The Miami Herald
Jul. 05, 2002

Inquiry widens in Honduran sex-slave case

  Special to The Herald

  TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - In sleepy, provincial Choluteca, where jobs are scarce and poverty is overwhelming, the arrangement sounded perfect to
  many people. Coyotes, or migrant smugglers, would whisk their daughters across four borders into the United States, where jobs would await them,
  enabling them to pay off their smuggling fees and start sending money home.

  But in May, via their televisions, Cholutecans where shocked to learn what the nature of the arrangement was.

  FBI agents in Fort Worth, Texas, raided a string of bars and residences, rescuing dozens of Honduran women and girls from what U.S. authorities are
  calling a human trafficking and slavery ring. The Hondurans -- mostly from Choluteca and some as young as 14 -- were promised the American Dream, but
  forced to work as prostitutes to pay up to $10,000 in smuggling fees.

  Four Hondurans face U.S. charges in connection with the crime and arrests of suspected members of the trafficking ring are expected in Honduras soon.
  Of some 70 women rescued in the raid, 41 were Hondurans, six of whom were minors. All are still in Texas while federal investigations continue.

  Human rights groups have long been denouncing the trafficking of Honduran women and girls for sexual exploitation in Mexico and Guatemala, but this is
  the first time a case of this size has surfaced in the United States.


  The high-profile Fort Worth raid forced the issue onto the forefront of the Honduran national agenda and focused attention on what many here say is
  both a big and largely overlooked problem.

  ''Every two or three years we have a case like this but in the past it has involved women from Thailand, China or Korea,'' said Joe Banda, the Immigration
  and Naturalization Service representative at the U.S. Embassy here.

  ''I suspect the Fort Worth case could be one of several operations involving Hondurans in the U.S. We have been informed of similar operations in Atlanta,
  Miami and New Orleans,'' added Banda.

  Honduras is a country with a relatively new migration phenomenon compared to its neighbors. As civil wars raged in the 1980s in El Salvador, Guatemala
  and Nicaragua, citizens of those countries fled to the United States to escape the violence. Hondurans didn't migrate in large numbers until the mid-1990s
  -- to escape economic woes.

  When Hurricane Mitch leveled much of the country and its economy in 1998, the flow of Hondurans heading north accelerated. About one million
  Hondurans now live in the United States, most illegally.

  According to the INS' Banda, 5,000 undocumented Honduran migrants are repatriated annually. He estimates that for every illegal immigrant detained,
  nine more slip through. In Mexico, authorities say each month they repatriate as many as 8,000 Hondurans heading north without visas.

  Because the Honduran migration tradition is so new, those who try to migrate illegally from here don't have the support and resource networks of
  relatives already in the United States, as do Salvadorans and Guatemalans. As a result, Hondurans are considered to be the most vulnerable Central
  American migrant group, with women and children being most vulnerable.

  As the migration increases, some smugglers reportedly have developed niche markets to traffic women and girls into prostitution.

  ''There are now enormous movements at the border that we never saw before,'' says Mirta Kennedy, of the Honduran-based Center for Women's
  Studies. ``As the flow grows and as the interest in going to the U.S. grows, so does the possibility that women are trafficked for sexual exploitation.''

  Activists say that while the recent high-profile Texas case has catapulted the issue onto the national agenda here, it is a problem that has existed for
  years. In the past two years, Kennedy says that four studies detected a human trafficking pattern involving Honduran women and children.

  It wasn't until the story broke in Texas that government officials were forced to take it more seriously.

  ''At the level of civil society many people were working on the issue, but not on a government level. The news of what happened in Texas was like a
  wake-up call. We have formed a commission to search for immediate solutions to this problem,'' says Lilian Jiménez, president of the congressional family
  and children committee.


  The attention of the Honduran congress is certain to be welcomed by U.S. authorities.

  The State Department's second annual Trafficking in Persons Report released in June listed Honduras among the countries having made some
  improvements, but said minimum standards to eliminate the trafficking of persons had not been implemented.

  Many hope that the Texas case will make a difference in that situation and increase the awareness about what Banda says is the true nature of the alien
  smuggling business.

  ''The coyotes talk a good game and everyone thinks they are going to go to the U.S., get in without problems, find a great job and start sending lots of
  money home,'' says Banda. ``But most of the time it doesn't work out that way.''