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Crossing the Border: Human Trafficking and the work of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition

On January 25, 2004, Peter Landesman published a landmark article on human trafficking and sexual slavery in the New York Times called “The Girls Next Door.” In the article, Landesman captured the radical movement of victims through Mexico and into the United States. His investigation into the world of trafficking has raised many questions, but none so stark as the reality of the 2,000 miles along the U.S./Mexican border.

The Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition

The State Department has identified several countries as being the largest producers of human beings as a commodity. Mexico is one of those countries. It also serves as a trampoline country, making it easy for traffickers to bring their victims in and out of their country and into the U.S.

Faced with this problem and also with the desire to better assist victims of trafficking on both sides of the Mexican/U.S. border, the Bilateral Safety Corridor Commission (BSCC) was founded in 2000. Directed by Marisa Ugarte, who has “always been passionate about helping others,” the BSCC was formed to prevent and intervene in the commercial exploitation of women and children while advocating for all exploited persons. It is an alliance of over 40 government and non-government organizations in Mexico and the U.S. to combat slavery and human trafficking. The pilot project of the BSCC was launched on the San Diego/Tijuana border and the hope is to replicate it on all U.S. borders as well as in other countries. Ugarte said, “We hope to reinforce existing laws (regarding trafficking) and fill the gaps toward successful prosecution.”

Since Mexico acts as a trampoline country, the BSCC began work with agencies on the both sides of the border. They are creating a database in order to have accurate numbers regarding individuals who are being trafficked, trafficking agencies, and border work. BSCC works with DIF (Mexican Social Services) on prevention of trafficking. Ugarte said, “With law enforcement we are trying to create a culture of denunciation of crime and protocols to better assist them in understanding what trafficking is and how to identify trafficked victims.” In Tijuana, they have created a crisis phone line for those who have suspicions or need help in regards to trafficking. Ugarte said, “This program is now a great contribution to the actual fight against trafficking and toward successful repatriation.”

A Tale of Two Countries

The border is a hard reality faced in both the U.S. and Mexico. Not only does the U.S. have difficulties keeping its border free from illegal immigration, smuggling, and trafficking, but it also must face the problem of trafficking being lucrative and the business of organized crime in both the U.S. and Mexico. This is also the dangerous battle the BSCC must face.

In March of 2004, Mexican police arrested forty-four people in one of the largest trafficking rings ever uncovered in Mexico. Forty-two of those arrested were current or former employees of the Mexican government including agents and ex-agents of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, the department used to detect illegal migrants and prevent Mexico from being the country where migrants are housed and then sent onto the United States. They are now investigating whether this ring also travels into the U.S.

In Nogales, Texas during the summer of 2000, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent kidnapped, sexually assaulted and sexually abused three women. He was arrested, pleaded guilty and if he successfully completes thirty-six months of probation, his crime will be recorded as a misdemeanor.

It appears that trafficking knows no boundaries geographically or technologically. Suspected human traffickers offered three women for auction on eBay in March of 2004.

How are borders crossed without proper documents? Ugarte said, “Often traffickers forge documents or create false relationships between themselves and their victims in order to get them into a country.” For example, a man bringing a child into the country from Thailand may pose as the child’s grandfather and produce documents that appear as if the relationship between the two is truthful. When the child is brought safely to the agreed upon destination, the “grandfather” disappears, documents are destroyed or put away, never to be seen again. Maybe documents are even real, but kept from the trafficked victim. Often birth certificates are taken from American born, dark skinned children and then used as the birth certificate for Mexican children in order to bring them into the country.

People are smuggled across borders by car, foot, boat and airplane. If they come by foot across the desert they face extremes in weather, and also rape or murder. Should a girl run from her captors while in the desert, the traffickers never think twice about shooting her.

Trafficked victims are held captive in a variety of ways. They may be told that if they were to escape or get help, they would only be deported back to their homeland. Sometimes people are smuggled into the U.S. and then kept against their will in labor or sexual situations to pay off the smugglers. Situations also exist when a man is forced into labor because if he doesn’t or if he escapes, his wife and children will be sexually abused.

While the U.S. is patrolling its borders for illegal aliens, smugglers and traffickers, it has also been on heightened alert since 9/11 when airspace borders were violated and thousands lost their lives to terrorism. Since that time a new department was created called The Department of Homeland Security. Below you will find the Department outlined and the various entities that occupy it and work together to combat terrorism and trafficking.

The Difference Between Trafficking and Smuggling

Many have raised the issue of border control. If we were able to tighten security at the borders, then this would lessen the problem of human trafficking, illegal immigration, etc. Others feel that safe migration would erase many trafficking problems. However, migration is not easily controlled. Ugarte said, “Border control is useless unless you know the difference between smuggling and trafficking.”

A smuggled person is helped to gain illegal entry into a country, and in our case, the U.S. A trafficked person is brought into the country for exploitation and forced labor. Trafficked victims are seen as victims by the state, while those who have been smuggled are illegal aliens and viewed as criminals by the state. Trafficking is transporting for the purpose of slavery.

In October of 2000, the U.S. government passed its first law recognizing victims of trafficking as victims and not criminals. Under The Victims Of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (VTVPA) there are two basic forms of trafficking which are labeled as severe: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking occurs when a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, coercion, or when a person is forced to perform such an act and has not reached the age of eighteen. Labor trafficking recruits, harbors, transports, or obtains a person for labor services through the same ways a victim of sex trafficking is obtained, but then a labor victim is forced into involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

When such victims are rescued or escape from their captors and seek help from the United States, they are entitled to social assistance, Medicare, psychological treatment, legal representation, mandatory restitution, privacy and safety and can seek residency in the country with either a T or U Visa. The BSCC comes alongside agencies and victims to help assist not only with visas, but also the assistance that comes with the visa.

T Visas are designated for victims of severe trafficking and enables the victim to stay and work in the U.S. for three years. After that time, they can apply for a green card but the victim must show they would experience extreme hardship in returning to their country of origin. At this time, around 250 T Visas have been processed. This is a small number considering there are an estimated 20,000 victims of trafficking in the U.S.

U Visas are applied towards immigrants who have been victimized by trafficking and possess information regarding one of the following forms of criminal activity: rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, prostitution, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, hostage holding, peonage, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, unlawful criminal restraint, false imprisonment, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter, murder, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury or attempt at conspiracy. A victim using a U Visa may also stay and work in the U.S. for three years and are then eligible to apply for status.

Under both visas, a victim must be present in the United States or one of its territories, be willing to assist in the investigation and prosecution of the traffickers, make a bona fide application for a T or U Visa and would suffer extreme hardship if removed from the United States.

The Future

The problem with human trafficking is that no matter where the victims are trafficked in or out of, there are always borders that must be traversed in order to get the victims to where the traffickers want them to be. BSCC continues to plan for the future in reaching the oppressed and victimized in various border states.

The BSCC together with the Mexican Consulate and authorities have already rescued many trafficking victims including children, minors, and women with families. They have also begun to work on dignified repatriation for the women who do not wish to testify against their traffickers.

BSCC provides various services for victims including counseling, work options, and transportation through ORR funded programs like Project Safe Heave. Other non-government agencies working with BSCC include the Crisis House who provide services for men and women, the Catholic Charities Casa San Juan for children 9 to 17, and the Storefront from SDYCS who deal with homeless and runaway children as well as trafficked children.

Perhaps one of the most disheartening aspects of their work is that it is a slow work. In the past three years, only 500 victims of trafficking have been identified in the U.S. and the politicians in California have done nothing to acknowledge the problem of trafficking in their state. Ugarte said, “California is the nest of the sex industry. There are no regulations. Accepting the problem opens a can of worms and makes additional work. Many confuse smuggling with trafficking. Many officials are ignorant and have not been educated on the issue.”

Still, the BSCC slowly and steadily chisels away at the problem, educating the public, social services and law enforcement about the problems of human exploitation that exist but often go unnoticed. They continue to knock on the government’s door, asking for help, advising them of the issues facing the human rights of trafficking victims. Ugarte said, “This is not a new problem, we have just began to face it.”


“Trafficking in Persons,” Asian and Pacific Islander Institute for Domestic Violence, March 2003.

“The Girls Next Door,” Landesman, Peter, The New York Times, January 25, 2004.

Interview Questions with Marisa Ugarte Bava, March 2004.

“U.S. Settles Sex-Assault Case,” Carroll, Susan, Republic Nogales Bureau, February 21, 2004.

“Mexico Nabs 44 in Migrant Trafficking,” Castillo, E. Eduardo, Associated Press, March 24, 2004.

“State Ripe for Racket in Human Trafficking,” Gonzalez, Daniel, The Arizona Republic, March 30, 2004.

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April Folkertsma :
April Folkertsma is a writer and social worker who works in Calcutta, India with women and children who are struggling to escape the reach of prostitution.
  • audi

    this is one of the best works i have read about trafficking