How One Mexican Family Became Sex Traffickers
"I was never taught to value women. Women became worthless."
By Anastasia Moloney
MEXICO CITY, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mario Garfias never thought twice when he pulled out his baseball bat, nicknamed Panchito, to beat the women and teenage girls that he used as prostitutes in Mexico City's red light district of La Merced.
Together with his younger brother Enrique and mother Esperanza, Garfias was a sex trafficker. For nearly eight years, the trio inflicted terror over young women and girls - who the brothers referred to as "merchandise".
If the girls, some as young as 16, did not earn their daily quota or disobeyed rules, they faced Panchito.
"I'd say it was time to see Panchito. I'd hit them with it," said Mario Garfias, who headed the sex trafficking ring.
"Obviously never in the face because I'd send them to work. But I'd hit them across the back, legs and buttocks," said Garfias, who like his brother and mother, spent nearly 12 years in prison for his crimes.
Dart pistols were also used against women, while one woman was once tied to a chair with fireworks placed around her genitals, the brothers said.
Two years after the family's release from prison, their stories offer a rare insight into the methods of sex traffickers - how they lure their victims and the violence they use to control them.
They also reveal a cycle of violence that usually starts in childhood - an experience traffickers and their victims often share - blurring the lines between the abused and the abuser.
Esperanza Garfias, a former convicted sex trafficker, at a home in Mexico City, Mexico on October 9, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Theo Hessing
Garfias and his five brothers grew up hungry, in a home where domestic violence was everyday.
Their mother, Esperanza, said a neighbour in Mexico City sexually abused her when she was five, while her own mother would beat her.
To escape the abuse, she ran away from home aged 12. Homeless and later pregnant, she then turned to alcohol and prostitution to survive.
The brothers say growing up in such an environment shaped their attitudes towards women and skewed their moral compass.
"Obviously I'm not justifying myself but I grew up thinking violence was normal. That's how I was raised," Garfias said.
"I was never taught to value women. I saw my mother being hit by my stepfathers. She'd go back to them again and again. So women became worthless."
As a teenager, Garfias found work as a cleaner in a brothel for a big-time pimp in La Merced.
There he convinced a girl to work for him instead. He poached more women working for other pimps along La Merced's warren of rubbish-strewn colonial alleyways.
Within a year Garfias was running a lucrative business employing his brothers and mother. He earned up to $1,000 a day from about 10 women and girls serving about 20 clients a day.
In Mexico, the most common form of human trafficking is women and girls forced into sex work.
Nearly 380,000 people are trapped in modern slavery in Mexico, including forced prostitution, according to rights group, the Walk Free Foundation.
Across Mexico, sex trafficking is often a family-run business. Victims usually know their traffickers and live in the same community.
It would take Garfias, now 39, and his brother Enrique just a few weeks to lure a woman in with false promises of a better future. They would shower them with "romantic gestures" - a bunch of roses, a teddy bear, or a box of chocolates.
"Honestly it was so easy. For me the best way was to make her believe that I was in love with her," the younger brother, Enrique, said. "We'd pass a nice house and I'd say: 'That will be ours soon where we'll get married and have children'."
The brothers preyed on women who came from poor and troubled homes where domestic and or sexual violence was rife.
"They were vulnerable. They lacked love. We took advantage of that," said Mario Garfias, whose neck bears a tattoo of a scorpion and his lower arm one of a chained naked woman.
"There's nothing easier than tricking a woman who doesn't love herself, whose self-esteem is rock bottom.
First I'd raise her self-esteem, and then once they were with me, I'd lower it to the ground."
The brothers also exerted psychological control over their victims, threatening to harm their family if they refused or tried to escape.
As Mario Garfias courted his victims, they would share details about their family, such as their parents' names and where they lived.
"I've a good memory. The information the girls told me I'd later use against them," he said.
The brothers played a good cop–bad cop routine. Enrique was considered the 'consoler', the more gentle and dashing brother, while Mario was the violent one.
Their mother would cook for her sons and their victims, while telling the women to work harder.
"I didn't say anything about my sons' work with the girls because for me it was normal. I didn't think it was bad because I'd lived it," said the softly-spoken woman.
Mario Garfias said he enjoyed the money and power. With his victims' earnings, he bought cars, designer clothes, mobile phones and furnished apartments.
The brothers didn't feel they were doing anything wrong.
"I'd seen my mother work as a prostitute. I thought it was normal," said Enrique Garfias. "We didn't see them as human beings but as our workers. I saw them as merchandise that gave me money, that sustained my family."
The brothers controlled almost every step their victims took - when they could eat and sleep, whom they could talk to, and on which street corner to stand.
"They had to ask permission for everything. They were never alone," said Mario Garfias.
Inside La Merced's grimy houses and hotels were brothels with bare rooms separated by sheets.
The brothers paid bribes to the police to receive tip-offs about brothel raids, while street watchmen were employed to spot anyone who tried to run away.
"I'd tell the girls: 'Watch this, I'll whistle and see how many people raise their hands.' Just in one block, two or three hands would go up," said Enrique Garfias. "'You see it's impossible for you to escape,'" he would tell the women.
But in 2003 a 16-year-old girl managed to escape from the family.
Her testimony to the police led to the arrest and conviction of the Garfias family on charges of sexually exploiting children, among other crimes, something they never imagined would happen.
Yet in Mexico, and worldwide, few traffickers serve prison time. In 2016, 228 people were convicted of trafficking under Mexico's 2012 anti-human trafficking law, up from 86 traffickers in 2015.
Behind bars aged 25, Mario Garfias experienced the jail's own version of Panchito, a wooden pole nicknamed Banban that prisoners beat fellow inmates with.
"What I'd tell the girls - that you're worth nothing, you're no-one, the same was said to me in jail," he said.
A prison pastor introduced the family to the Bible and they became born-again Christians.
Esperanza Garfias, 56, said after becoming an evangelical Christian she realised what she did was wrong and how, as a mother, she should have confronted her sons' criminal behaviour rather than having supported and condoned it.
"It shames me," she said.
Since leaving prison, Mario Garfias said he has found five of his victims and asked for their forgiveness.
The brothers hope that by sharing their experiences, they can help change men's attitudes towards forced prostitution and encourage men to think twice before paying for sex.
"Without clients, there's no trafficking," Garfias said. "Girls aren't standing on street corners because they want to. Men don't know what and who's really behind a girl."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)