Outside of the Pino Suarez metro station in Mexico City's Historic Center, Karla Jacinto, a self-confessed tomboy, was waiting one day for some friends to go skateboarding when an older boy approached her and asked her to go for an ice cream.
"I said okay. There's nothing wrong if we have an ice cream," Jacinto recalled recently in a downtown coffee shop, a scant thirty minute walk from where she met her future pimp.
That ice cream was ten years ago, when she was 12 years old.
Growing up in poverty in Mexico City, Karla suffered both sexual and physical abuse from the age of five. The day she accepted that invitation, it seemed like she'd met someone who understood her.
"He told me how his parents beat him, how he was mistreated, how he started to work and was independent from his parents since childhood," Jacinto recalled. "And I identified [with him], because it was something similar to what happened to me."
The young man, who Jacinto still refrains from naming, immediately invited her to go to the state of Puebla, east of the capital, but she insisted her parents wouldn't let her. They exchanged phone numbers, and eventually he convinced her to go to Puebla the following week. She lied to her parents, and went.
But instead of going to Puebla, they went to Zacatelco, in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala. There, she was greeted by the young man's cousins.
"They already knew everything about me," Karla recalled. "They said he was in love with me, and had already planned his life with me; they were going to be groomsmen at our wedding. Then I started getting a little scared."
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Karla Jacinto, now 22, spent four years under the control of a pimp not much older than her in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)
Before long, Karla Jacinto was stuck in a cycle of violence, abuse, and sex work ordered by the boy who picked her up — now, he was her pimp.
Tlaxcala, Mexico's smallest state, has gained a well-earned reputation as the human trafficking hub of the country, where it is been widely reported that in small towns along the highway connecting the cities of Tlaxcala and Puebla, human-trafficking rings involving entire families operate in the open.
The pimps of Tlaxcala prey on young, uneducated girls in other states in Mexico. The traffickers take them there, where the girls are raped and abused, before forcing them into sex work in other Mexican states, or moving them north to the US, authorities say.
Women who have been trafficked through Tlaxcala have been rescued in large cities across the US, and despite high profile arrests in New York, Houston and Atlanta, little progress has been made overall, especially against the traffickers still living and operating in Tlaxcala.
'You think your life will always be like that.'
In May, Jacinto stood in front of the United States House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, and explained how from the ages of 12 to 16, she was forced into prostitution by the young man who told her he loved her. She estimated she had sex with more than 40,000 men, some of them from the US.
"You woke you up, got ready, went to the hotel; then after you'd clean yourself, and return to your apartment," Jacinto — now 22 and an activist against human trafficking — recalled calmly. "It was a simple life. You no longer feel anything. You no longer care about yourself. You think your life will always be like that."
A traditional Tlaxcalan carnival in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, May 2014. Tlaxcala is a hub for sex trafficking, with many young victims being moved to New York to work in forced prostitution. (Photo by Kathy Willens/AP)
The municipality of Tenancingo, located in southern Tlaxcala on the border with Puebla state, has a population of roughly 10,000 and has become the most notorious site for sex trafficking in the country, a problem that Mexico's government is not doing enough to tackle, advocates say.
In the US State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, Mexico was recognized as "a large source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking."
The report it went on to make a string of damning statements about Mexico's response to the issue. "The government of Mexico," the report said, "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." It also said there was no evidence of efforts "identify and assist victims," and that "official complicity continued to be a serious problem."
The State Department concluded that no comprehensive statistics were available for the problem in Mexico.
"There are thousands of pimps in Tlaxcala that are operating in the United States, Canada and Europe," Rosi Orozco, president of an anti-trafficking organization, told VICE News in an interview. "It's incredible, the impunity in those towns where they live and they operate."
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Orozco, whose United Against Trafficking Commission is considered the leading face of organized efforts against the issue in Mexico, shared statistics with VICE News that she is expecting to publish in a forthcoming book. She claims that there are 5,000 people in Tenancingo directly involved in the human trafficking trade; 4,000 in Zacatelco; 2,000 in Teolocholco, and over 3,000 more in other surrounding towns.
"Tlaxcala is a state that is so poor," she said, "[Yet] a lot of people have a lot of money from human trafficking."
The past few months have seen a few high-profile arrests against the crime, with the help of US authorities. In June, Mexico's federal Criminal Investigation Agency arrested an accused trafficker in Teolocholco, Tlaxcala, in a case they claimed they'd been working for two years.
The man, whose name has yet to be released by authorities, has been accused of being part of a criminal organization that lures young women into prostitution, then traffics them to different states in Mexico and across the border into the United States, particularly to Houston and New York.
Another trafficker was sentenced in late May to 11 years in prison for similar crimes, Mexican authorities said.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, has also made an effort to crack down on a single trafficking operation based in Tenancingo.
When Paulo Ramirez Granados was arrested on March 30 in a joint-operation by Mexican Federal Police and ICE in Tenancingo, ICE was able to cross one of their top ten fugitives off a list of "most wanted" sex traffickers.
However, still four other residents of Tenancingo remain on the US government's most-wanted list: Eugenio Hernandez Prieto, Saul Romero Rugerio, Severiano Martinez Rojas, and Raul Granados Rendon.
Currently, twelve members of the Granados family have been arrested, leaving only Raul Granados Rendon at large.
One in five parents in Tlaxcala say a son had expressed interest in being a pimp.
Sister Maria Guadalupe, director of Centro Fray Julian, a Tlaxcalteca Catholic organization that works to combat human trafficking within the state, said the attraction of human trafficking is strong for Tlaxcala's poor. One in five parents in the state acknowledged that a son had expressed interest in being a pimp, according to a 2010 study at the Autonomous University of Tlaxcala.
"What has happened historically here is that there are generations of networks with the characteristic of being families: brothers, uncles, cousins, mothers, aunts. Those same children say 'When I grow up, I'm going to be a pimp'," Sister Guadalupe explained.
"It is very common that children, six years old, say that they want to be pimps," she added. "They want to have cars, women, houses."
The typical modus operandi of the Tlaxcalan traffickers is that the young men of the towns go searching in neighboring states for young, vulnerable girls. Rather than abducting them, they fool them into thinking they are in love, convincing them to return to Tlaxcala to meet their family.
"They know how to reach out at the appropriate time, then offer them love," Sister Guadalupe said. And unfortunately in Tlaxcala, pimping is a family business.
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Karla Jacinto now works to stop human trafficking for sex work in Mexico. (Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News)
Karla Jacinto's story is typical of trafficking victims in Mexico. As she met her young pimp's family that day 10 years ago, they immediately began manipulating her. "They told me: 'If we were bad, we would have already raped you and left you out there'," she remembered.
Karla asked to be taken back home to Mexico City. Hours later, the boy relented. He took her to her house at 2:30 in the morning, saying he was going to ask his parents for her hand in marriage.
Angry, her mother refused to open the door. With no other option, she returned to Zacatelco, a 12-year-old girl suddenly in the hands of a family she did not know.
"The first three months everything was fine; affection, love, everything I needed. Then he started to pimp me," Karla said. "He started to hit me and insult me. Beat me with sticks and cables. He even burned me with an iron."
The boy got her pregnant, and forced her to abort twins. She kept a second pregnancy, but was still forced into sex work until she was eight months pregnant. One month after her daughter was born, the child was abducted by the family of her pimp, and Karla was not allowed to see her for a year.
'For love, they'd answer. It was always for love.'
"It is not so easy to get out. Because they threaten your family, they tell you, 'If you do not do this, I will kill your mother first, then your brothers', and so on. And maybe they're lying, but you'll never want to know if it's true or not," she told VICE News.
Finally, when she was 16, Karla Jacinto found herself in Fundación Camino a Casa, a shelter founded by Rosi Orozco, where she spent the next two years recovering.
Karla is now 22 years old and has become an outspoken advocate against the trafficking of women and girls both in Mexico and globally. Last year she was the keynote speaker at an event in Vatican City, before Pope Francis. She now volunteers at the same shelter that took her in.
Jacinto's testimony in May in Washington DC was in support of H.R. 515, also known as the International Megan's Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking. The bill aims to establish a watch center within ICE that would work to monitor travel information from US child-sex offenders and advise countries when these offenders attempt to travel abroad.
In addition, it would attempt to record when US citizens have been arrested, convicted, sentenced, or imprisoned for child sex-offenses while in other countries. H.R. 515 has passed the House of Representatives and is awaiting approval by the US Senate.
"There are a lot of well-off women in prostitution," Jacinto said, noting some women didn't fit the general profile of sex trafficking victims in Mexico. "Some of the girls had college, a position, and I would ask them, 'Hey, why are you here?'" Karla recalled.
"For love, they'd answer. It was always for love."
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Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter @ngjanowitz.