After a week of hanging out in Mexican brothels, I was no nearer to the story I was investigating on the disappearance of thousands of Honduran women. All the leads pointed to them being trafficked and sold for sex in brothels in Chiapas, Mexico's southern most and poorest state, populated by a disparate mix of smugglers, criminal gangs, drug cartels, rebels, indigenous Indians and illegal migrants. But the working girls were all too scared to talk.
It was the same drill every time we entered a 'cantina'. My translator, producer and I - all females - would walk into the bordello with our male escort and activist, Juan, following us at a discrete distance. Sometimes Juan would introduce us to the girls, pimps and Madams; other times we had to fend for ourselves. The initial reception was always frosty. We weren't good for business and we clearly unsettled the clientele. So we would try to blend in, swigging beers and cracking jokes, hoping the women and punters would accept we were just three wild girls who happened to enjoy getting tanked up at the local brothel.
Mexican brothels aren't the prettiest of places, especially not on payday when bottles of beer and tequila are being chugged down. Men in cowboy hats and jeans stagger to plastic tables and beckon girls over. In buttock-skimming skirts and Perspex heels the girls exchange pleasantries then get to the business of prices and boundaries. The couple disappears for ten minutes, and then it happens all over again.
When the girls approached us, they were curious and welcoming of any non-sexual attention. Nearly all the working girls in all the brothels we visited were Honduran, renowned in the region for their striking beauty, long legs, juicy bottoms and big breasts. They are the punters favourite. I would gently tell them why I was really there - I was a journalist on the hunt for a story - but the moment I steered the subject towards sex trafficking they shut down. Some tried to communicate with their eyes, widening them and slowly nodding their heads; some whispered that yes, girls were being bought and sold. But they couldn't tell me any more because they were being watched. I would scribble down my phone number and subtly hand it over.
In a more downmarket brothel, which consisted of over thirty tiny, windowless rooms around a courtyard in which the girls lived, slept, ate and worked, I waited my turn as a long queue of men waited to be serviced. Business was booming and brisk. Doors banged opened and shut, women in towels lined up for their post-coital douches. In between tricks, an older working girl with bleached blonde hair and an overhanging belly ushered me in to her cubicle. The sharp smell of semen and beer hung in the air. A neat stack of clothes and a few trinkets were tucked in the corner of the room - her life in a pile. A frayed and faded poster of Jesus looked down on the dirty foam mattress. "You got to watch out", she said, "these brothels are run by crazies, they're now selling young meat from central America and nearly all the woman that end up here were trafficked at one time or another. Good luck getting someone to tell you more, it's a dangerous business to talk."
And then our time was up, she had fatherless kids to feed.
But slowly, the phone calls started to trickle in. Soft, tentative voices murmured they wanted to meet, far away from the bars and brothels where no one could see them. We'd meet in safe houses, in hotel rooms and restaurants and the stories would tumble out, stories that were nearly always the same, of trickery, kidnap, rape and torture.
I met Ashley in the countryside. She was 16 years old when a well-dress woman offered her a job as a waitress abroad. It's not unusual for young Hondurans to jump at a chance of leaving - since a military coup three years ago, the economy has collapsed, gangs and drug cartels have taken hold and the UN recently declared Honduras the most murderous place on earth.
When Ashley arrived in Mexico, she was taken to a house full of other young Honduran girls and at that moment she realised she'd been sold. In a trembling voice she recounted how she was kept under lock and key for two years and repeatedly raped. She finally managed to escape when the brothel's cook took pity on her and helped her call the Honduran Consulate - she was too scared to call the police as she says they were regular clients.
The Honduran Consul in Mexico who had helped rescue Ashley, told me the Mexican authorities receive hundreds of calls from Honduran women claiming they have been sold. In a country ravaged by crime and corruption, unsurprisingly very little is being done to help these women, who are simply overshadowed by the war on drugs. Yet many think the drug cartels are responsible. Facing increasing pressure, the cartels are starting to diversify, and sex trafficking is big business. It's estimated that the trafficking of women and girls turns over $16 billion a year in Latin America and has now overtaken arms to be the second most lucrative illicit trade after drugs in the region.
For all the girls I spoke to like Ashley, help comes too late. Crippled by depression, Ashley spends her days drinking to forget. She is too ashamed to return home to Honduras. And I discovered it is that shame that keeps these girls hidden from their families and from the world - too ashamed to seek help, too ashamed to go home. Once they've broken you in, Ashley told me, there's no turning back.
Unreported World, Honduras: The Lost Girls, will be on Channel 4 tonight, Friday 8 June, at 7.30pm.
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