TIJUANA, Mexico — The 19-year-old woman has a baby face covered in heavy makeup. Her voice is hesitant and toneless as she discusses her experiences in the past year.
An old friend of hers showed up in her life again, she says. He asked her for help, again and again, until she agreed. That's when he kidnapped her and took her to Mexico City, where he forced her to work as a prostitute.
"During those seven months," she said in Spanish, "I lived under threats, beatings, and offenses."
She means rape.
"I had sex with twenty to twenty-five men a day," she said.
Zuria, not her real name, finally managed to escape with the help of a friend. She now lives in Tijuana, at La Casa del Jardin.
La Casa is a Tijuana shelter. Zuria lives there and works there, and it's run by Eastlake resident Alma Tucker, who crosses the border nearly every day to so do. She sees her work as a way to heal this generation, and save the next.
The San Ysidro crossing is one of the most-traveled international borders in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people crossing on foot or in their cars every day, contributing to vibrant commerce and culture. But despite exponential increases in security over the years, the border remains is a place where humans, especially girls, are bought, sold, and forced into labor or sex in both Mexico and the United States. Human trafficking in both countries continues to be a very real problem.
Mexico is called a Tier 2 country by the State Department, and that means that the country is stepping up its efforts to stop human trafficking but lacks sufficient federal and state co-ordination. There's also the issue of what to do with the victims. Many were kidnapped and sold by close friends or family members, or left home because of family problems, and the Mexican government as yet has few resources in place for those who have been rescued and have nowhere to go. There are only two homes for the underage girls who have been victimized in all of Mexico -- one in Mexico City, and the other is La Casa del Jardin.
"If those girls are not treated right, as adults, sometimes they can turn to be victimizers, then it's one circle," Tucker said. "Then we, as a community, as authorities, we need to stop that circle. We need to give the opportunity to heal."
Tijuana is Tucker's hometown, although she has lived in San Diego now for more than twenty years. She first became aware of the issue of trafficking when she was working for the Department of Protection in San Diego's Mexican Consulate. After she left, she vowed to do more to help its victims, and started the International Network of Hearts in 2010 and opened La Casa del Jardin (The Garden House) in Tijuana in June of last year. Now, she takes in girls who are sent to the house after they're rescued by authorities in Mexico and the United States. She takes a multidisciplinary approach to the group home. In addition to regular classes, the girls get music, art, and yoga -- and medical treatment and therapy.
A few miles north, in Chula Vista, city councilmember Rudy Ramirez is one of Alma Tucker's biggest champions. He helps her put together events to raise awareness and funds for new beds and additions that La Casa del Jardin desperately needs. It's a large building, but there's always demand for more room. Ramirez says that awareness-raising is particularly important because the issue of human trafficking is difficult to grasp.
"It's not the sort of thing that you expect happens any more, right? You think this happens somewhere else some other continent somewhere, so it is surprising to hear that it happens here."
Ramirez also says that "human trafficking" can mean so many things and its scope is so vast that it becomes difficult to understand.
"I mean it happens in lots of ways, where, in some cases because of issues in the home these young ladies will leave their home, and as a result be taken in by somebody who just wants to exploit them, basically, and enslave them," he said. "And they do, in the sex trade or in other work, domestic work -- there are all kinds of different cases that you hear about."
People might keep slaves in their homes as maids, keeping them from escaping by threatening to tell the authorities that they have no papers. Or, like Zuria, they might be forced into prostitution.
The issue of trafficking is many-pronged, and as such, requires an approach from a number of different fronts, says Alma Tucker. With a stronger economy, cultural changes, more of a voice for young people, more government involvement, and better security, human trafficking and slavery might become things of the past. But for the present, she has a lot of work to do.
"They don't choose what they go through," she says. "They are victims and they need to be rescued. All those girls that are there, and all those girls that are already victimized, they deserve a better life."
Zuria, the teenager who once was forced into prostitution, says she gets through her life day by day. But she thinks her experiences have made her stronger. It also helps her to be able to share it with others, she says, who have had similar things happen to them.
She hopes one day to be either a bilingual secretary or to get a job in law enforcement, working on the issue of human trafficking.