Mari’s story is harrowing and heartbreaking, but hardly unique.
This week, I visited a home in Tijuana for young girls who have been trafficked — bought and sold into slavery, sometimes across international borders, sometimes not, but always horrifically abused and tortured either psychologically, physically, or both — and spoke with them, an adult trafficking victim, and Alma, who started the home.
The issue of human trafficking is enormous and difficult to fully appreciate, so I will only focus on thing: a woman I met who I’ll call Mari.
Mari is 40 years old. She was born in Mexico, and spent the first few years of her life in Tijuana. She had always heard that the United States were where you could go to make money to take care of your family, so when a friend of her parents said he was going to the US, she asked him to take her along.
What Mari didn’t know was that he was a smuggler, a coyote. He took her to Encinitas, an upscale beach town in San Diego where there was a large but invisible population of undocumented immigrants, and left her in a shantytown, where she met her captor, who repeatedly raped her, abused her, incarcerated her, and impregnated her. Mari was 13, and he was in his 40s. She stayed with him until she was 19, living under constant threat, working as a maid or a fruit picker by day and being raped and beaten by night — until he shot and killed a man they both knew.
Mari took the blame, and ended up going to prison for the crime for 18 years before she was let out. Afterward, she returned to Tijuana to look for her family and try to pull her life back together, but because she was an ex-convict covered in tattoos, tattoos that the man who had kept her in the shantytown had carved on her to mark her as “his,” she was unable to get a job, and her family rejected her. They thought she was a gangster.
Mari is in the process of getting her tattoos removed. Her family has little contact with her. She works a low-paying job in Tijuana and spends a lot of time at Casa del Jardin. All she wants, she says, is a family, and to be loved, and to be able to love without reservation.
One of the things people ask her the most, she says, is why she stayed with her kidnapper for so long. This is one of the most insidious and deeply violent things about human trafficking: the implied or explicit threat. In Mari’s case, her captor told her he would kill her family in Mexico if she tried to escape, backing it up with extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and eventually, like so many others, she stopped trying to leave and began trying to simply survive.
Mari’s story is harrowing and heartbreaking, but hardly unique. The brothels and streets of certain parts of Tijuana are filled with them. Theirs is a life circumscribed by market forces; they are the supply, and the demand, as Alma from Casa del Jardin points out, comes almost entirely across the border, from the United States. Everywhere, trafficked humans are the world’s beasts of burden.