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Central America’s Prostitution Epidemic

Tens of thousands of women across the region are brutalized and forced into sex work, and some face an even worse fate. A survivor tells Christopher Dickey her harrowing story.

She says her name is Esther. She wears white shoes. Her long, dark hair hangs over her shoulders, but she doesn’t show her face, doesn’t give her real name, because she still walks with fear. Fear of the men who enslaved her, forced her into prostitution. Fear that somehow, despite her freedom, she will have to repeat what seemed like endless perdition.

Under the dim lights at the David H. Koch theater in New York City, and with her back to the audience at the Women in the World Summit on Friday, Esther told her story to Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey.

“Let me warn you,” Dickey said as he led the panel discussion on sex trafficking and the treatment of women in Latin America. “This is going to be a descent into hell.”

Across Central America, there are tens of thousands of women like Esther, who are brutalized and forced into sex slavery. Some face a worse fate: they are murdered and mutilated, treated like nothing more than scrap paper on which to send impending messages of death.

Esther was forced into prostitution at the age of 16. At the time she was living in Mexico City with her family. They were struggling financially, so when her best friend’s bother said he’d heard of a well-paying job in Monterrey, the country’s industrial capital, she jumped on it.

She had no idea what lay ahead. Soon she found that instead of being paid, she owed her new employers money. “I was obligated to pay them. Even for the airplane ticket,” she said. “I felt trapped.”

She was trapped. To pay up, they forced her to have sex for money, to do whatever they wanted. Traveling around Mexico with a number of women—Cubans, Europeans, Americans—Ester was eventually sold to members of a Mexican drug cartel and remained their sexual slave until the police raided a strip club. Her ordeal lasted five years.

When she was finally rescued, Esther felt relieved. But when her sister and sister-in-law came to get her, she also felt tremendous shame; she was still dressed like a prostitute.

“They [the police] think when someone’s a prostitute it’s because they want to be a prostitute,” she said. “What I really would have wanted is for someone to have given me a bag to throw over my body. I was dressed in a way that was so inappropriate for me and my family.”

Part of the problem in Mexico is that a proper legal framework doesn’t exist to punish the pimps, Mexican congresswoman Rosi Orozco told the audience. In fact, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, in the country’s center, a culture of pimping has developed, unadulterated, for generations. It has become an industry, Orozco said.

“Until three or four years ago, virtually nobody was in jail for trafficking women,” said Dickey, the former Central American Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. Now, however, Orozco and others are pushing for a law that would “punish the chain of exploitation” from top to bottom, the congresswoman said.

Among the most vulnerable women in this chain of violence and brutality: Migrants. And not just from Mexico.

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As the actor Gael García Bernal told the panel, some of the most gruesome killings have been against Central American women who are hoping to get to Mexico and later the U.S.

But even for those who wish to remain in their home countries, the violence is pervasive. More than 7,000 women, for instance, have been murdered in Guatemala over the past decade, according to Sylvia Gereda, an editor and investigative reporter in Guatemala. “Around 49 [women] are killed every month,” she said.

Of course, violence against men in Central America is also a major problem. Yet the difference between how men and women are killed speaks volumes about the way the latter are viewed and the culture of misogyny that has developed. “I have seen many times women thrown away in pieces right next to roads or rivers,” she said. “They rape her then, they torture her. They cut off her arms and fingers and legs.” In some cases, the heads and other body parts of women have been used—like paper—to send messages of extortion.

This brutality did not develop in a vacuum, said Gereda. In Guatemala, a country that was ravaged by decades of civil war, the military and rebels both used rape as a weapon during the conflict. Many of those practices persist, only now they are being employed by drug cartels and gangs, as well as by ordinary husbands.

“This is a terrible kind of terrorism,” Dickey said. “It can only exist in a society where women are treated as less than women.”

As Esther knows, it can only exist in hell.