Child prostitution in Tijuana is not a new problem. What may be less known is that among the boys and girls being sexually exploited across the border are youngsters from the United States.
I met one of these children – a teenage girl from Riverside-- on an undercover reporting trip to “La Zona Norte” in the red light district along Tijuana’s Coahuila Street, known as a hub of sex tourism.
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Under the neon lights along Coahuila Street I quickly discovered Americans among both the exploited and the exploiters.
One man I met, who described himself as a pimp, told me he grew up in Merced.
He wasn’t shy and was quick to tell me that “everything is available here,” even children.
The price for sex with a young girl -- $40.
“It’s cheap bud,” he said. “Sex is really cheap here.”
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The illegal sex trade is a growing export from the U.S. to Mexico, according to the State Human Rights Commission of Baja, California. The commercial sexual exploitation of children rakes in an estimated $32 million a year, much of that from Americans seeking illegal sex across the border, according to the commission.
“We know that this problem is not a local one,” said Francisco Cota, a spokesman with the commission. “It’s a regional problem. It’s a bi-national problem. If there is a demand here in Mexico. There’s going to be demand in LA.”
I paid the fee and the pimp introduced me to a girl who went by the name Najeri. She told me she was 16 and from Riverside.
I explained to her that I was a reporter working on a story about the child sex trade, and she immediately told me, “It wasn’t something I decided to do.”
She showed me the room where she’s forced to have sex, a tiny stall barely big enough for a shoddy bed.
“It can be very…very scary,” she said. “A lot of the times those guys are Americans.”
Najeri told me that as a child left largely on her own she started “hanging out with the wrong crowd” and was flattered the attention and companionship of men in the group. By the time she learned their true intentions it was too late.
The sex trade in Tijuana is closely linked to the region’s violent drug cartels – sex trafficking of children is thought to be the third-highest revenue generator for the cartels after the drug trade and gun smuggling, according to the commission.
Both boys and girls are among the children being sexually exploited, according to the commission, an assertion Najeri said is true. The main client base for the boys is American, she told me.
They are “coming here and paying with the American dollars, so it’s just like gold to them,” she said. “There are a lot of guys coming from the states that live in Vegas, live in Hollywood, live in Los Angeles,” she said.
Najeri is afraid to run away. Her pimp, she said, has told her what happens to the bodies of runaways.
“The morgue comes by the hospital and incinerates it before anybody can be alerted that an American died,” she said. “That struck fear in my heart.”
She continued: “I don’t have the power or the ability to do that,” she said.
Then she told me: “There’s been times when I have been wishing that somebody like you or some people come down, inquiring about it.”
At that moment I had the impulse to walk out and take Najeri with me. But I knew from talking with human rights advocates and with Najeri herself that doing so would put her life—and possibly mine-- at risk.
Going to the police could make matters worse, as many police offers are in cahoots with the drug cartels, Cota said.
“Corruption is a huge problem in Mexico,” Cota said. “It's one of the main reasons why this problem is growing."
Willful ignorance among the general population is fueling the growth of the sex trade, Cota said.
“Not a lot of people know about it,” Cota said. “They either ignore it or they just really don't want to know about it. They just think this happens in Bangkok."
A state office was recently established to combat child sex slavery. The first step is overcoming the culture of fear that makes it difficult to even openly acknowledge the problem, said Araceli Legosa-Parra a spokeswoman with the office.
“We want to put out the information,” she said. “Most of the information is not put out there because of fear.”