On the surface, Tenancingo looks like any other small Mexican city. Situated partway between Mexico City and Veracruz, Tenancingo is full of extended families, children celebrating birthdays in parks, and busy public markets. But Tenancingo has a secret industry which is both hidden and known by many — the forced prostitution of women which has kept the town alive for three generations. Here’s how one Mexican town became a petri dish for sex trafficking.
Tenancingo has thrived as a center for sex trafficking for so many years because of several factors which have come together to help forced prostitution flourish. First, Tenancingo has a large supply of vulnerable women and girls. The town was industrialized at the end of the 19th century, but almost all industry has now vanished, leaving a thick layer of poverty and a lack of good jobs. The people of Tenancingo are also mostly Indians, and indigenous people are often more vulnerable to human trafficking than others because of the additional social and economic oppressions they face. Tenancingo (like many other towns in Mexico) also has cultural traditions of “machismo,” bride kidnapping, and forced marriage, and other gender-unequal customs. These traditions have grown into an “understanding” among men that they allow each other to subjugate women without interference.
Another reason sex trafficking thrives in Tenancingo is the complete lack of desire to address the issue by local authorities. According to town council member Maximino Ramirez, “In this day and age, in the 21st century, are you going to tell me that a woman of 18 or 20 can be tricked? Maybe they went into (prostitution) of their own free will, and then after a while, they say: You know what? They forced me to.”
The attitude that adult women can’t be forced, coerced, or tricked into prostitution means that local law enforcement won’t recognize trafficking victims and won’t even be looking for them in the first place.
But even with a large number of vulnerable women, a culture of misogyny and silence, and a lack of acknowledgment from local authorities, sex trafficking wouldn’t exist in Tenancingo if there was no money to be made in it. But there is money to be made, because a couple hundred miles away in Mexico City, there’s a large market of men wanting to pay for sex. And a little farther away across the U.S. border, there are even more. For one victim from Tenancingo, that number was 40-50 men a night buying her in America. Sex trafficking is so profitable in Tenancingo, that at least one anthropologist estimates that almost a third of the town is involved in the trade at some level.
Tenancingo is a great example of what happens when factors like poverty, inequality, and a “good old boy” mentality come together. But the market for sex trafficking victims is ultimately what drives the pimps of Tenancingo. And the rest of the pimps in the world.