TENANCINGO, Mexico — In this impoverished town in central Mexico, a sinister trade has taken root: entire extended families exploit desperation and lure hundreds of unsuspecting young Mexican women to the United States to force them into prostitution.
Those who know the pimps of Tlaxcala state – victims, prosecutors, social workers and researchers – say the men from Tenancingo have honed their methods over at least three generations.
They play on all that is good in their victims – love of family, love of husband, love of children – to force young women into near-bondage in the United States.
The town provided the perfect petri dish for forced prostitution. A heavily Indian area, it combines long-standing traditions of forced marriage or "bride kidnapping," with machismo, grinding poverty and an early wave of industrialization in the 1890s that later went bust, leaving a displaced population that would roam, looking for elusive work.
Added to that, says anthropologist Oscar Montiel – who has interviewed the pimps about their work – is a tradition of informal, sworn-to-silence male groups. He believes that, in the town of just over 10,000, there may be as many as 3,000 people directly involved the trade. Prosecutors say the network includes female relatives of the pimps, who often serve as go-betweens or supervisors, or who care for the children of women working as prostitutes.
A pimp Montiel identified only by his unprintable nickname said his uncle got him started in the business and that he has since passed the techniques on to his brother and two sons. Federico Pohls, who runs a center that tries to help victims, says established pimps will sometimes bankroll young men who aspire to the profession but lack the clothes, money and cars to impress young women.
Dilcya Garcia, a Mexico City prosecutor who did anti-trafficking work in Tenancingo, confirms that many boys in the town aspire to be pimps.
"If you ask some boys, and we have done this, 'Hey what do you want to be when you grow up?' They reply: 'I want to have a lot of sisters and a lot of daughters to make lots of money.'"
The Tenancingo pimps troll bus stations, parks, stores and high schools in poverty-stricken areas of Mexico, according to prosecutors who have raided their operations in Mexico City – often the "proving ground" where women are tried out as prostitutes before being moved to the U.S.
The pimps use a combination of threats, mistreatment, unkept promises of marriage and jobs, that send their victims on a slippery slope that usually ends in the filthy alleys near Mexico City's La Merced marketplace or at a cheap apartment in metro Atlanta. There, the women are isolated and sometimes forced to service dozens of male clients a day.
Garcia, who has dealt extensively with the victims, says some pimps even show up with fake "parents" to convince women they are serious about commitment.
"The way they fish for their victims is very cruel, very Machiavellian, but very effective," said Garcia. "When somebody is isolated, or unprotected, they are the perfect victim."
A young victim who agreed to speak to The Associated Press fit that profile perfectly. She asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation from her pimp's family.
Miguel Rugerio was charming and sweet when she met him in her impoverished hometown in the gulf coast state of Tabasco, she said.
He wooed her with sweet words and promises – good jobs in the U.S. for both of them with lots of money to send home to build a house in Mexico for their future. He wanted to meet her parents – a sure sign of a serious relationship in Mexico – and said he wanted to marry her.
She couldn't believe her good fortune.
But after he got her to Tenancingo he quickly changed. When the girl, just 17 at the time, wanted to go home for her sister's 15th birthday, he said no.
"I thought he was joking, and he said he wasn't joking, that I couldn't go home," she said. "I told him I would escape, and he said he would find me and make a scene in my hometown."
He got upset and locked her in a room.
"He told me that because I was his woman I had to stay with him," she said.
He finally said she could go home for a day for her sister's party but that if she didn't come right back, he'd hurt her family. When she returned to him after the party, he and his family started to mistreat her – abusing her, humiliating her and making her do all the housework.
A few weeks later, he brought her to Mexico City and forced her to work as a prostitute.
"He told me that if I didn't do it, he was going to hurt my sister and my family," she said. "I was very afraid of him."
A typical scenario, prosecutors say, involves an elaborate sham of a marriage – sometimes with false papers and names – before the pimp feigns a sudden financial crisis that would put the couple out in the street. The pimp then casually mentions a friend whose wife "worked" them out of the problem, noting, "If you love me, you'd do that for me."
Sometimes the tactics are more violent.
Garcia tells of an 18-year-old woman who was picked up by a Tenancingo pimp; her 1 1/2-year-old baby girl was placed in the care of one of his female relatives, and the woman was then taken to a down-at-the-heels Mexico City hotel and made to serve dozens of clients per day, for around 165 pesos ($12) apiece. When she resisted, the pimp told her, "If you don't do what I'm asking you to, you'll never see your daughter. You'll see what we'll do to your daughter."
Mostly, the pimps concentrate on isolating women, lying to them, and breaking down their self-esteem.
The victim who spoke to the AP described it this way: Her pimp, Rugerio, humiliated her, pulled her hair, withheld food and told her that she had to practice sex acts on him so she would perform well with the clients.
"I didn't like it," she said. "I felt ugly and it was very painful."
Rugerio told her he would send her to the U.S. and that he'd join her a bit later. After walking through the desert, she was sent to a nondescript apartment complex in suburban Atlanta, where she was met by two women and a man who, she was told, were related to Rugerio.
One of the women took her shopping for clothes. Even though it was September and starting to get chilly, the woman selected mostly short, tight skirts and tops and told her she'd have to start working the next day.
"I asked them what kind of work I would be doing," the young victim said. "She took out a bag of condoms and then I knew."
Her minders kept her in a small, sparsely furnished apartment, isolated from any other girls and mostly ignored her during the day. Around 4 p.m., a driver would come pick her up to take her to work. In the beginning, she had sex with between five and 10 men a night, but as time went on the number got as high as 40 or 50, mostly Latino men.
"I felt like the worst woman in the world," she said, her voice cracking and tears welling up in her eyes during an interview with the AP three years later. "I felt that if my family found out, they would be so disappointed because of what I was doing."
She thought about escaping many times, she said, but she was afraid because Rugerio had told her that if she left, the police would arrest her and toss her in jail. She also didn't know anyone, didn't have any money and didn't know where to go.
Miraculously, one night, when she got into the car that came to take her to work, a woman from her hometown was inside. She said she had been prostituted by a relative of her pimp but that the driver had helped her escape and they would help her escape too. With the help of the driver, she got away and eventually wound up testifying against her former pimp.
The 28-year-old Rugerio was sentenced in February to five years in federal prison in the U.S. for helping smuggle young women from Mexico to Atlanta and forcing them into prostitution.
But many others aren't caught.
"We've always suspected the problem is larger than we know about," said Brock Nicholson, deputy special agent in charge of the Atlanta division of the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Oftentimes, victims are very reluctant to come forward."
Those arrested on suspicion of forced prostitution almost never admit it.
Of three suspected pimps captured in raids on Mexico City hotels whose testimony the AP gained access to, all denied the charges against them; they said they were merely guests or employees of the hotel.
And while some in Tenancingo will admit pimps do operate there – resident Josue Reyes says "a few people have given the town a bad name" – others are seemingly in denial, despite the inexplicably luxurious houses that crowd the otherwise dusty, impoverished town.
The three-story homes with elaborate ironwork and Greek-inspired cornices are "safe houses" used by the pimps to awe – and then confine – their victims, said Federico Pohls, a human rights activist who works with victims.
Not so, says Maximino Ramirez, the secretary of the Tenancingo town council.
The structures were "built on hard work," he said, pointing to his own compound of three houses. Indeed, he said, all the palatial homes were built with money sent home by migrants working in restaurants and other businesses in the United States.
He dismissed the claims of the women.
"In this day and age, in the 21st century, are you going to tell me that a woman of 18 or 20 can be tricked?" he asked. "Maybe they went into (prostitution) of their own free will, and then after a while, they say: You know what? They forced me to."
But town residents have another name for the imposing houses. In the local Indian language, they call them "Calcuilchil" – literally, Houses of Ass.
It is an open secret. In 2008, a group of sociologists asked 877 residents of Tlaxcala if they knew of any place where human trafficking was occurring; 132 mentioned Tenancingo and an adjoining village – about 10 times more than any other locality.
How can such a trade flourish without police interference? Bautista, the Mexico City prosecutor, says it would be impossible without corruption.
Tlaxcala police say it is difficult to catch such crimes at their point of origin, because the full gravity of the crime has not yet been realized, even by the victims, when they are in Tenancingo. Some are held or mistreated, but usually by men they believe to be their husbands. Most have not yet been prostituted.
State prosecutors' spokeswoman Judith Soriana says only about a half dozen people have been prosecuted under laws against human trafficking in the last couple of years. She denies it's a particular problem in the state, saying "it has been blown out of proportion."
"There is nothing that indicates it is particularly high in this area," Soriana said. "Pimping isn't a problem exclusive to this state, it happens everywhere in the world."
Brumback reported from Atlanta.