Slavery blindness

COVER Borderline slaveryBorderline Slavery: Mexico, United States, and the Human Trade
Edited by Susan Tiano and Moira Murphy-Aguilar, with Brianne Bigej
2013, Ashgate
275 pages, hardback

SLAVERY is alive and well in the United States of America. Alien to all its most cherished values, it persists as a stain upon a society and democratic body politic that is in denial about the most fundamental breaches of human rights in its midst.

And most of the the victims are Latin Americans, trafficked in large numbers across the border then snared in exploitative and violent networks for power and profit.

In January this year, for example, authorities in the US broke up a people-trafficking prostitution ring involving mainly Latin Americans, freeing 11 young women from Central America and Mexico.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton said the case should be seen as a wake-up call drawing attention to the scale of the problem, telling journalists: “To those who would believe that sex trafficking doesn’t happen in America, reflect on this case and think again.”

The gang had been smuggling women to different cities across the south-eastern US since 2008. Morton pointed out that, in 2012 alone, 967 arrests linked to people trafficking and sex tourism were made in the US. The country’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received more than 57,000 calls from every state.

Yet until recently, the issue of human-trafficking across the Mexican-US border has been treated as something of a sideshow to the more newsworthy “war on drugs” that has been racking Mexico for a decade, and people-traffickers have often been dealt with by authorities as petty smugglers or pimps.

But as this timely volume points out, the cross-border trade in smuggled drugs and guns and people-trafficking are in effect sub-sectors of the same industry, a production line of organized crime that can trace its existence to the winding, 2000-mile border. It is the world’s most frequently crossed frontier: at least 350 million people cross it legally each year, and the scale of illegal crossings is simply incalculable. This helps to explain the violence directed by drug-trafficking cartels against poor migrants being smuggled through Mexico. In the northern, Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas several brutal massacres of immigrants from Ecuador and Central America have shocked the world in recent years. In August 2010, for example, the bodies of 72 poor migrants were found in the state, victims of the Zetas cartel, and in April 2011 the bodies of a further 183 men and women were discovered in the same vicinity. The Zetas and the Gulf cartels routinely traffic humans alongside guns, drugs and other contraband, often forcing them to act as “mules” transporting illicit goods.

Borderline Slavery attempts to set the record straight by examining the scale and purpose of people-trafficking as well as the responses of authorities and societies to it.

Many victims of the traffickers begin their journeys voluntarily, paying migrant smugglers – coyotes or polleros – to help them enter the US labour market, only to then become enslaved: exchanged or bought and sold by gangs as forced labour in the fields of the southern US states, sex workers or domestics in both the US and Mexico, or kidnapped to demand ransom from their families at home. Many end up dead, easy to lose or dump in the vast hinterlands of northern Mexico, entirely expendable as the indigent, undocumented waste products of developing economies that export their surplus labour.

In the US, the destination for much of this human cargo, the issue has been moving steadily up the agenda although, as Tiano points out, a complex of historical and political factors have hitherto suppressed its profile. She writes:

“One would think that a practice so alien to American values would mobilize a massive public outcry and a determined demand for law enforcement to devote the necessary resources to halt the practice – even though this might require taxpayers to dip into their pockets to foot the bill. Yet as often as not, the US media, politicians, and the public at large engage in ‘selective perception’: they just don’t see it for what it is because it is so antithetical to their cultural ideals of human freedom and equality.” [p. 6]

Explanations for slavery blindness are straightforward: media and political etymology enables enslaved migrant labourers to be lost in definition as merely “undocumented” labour; women trafficked for sex are simply “prostitutes”; misinformation and stereotypes about the coyotes, human-trafficking and Latinos in general can dull the sharp edge of cruelty that underlies this issue. A reluctance to acknowledge that slavery still exists in a country that fought a civil war to eradicate it fuels these perceptions. And Tiano points to a key factor underlying the “cultural myopia” that prevents Americans confronting modern slavery of this kind: immigration. She notes: “The discussion is so raucous and politically charged that questions such as whether border crossers entered into their travel arrangements voluntarily or under coercion become irrelevant.”

Despite hailing the success of US federal agents in breaking a sex-trafficking ring in January, for example, this myopia was very much in evidence in the ICE operation, which depicted the issue as one largely confined to the Latino community and suggested that the beneficiaries of human-trafficking were almost solely Hispanics.

Moreover, economic globalization is enabling the people-trafficking industry to expand and prosper by intensifying the volume of exchanges between countries – people, commodities and finance –while challenging the ability of law-enforcement agencies to tackle these. As Tony Payan aptly explains in this volume, growing trade in goods and services and the rising number of migrants moving across national borders makes it easier for the traffickers to conceal their cargo, and regulatory inconsistencies can allow for the proliferation of what the editors describe as “nebulous ‘grey zones’” that limit the ability to monitor cross-border exchanges of every kind.

Borderline Slavery provides a comprehensive and valuable overview of this issue and will be of use to scholars focusing on regions other than Latin America.

It provides historical context and theoretical tools with which to understand this phenomenon and sketches out parameters for comparative study. Its contributors explore the many causal factors that are fuelling this trade and its complex sub-regional dynamics. Sandra Calvani and Olivia Jung, for example, examine how popular fears about immigration can lead to misguided policies that push migrants into the hands of traffickers. Kathryn Farr looks at how this has been augmented by wars and civil conflict, and Jenny Clark analyses why women and children are often the main losers in a spiral of hopelessness that begins with poverty and ends with slavery.

Yet it is the US-Mexico border that remains squarely in the frame, providing a unique case study for exploring every dimension of the issue of human-trafficking globally, and it is the economic dynamics that characterize the skewed relationship between the US and Latin America that ultimately form the backdrop to this issue. As Tiano writes:

“These dynamics take a particular shape on the US-Mexico border, where the world’s richest economy abuts a nation that is facing growing economic, political and law-enforcement challenges. This conjuncture promotes human trafficking in various ways. The seemingly insatiable US demand for sex workers, cheap labour, low-cost domestic help, and other services that are not effectively supplied by US citizens… creates a ready market for trafficked victims and huge profits for their traffickers.”

Latin American Review of Books – Latamrob

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