SAN MIGUEL ACATAN, Guatemala — Bedtime comes when the sun leaves. Candlesticks flicker in the night like lightning bugs in the absence of electric power.
Branches stripped straight from trees balance a sheet-metal roof that looks ready to buckle under the pelting rain. It sounds like a tin can being smacked by BBs.
The one-room shanty sleeps six — a pair in each of three wooden beds.
The rambling, mountain countryside flecked with yellow flowers would be more beautiful if you knew people could bear life here. People in these remote western highlands that hem Mexico sweat to make about $4 a day toiling in fields of corn or cardamom, a spice.
Boys shy of ages in double digits grab machetes to work because the dollar or two they can earn means more to their families than school. Girls haul firewood on their backs at the very age when doctors say their pre-adolescent bodies are most vulnerable.
Young people and adults dream of making the trip to the United States to shake their poverty as farming has become a less feasible way to eke by here.
This quiet spot with mountain views is where questions begin. It’s the home of a victim at the core of a Southwest Florida human trafficking case stirring U.S. and Guatemalan leaders to respond. They believe this horrific crime has been pulsing across their borders for years.
Trafficking’s tentacles are stretching to Guatemalan villages to pluck the poorest and most powerless from their homes: children.
In the last year, investigators and victims’ advocates have eyed three cases with Southwest Florida ties involving young girls from Guatemala.
Two lived in these highlands.
Trying to mine reasons why the slave trade thrives between Southwest Florida and Guatemala feels like getting stuck in a spider web. It’s sticky, messy and connected. It’s poverty. It’s migration. It’s smuggling. It’s exploitation. It’s globalization and other ’ations and ’isms that are nebulous even in college textbooks.
“It’s like getting a box of puzzles and you don’t even have a picture to guide you where the pieces go,” said Sister Rachel Sena, director of the Maya Ministry, established in the early 1990s with the Diocese of Palm Beach.
“This whole trafficking piece is a new piece for us as a country and new piece of needed awareness. What we’re seeing in our neighborhoods are not just strangers passing through but a group of enslaved people.”
Roots to three cases
Photos of a now 15-year-old girl are guarded in a blue handmade chest in this shack in the town of San Miguel Acatán.
She is the victim now in American courts with details that make mothers hug their daughters tightly, motivate bureaucrats and move documentary filmmakers to lenses.
She found hell in Southwest Florida. She said she was kept as a slave.
- PODCAST: Hear Naples Daily News reporter Janine Zeitlin and photographer David Ahntholz discuss their experience in Guatemala covering human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear a woman discuss her experience as a victim of human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear José Antonio discuss his experiences with trafficking in the United States
- PHOTO GALLERY: Human trafficking
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Feb. 1, 2006: PDF | JPG
- RELATED: Barriers numerous in detecting slavery victims (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Leading authorities (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Message to the region's churches: 'Set captives free' (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Casting light in the darkness (02-01-06)
- ON THE WEB: Read more stories in the four-day series on human trafficking in Southwest Florida
Three Guatemalan adults were arrested on federal human trafficking charges in May, accused of plucking the girl from this spot and smuggling and enslaving her in Southwest Florida.
They kept her in a Cape Coral house, she said, and forced her to wake at 4 a.m. to cook. Men raped and beat her. She wasn’t allowed to use the phone. Talk to no one, she was told.
She is now in protective care in Lee County with her 2-year-old son, learning English and going to high school.
Her horrors started within the flimsy walls in this Guatemala home, the girl told an FBI agent in May. At a tender 11, she was raped and beaten by her stepfather’s driver, 19-year-old Fernando Pascual, she said. Her stepfather and mother sold her to Pascual for 2,000 quetzales — about $264, she said.
Pascual, now 21, made her move to the United States, she said.
Her family tells a different story: They fell in love.
He started sleeping in this shack to take her stepfather, a Mayan witch doctor, to early morning appointments. The two shared a bed and began inching closer. They shared candy and tickled each other when adults weren’t looking.
She was happy to go north, they say.
About 10 miles away is San Rafael La Independencia — so cozy the towns share a priest. The home of a second possible Southwest Florida trafficking victim, now 17 and living in Lee protective care with her 3-year-old son, is wedged among corn stalks.
Photo by Chad Yoder // Buy this photo
Her parents shipped the girl off at about 12 to cross the border to help support her family of eight by working in a Florida nursery with her father.
A small counter holds gum, guacamole chips and Cokes the family sells to people who pass on a gravel road.
The family sleeps in rooms tucked behind where holes in the ceiling reveal clothes hanging to dry against the backdrop of sky.
The girl’s child is from a now 23-year-old man. In July, the man was arrested on a warrant charging him with sexual battery. She became pregnant with her son when she was 12. The man was 18. A victims’ advocate is eyeing the case for trafficking and the prospect her father gave or sold her to a man who raped her in Lake Worth on Florida’s east coast.
Her father, Tomas, 37, who returned to San Rafael La Independencia more than a year ago, said he didn’t realize what was happening in the Lake Worth home.
“I trusted him. She didn’t tell me anything. When I found out, ‘I thought, ‘It can’t be,’” said Tomas, whose last name isn’t being published because it is the same as the 17-year-old.
He said he was too ashamed to report it to authorities because he said the man is his brother, though the girl told a victims’ advocate they aren’t related.
A third Guatemalan girl who said she was 12 at the time was brought to a Fort Myers youth shelter in fall 2004.
Barely able to speak Spanish, the girl from another mountain town told shelter officials her family sold her to an Immokalee man who used her as a domestic and sex slave.
The girl stayed at the shelter until February 2005 and is now in foster care in Miami, shelter officials said.
Starling Hendriks, a Naples attorney who helped the girl get assistance, said there’s “no doubt” her client is a trafficking victim.
The FBI was investigating, she said, but hasn’t told her about criminal charges.
“It’s kind of surprising given we live in such an affluent community. When you tell somebody you represent a trafficking victim, they say, ‘Are you kidding me? I thought this only happened in Miami,’”
The head and founder of Collier County-based the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Anna Rodriguez, said she’s seeing more and more victims getting shuttled here from Guatemala.
“Guatemala is No. 1 right now,” she said.
Where poverty reigns
The region from where two believed victims hail is at least seven hours from Guatemala City, stranded by roads many would consider paths. Residents pack into mini-buses or stand in flatbeds of dusty Toyota pickup trucks that shuttle them to villages or larger cities.
It’s not known where in Guatemala the third possible victim is from.
Hometowns of the pair of girls who now live in Lee are in Huehuetenango, a sprawling, underdeveloped state that’s home to mostly indigenous people.
There, shoes and going to high school are luxuries.
Many children ditch school after the sixth grade. Some towns in this state are so far-flung that people must tune to radios to hear if they have mail. If their names are called, they must catch a bus to pick up the letter or parcel that arrived hours away in a larger town.
In San Miguel Acatán, there’s a police station but it doesn’t have a phone.
People die without knowing what they’re sick from.
They pin hopes for recovery on Mayan witch doctors to whom they owe thousands of quetzales that they don’t have.
Residents in these Mayan villages are sequestered to a life of domestic labor or field work. When town leaders are asked about jobs, they look at each other like, “Is she serious?” and chortle at the stranger in the room who asked.
There are none, they say. Haven’t been for decades.
The country is split between the few who have and the more who don’t and those who have the least usually have the darkest skin.
Per capita purchasing power is $4,000. An estimated 75 percent of the population in this country, many of them indigenous Mayan people, live below the poverty line.
A parent who would sell their preteen daughter to a man conjures images of a snaggletooth, hunched-back character lurking in the shadows of a child’s fairy tale.
But here, it’s not unfathomable.
Brute poverty shoves people to do what it takes to survive, U.S. and Guatemala relief workers say.
“If somebody has eight children and she’s totally desperate and she can’t feed them and has this burden, this huge burden and somebody comes along and offers her $200 (for a child), maybe she believes them that they will have more opportunities. Two, she’s going to get $200 and everybody’s going to eat,” said Vivian Stromberg, MADRE’s executive director.
MADRE, a New York-based women’s human rights organization, has worked in Huehuetenango since 1989 on development projects.
Two possible Southwest Florida victims told officials their parents sold them.
At 31, Isabela Pascual, the mother of the 15-year-old victim from San Miguel Acatán, looks barely older than 21 and an unlikely trafficker.
She cocks her head and giggles, flicking a ponytail held by a rainbow-colored ribbon over her shoulder in her family’s shack in Guatemala.
She chuckles off her daughter’s claim that she sold her, saying, “pure lies.”
Pascual said the girl was in a common-law marriage with Fernando Pascual. Health workers say that, while such relationships come early in these towns, most teens don’t shack up until they’re 15. The girl was 11.
Residents here say they’ve heard reports of parents in dire financial straits selling their children for cash.
The head of a language center that studies Mayan cultures in the two villages said his neighbor harbors seven girls in his house. Whispers surge that he sells them in the United States.
A nearby village is known as a spot where fathers have hawked their daughters for livestock, money or cars — the virgins going for a higher asking price — but residents say the practice stopped decades ago.
“It was true. My grandfather sold my aunt for a sheep,” said Miguel Sebastian Sebastian, a pastor at an evangelical church in San Miguel Acatán and native of the town, with a believe-it grin.
Putting a “For Sale” sticker on a child’s head offends traditional morals here too, residents and experts say.
Mayan people in this region are so protective of their children that a mob of hundreds of villagers beat a Japanese tourist and his Guatemalan bus driver to death when the tourist approached a child in 2000.
Rumors that foreigners were stealing children swirled at the time. Guatemalan travel guides recommend asking permission before clicking a snapshot of a Mayan child.
Allan Burns, a University of Florida anthropology professor who has studied Mayan culture for three decades, is wary when he hears of Mayans selling their children.
He served as an expert witness in a Lake Worth trial of a girl from San Miguel Acatán in which authorities said the girl killed her premature newborn.
“Mayan people in general have an incredible love of their children and incredible care for them and will do far, far more than what they’re expected,” he said.
“Those bonds are pretty strong, but the world is complicated.”
Home in Guatemala
The families of two girls with Southwest Florida ties were glad to see their young daughters make the trip to the United States, despite dangers they knew they could face.
Their lives would be better, they said.
Isabela Pascual uses a candle to guide her to a blue chest in her home on a summer night in San Miguel Acatán.
She became pregnant with the girl at 13 and later split with the girl’s father. The girl told authorities she didn’t know her father.
Pascual’s two daughters still in Guatemala, ages 5 and 9, emerge from a small concrete building latched to their shack where coal burns to create steam that fills the home with a musky, frontier smell. This is how they bathe without running water.
The girls trail closely behind their mother, clinging to each other and rubbing their eyes to show they’re ready for bed.
This is where the girl now living in Lee county used to sweep floors and cook on the outdoor stone stove, her mother said. Pascual extracts a small photo album and points to a protected Polaroid.
It was the day before the girl left for los estados.
“She said, ‘Mommy, let’s take a picture together because I’m going north tomorrow,’” Pascual said, referring to the United States and pointing to the photo.
Neither one is smiling in the photo, but Isabela Pascual insists her daughter was excited.
“I cried, but she didn’t even cry when she left.”
Her daughter never contacted her again, she said.
The 15-year-old girl told authorities Pascual forced her to leave Guatemala through Mexico and cross the border into Arizona.
Her mother would call Cape Coral demanding money and he’d send checks via mail to Guatemala, the girl told federal agents.
Cradling a 3-month-old, Micaela Sebastian, the 36-year-old mother of the 17-year-old, said she and her husband decided to send the girl away for the benefit of the family. The girl still sends money back.
“She went for her little brothers and sisters,” she said in Kanjobal, one of the 20-plus Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. “She went for the well-being of the house.”
Their next oldest girl is 11. They may send her soon.
“Now she’s studying and will look for work that’s not as brutal,” said Tomas, her father. “Here there’s no work. You can only do construction, clean or harvest corn. It’s not enough to make a home.”
Trafficking fits in a larger script of migration.
Guatemalans who have been to the United States often know enough about both countries to exploit it.
“As horrendous as these particular cases are, they’re part of a larger migration problem that allows for this exploitation,” UF’s Burns said. “Migration is (occurring) a lot younger than people realize and that some of these young children are naive and exploitable is not a big surprise.”
Children as young as 10 from this region are now hopping the borders alone, residents say. It’s not rare to find 12- and 13-year-olds traveling in a Central American migrant corridor that flows from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador with the U.S. as the final destination, experts say.
They’re among the most vulnerable to human trafficking.
Parents are often blind to dangers they could face along the way. They instead think of the money they could see returned.
“The sacrifice of letting their children go has its reward. The mother and the father don’t stop to think of the danger and the consequences their children could live along the way and once there,” said César Reyes, director of PRONICE, a nonprofit group based in Guatemala City.
PRONICE, a child advocacy group that in Spanish stands for pro-Central American boys and girls, educates adults about issues facing children, including trafficking.
Across the miles
Clusters of women with brown braids whisper over candles they light in corners at the Catholic church in San Miguel Acatán. Benches are soft from use.
Many pray for the safety of relatives in the United States.
The waxy smell spreads to the plaza steps away, where signs of the region’s switch from traditional Mayan village to United States culture is clear.
Boys swagger with a hint of East Los Angeles.
Mini-buses are tagged: this way to the north, meaning the United States.
A CD seller cranks “El Mojado,” slang for illegal immigrant, a song about the trade-off of happiness for money when one migrates.
In an office overlooking the plaza, Francisco Gaspar Francisco Bartolo, the 53-year-old vice mayor, shakes his head in disgust at the town he sees below this Sunday.
“We’ve already lost 100 percent of culture. They don’t speak the language. They speak English,” he said, referring to Mayan languages, Akateko or Kanjobal, native to that town.
People started leaving Huehuetenango in droves during the late 1970s and early 1980s when this region was wracked by violence from the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. Residents are still haunted by memories of corpses in the streets and shoot suspicion at visitors.
“The stream of immigrants really started around 1980 or 1981 when a labor contractor brought some Kanjobal Mayans to Southeast Florida,” Burns said. “It quickly spread to Immokalee, Naples and they’re now throughout the state.”
Many young Guatemalans are without guidance because grandparents or parents are working in the United States or were killed in the civil war, experts say.
“There’s very little support for the Mayan families to hold these core family values. . . Wisdom folks are gone,” said Sena, of the Maya Ministry. “Now we see in these aldeas like San Miguel, a generation of youth lost.”
And the rush north hasn’t stopped — town leaders estimate at least 30 percent of the town and the surrounding sprawl’s estimated 30,000 people migrate to Mexico or the United States.
The path is so well-trodden it’s easy to meet a Mayan in these villages who knows of Southwest Florida or has lived there, including a waiter who ran airboats in Everglades City.
Huehuetenango, the state that’s home to the villages, shares the second highest percentage of Guatemalans benefiting from money sent to the country, per the International Organization for Migration, which has studied and assisted migrants since the 1950s.
Florida houses an estimated 29,000 people from Huehuetenango, the organization’s Guatemala office said in a September 2005 survey. Almost $100 million was sent from Florida to Huehuetenango in 2005.
A Daily News 2005 review of more than 300 remittances from a Collier County money wire transfer business showed the most often repeated destination was Huehuetenango.
About 17 percent of all money orders leaving Southwest Florida for Latin America headed to Huehuetenango.
Preying on the poor
Human smugglers, or coyotes, started tapping these Guatemala mountain towns in the early 1980s with the voracity of a frat boy at a keg party.
People from this region blame the increase of human trafficking between their homes and Southwest Florida on migration.
They say most of their community’s problems such as the surge in violence in their homes and streets stem from the erosion of Mayan values as more and more people leave.
Those who return often bring the worst back, residents say.
“They learn it other places and they come back to practice it here,” said Sebastian, the church pastor.
“They don’t respect civil law. They don’t respect their parents. They don’t respect the religious authorities. They don’t respect God.”
Smuggling businesses have evolved to the sophistication of a Silicon Valley conglomerate.
“It’s not like the 1950s, where one guy was crossing the border,” UF’s Burns said. “These are like corporations almost with 20 to 30 people.”
Recruiters are employed as middle men to find people mesmerized by the American Dream and anxious for a way to the United States.
The going rate to get smuggled to the United States is $5,000 — more than what most Guatemalans spend in a year — not counting interest.
A person pays a smuggler to get them across the Mexican border and connects them with a coyote who sneaks them into Arizona, residents say. Once in the United States, some migrants are told to make regular deposits in specific bank accounts while others are told to expect a visit at the doorstep months later for collection of their debt.
Smugglers in Guatemala target the most vulnerable: children.
“Coyotes put more fantasies in the heads of young people,” said Bartolo, San Miguel Acatán’s vice mayor.
“There’s money. There’s women. There’s carnal paradise.”
Rodriguez, of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said she learned during an October 2005 trip to Guatemala that even school teachers are now recruiting children to go to the United States.
Many say this region is one of the easiest to slip from, which makes the smuggling business more profitable. Residents in Huehuetenango border towns can enter Mexico on a visa for a limited time and overstay, then hook up with coyotes to smuggle them to the United States.
People pass through puntos ciegos, or blind spots without guards.
There are at least 12 unguarded miles in one of the state’s border towns, said Edgar Josúe Meoño, the police chief in the city Huehuetenango, the capital of the state.
“There, there’s no control whatsoever. Not to the north. Not to the south,” he said. “There’s not sufficient resources.”
Smuggling can twist into a trafficking case if the coyote doesn’t unleash the person they led across the borders to work off the accrued debt upon arrival in the United States.
Trafficking: ‘Need to wake up’
Grasping the breadth of the slave trade from rural Guatemala is like trying to sketch a map of the Bermuda Triangle. No one seems to know how deep it goes or how to find it.
The U.S. Department of State, in its June 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, classifies Guatemala as a source, transit and destination country for victims trafficked into the United States.
“We don’t have concrete data about this phenomenon that we know is increasing year by year,” said Father Mauro v’erzeletti, a shelter director for Casa del Migrante, an organization that runs migrant shelters on Guatemala’s and Mexico’s borders.
“The victims still fall into an abyss. No one is getting to them,” he said. “The governments need to wake up to this serious reality and start to do something.”
Nearly half of 1,400 children who passed through a shelter on the border of Guatemala and Mexico in 2004 were trafficking victims, according to Lucrecia Oliva, Catholic Relief Services’ lead on migration issues.
The international aid group in Guatemala supports the shelters.
And there are victims in Guatemala as well.
A U.N. estimate said 2,000 children, many of them trafficking victims, are being sexually exploited in Guatemala City alone.
Corruption infests the government agencies that are supposed to investigate and prosecute trafficking, Guatemala’s child advocates say.
“The police don’t investigate. Systems of justice don’t exist. We have a justice system totally dominated by special interests that don’t look out for the common good of society,” pastor v’erzeletti said.
Guatemalan government officials admit they are rounds behind the fight that the traffickers are now clearly winning. But they’re trying, they say.
“You hardly ever heard of the situation before last year, actually. There wasn’t a conscious idea of what it meant, even within the authorities who were supposed to be fighting it,” said Marta Altolaguirre, a vice minister of foreign affairs for Guatemala.
Altolaguirre was tapped by the government in 2004 to focus on migrant issues.
Nonprofit groups and government agencies have pitched a bevy of reforms to combat trafficking, she said. One became law early this year.
Punishment is now up to 12 years in prison. Before, traffickers could slither by paying 530 quetzals, about $70, and spend a maximum of three years in prison, officials say. Most walked free, though, Guatemala’s child advocates say. And still do.
The problem seeps deeper than the country’s pocketbook to fight it, government leaders said.
“We don’t have human resources and financial resources to do what we want to do,” Altolaguirre said.
“Guatemala has had so many difficulties. We had to start by what was more urgent.”
She’d like to see lessons about human trafficking taught in grade schools and is working with UNICEF to develop a network of radio stations to warn about migration dangers.
The government talks about fighting trafficking but hasn’t funneled money to the cause, said Oliva of Catholic Relief Services.
Guatemala has signed international treaties to combat trafficking but focuses on commercial interests instead, she said.
“On the issue of human trafficking, OK, we’ve already signed this international treaty and ratified that agreement, but the resources, where are they?” she said.
Maria Villarreal, director of Guatemala’s office of ECPAT International, said there’s not an easy solution to human trafficking because there are so many layers to the problem.
ECPAT stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes and is a nonprofit network in 67 countries.
The organization started training Guatemala’s 18,000 police officers about how to spot human trafficking victims last year, Villarreal said.
“It’s an increasing and dynamic problem, and now the authorities and the human rights groups are very scared because we can’t control this issue,” she said.