She could be your sister, your daughter, your neighbor. A mother. In Mexico, she's also a commodity to buy and sell.
Sexual trafficking and exploitation is harsh reality in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond. That reality drew 13 people from the UCC's California-Nevada conferences to Centro Romero April 26-28 to take part in an immersion experience at the Center for Education and Social Transformation in San Ysidro, Calif. The group joined Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero, and three other UCC staff members to begin developing ways churches in the region can join efforts to address this growing problem of exploitation of women and children. A new way of being church, welcoming all.
"Our objectives are assistance, intervention and connection," said Correa. "We wanted to bring together religious and community leaders, researchers, and practitioners who work in enforcing trafficking laws and in providing direct support and prevention. We're looking into developing ways for future collaborative research, advocacy, and program development focusing on sex trafficking, and in equipping participants to educate others about the needs and risks of those who are victimized."
Commercial sexual exploitation on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border is big business. According to a study for Global Financial Integrity, sex trafficking is the second most profitable illegal business in the world, after the trade in illegal drugs. The border between San Diego and Tijuana has become an active location for sex trafficking, with most of the "consumers" coming from the U.S. side of the border. The women and children –– about 137,000 trafficked through Mexico annually –– range in age from 3 years to 65 years old.
The group met with Stephen Cass, a U.S. citizen now living in Mexico, who operates a ministry to rescue girls who are trafficked for sex. His is the only safe house in Tijuana. A gripping first-hand account of how the safe house literally can be a life changing experience came from a young woman who had been sexually abused by her father for years before receiving assistance. Her testimony touched a nerve with the Rev. Andrew (Andy) Schwiebert, lead pastor at (a)Spire Ministry, a new emergent community that is an extension of First Congregational UCC of Pasadena.
"I was moved by the courage of survivors of sex trafficking to share their stories of unthinkable, horrific abuse as young children at the hands of family and traffickers and at the hands of a violent system," said Schwiebert.
In broad daylight, the group made its way through the "Zone of Tolerance" (e.g., red light district) of Tijuana, where 300 young girls and transgender boys, many of them clearly aged 13-17, were awaiting sex work in plain view of federal and state police.
While in Tijuana, the group visited the only residential treatment program there that is free for those living with HIV/AIDS and talked to two young women, who shared moving and disturbing stories of being trafficked for sex. One was "bought" by an American who took her and her baby to Alaska and forced her to have sex with others. The second woman was lured into the business by a girlfriend, who first got her addicted to drugs.
"I can't comprehend how the victims of this tragic and exploitative industry cope with what must be mountains of pain. Knowing that a few manage to escape and that there are some working to support those who do offers a tiny flicker of hope," said Schwiebert. "The Romero Center is one among a few key places in the UCC that is rallying people of faith together for collective acts of compassion, mercy and justice."
The group, spurred by the people they met and what they saw, are generating ideas on what type of support UCC churches can offer –– with an additional safe house as one possibility.
Lisa McCally, a member of Congregational UCC of San Mateo, Calif., said, "I know some of us hope to help and/or support Carlos, UCC or Centro Romero in exploring ways to take action, including starting a safe house for victims in Rosarito or Tijuana."
Other important steps, the group noted, are educating our congregations and finding out what is going on in our own communities. McCally says her church is meeting in June to brainstorm ideas for ways to follow up locally and beyond. She already has joined a group in her hometown, the Bay Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to learn how she can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
"I believe this is an important time for members of the UCC to support positive solutions that both curb the demand among consumers of sex work and pornography, and offer support to those seeking a way out and new life," said Schwiebert.