NAFTA and Human Trafficking Along the US-Mexico Border

NAFTA and Human Trafficking Along the US-Mexico Border

illegal immigration

Let’s say you’re a sixteen-year-old girl named Maria, and your family owns a farm in rural Mexico.

Use your imagination.

Your family grows all kinds of leafy vegetables, and every week you sell them to a company that packages and distributes them to restaurants. We’ll call the company BIG SALAD.

It’s a good thing BIG SALAD has big trucks to come and pick up your vegetables, because even though your family has a truck, it’s very small and it’s from 1987. You couldn’t possibly drive over miles and miles of poorly-kept roads to transport all your vegetables to the factories where they are cleaned and packaged. The amount of vegetables you could transport and sell would barely pay for the gas, let alone support your family.

There is no railroad, either. So the refrigerated BIG SALAD trucks are a blessing.

But one week, the trucks don’t come. Your vegetables spoil, and you have no income that week. You eat some of the spoiled crops for dinner, cooking them until they’re wilted enough that you don’t have to think about how spoiled they were.

After that, you can’t rely on the BIG SALAD trucks to come every week, or to pay your family for the crops. The trucks come intermittently, if at all. You weren’t exactly well off to begin with, but now you’re downright poor.

Even though it’s inefficient to drive your own little truck to the factory or the city market, you try it all the same. You have to sell your crops—as many as you can. What else are you going to do?

But the factory won’t buy your vegetables, and neither will anyone at the market. Your vegetables are too expensive compared with a recent shipment that came in from the US—the vegetables from the US are bigger, leafier, and haven’t been traveling in a little truck under the hot sun all day. They look crisp and delicious. And there are truckloads of them.

You can’t compete.

Eventually, your family has to leave the farm, and find work elsewhere. You become migrants.

Everyone in your part of Mexico is going through something similar, so there’s no work there. You head north, where there are farms full of big, beautiful, leafy vegetables—the kinds of farms that ran yours out of business. The kinds of farms that need people like your family to work them.

But the border to the United States is a dangerous place. It’s become militarized, and uniformed men with guns patrol miles of wall and wire. At least fifteen people a day die trying to get across.

One day, you meet a man called a coyote.

“I can get you across the border,” the coyote says. “For a price.”

“I don’t have much money,” you say.

“Well Maria,” says the coyote, “I’ll get you across the border, and then you can work off your debt to me once you’re in the United States. People make a lot of money in the United States. It shouldn’t take you long to get out of debt.”

It’s not an ideal solution. You don’t want to be in debt to the coyote. But six months ago, the worst thing you could imagine was losing your family’s farm and having to migrate north, and that’s already happened. So here you are. You’ll have to make do.

Then the coyote seals the deal. “Once you have a job,” he says, “and pay me back, you can start sending money back to your family here in Mexico. I can even help you find a job. I know someone who needs a maid—a pretty girl to keep a big executive’s house clean. You can do that, right?”

“Of course,” you say. “But can’t my family come too?”

The coyote looks sorry, but doesn’t sound sorry. “That would be a lot more money. It’s a lot easier and safer to get one girl across than a whole family. Besides, I can only get work for you—do you think the executive needs your whole family cleaning his house?”

You don’t want to leave your family, but sending money back to them sounds wonderful. You agree to go into debt to the coyote, if he will get you across the border and help you find a job.

When you get across the border, the coyote doesn’t take you to a big executive’s house. He gives you to a woman who lives in a house in the suburbs. It looks like every other house around it, but it’s full of other Mexican girls around your age. You see the woman give the coyote money—it looks like a lot of money, but you’re not familiar with US currency, so you don’t know—and then you don’t see him again.

The woman explains that you have to have sex with men to pay off your debt.

You explain that there’s been some mistake. You’re supposed to be a maid.

She laughs and calls you a name. “You’re not going to be a maid.”

You want to run, but where would you go? You don’t know anyone here. You don’t even speak English. One night, you try to run anyway. But the woman has a crew of men working for her, and one of them catches you. You’re beaten, then kept in a room with no food or water for days, until you submit.


The short story on NAFTA and human trafficking

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. NAFTA essentially removed tariffs on trade goods between Canada, Mexico, and the US. NAFTA was a very controversial topic back then, and 20 years later, it still is. There are pros and cons. (Personally, I’m more disturbed by the cons than happy about the pros.)

Everyone’s talking about NAFTA again, because a few similar agreements are being developed right now. (The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.)

One of the effects of NAFTA was that it flooded the Mexican market with cheap US agricultural goods. And Mexico didn’t have railroads or efficient highway systems to support rural farmers. The result is that, except for corn and meat, Mexican farmers can’t compete with US produce. They lose their farms, and become migrants.

While NAFTA (there are other factors, but NAFTA is a big one) is creating that effect, anti-immigration sentiment and laws are creating the exact opposite effect—making it deadly for people to cross into the US. One writer described it as tectonic plates pushing against one another. (The Road North, link below)

An increase in human trafficking across the US-Mexico border is just one consequence.

Enter the coyotes.

Some people are sexually trafficked by coyotes, while others are sold for labor. Both are essentially slaves.

Many girls who are trafficked in from Mexico and South American countries wind up in a system of residential brothels run by Latino families or women. These girls are often sent along a circuit that follows migrant farm workers as they travel up and down the east coast of the US.

Before we jump on the pros of NAFTA, I think we should consider whether the cons outweigh them.








L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

© L. Marrick 2014. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.

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