro directed her to a Nissan and drove her and a few others to a house she said she thought was in Phoenix, the home of a white American family. "It looked like America," she told me. "I ate chicken. The family ignored me, watched TV. I thought the worst part was behind me."

Breaking the Girls In | The Best American Crime Writing 2005 | In the United States: Hiding in Plain Sight