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The Dark Truth of Mexico's "Pimp City" That Traffics Girls to New York
The Tenancingo to USA prostitution pipeline is genuinely horrific. Yet there's a lot of smoke and mirrors around such an abhorrent crime as "sex slavery."
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It’s told there is a ritual among the pimps of Tenancingo that when a son is born his umbilical cord is displayed for a month under the moonlight while his penis is left unwashed. When the lunar cycle closes, the grease and muck that has built up under his foreskin is rubbed into his belly button during a ceremony; the connection of mother to child through the umbilical cord is replaced by a connection of man to woman through the penis, which will give him power to control them.
It’s hard to verify if pimps really keep up this tradition, which journalist Humberto Padgett documented. Yet either way, the story reveals much about how the small town of Tenancingo, a two-hour drive from Mexico City, is perceived. Reports have called it “Pimp City” and claimed that one in ten of the 13,000 residents work in the sex trade, with others saying it’s as many as a quarter (I examine these numbers below). The pimping tradition is passed down through families and celebrated in a local carnival where men dress in menacing masks and crack whips.
More pertinently, U.S. courts have convicted more than fifty Tenancingo men for trafficking women and underage girls to sell for sex in the United States, especially New York City. Others are still at large and the town produces a startlingly high proportion of ICE’s most-wanted sex traffickers. Women have testified to being entrapped by men who profess to love them but then burn them with irons, beat them until they have miscarriages, and sell them for sex thousands of times on the street, in motels and out of trailers.
At a 2022 sentencing hearing in New York, a victim identified as Delia confronted her abuser Francisco Meléndez Pérez. She had been seduced by the Tenancingo pimp at 13 and forced into the New York sex trade at 14. He once beat her so badly, she needed jaw surgery. “Francisco, I hope that you go to hell because that is where you put me,” she told him in front of the court. “While that is in God’s hands, I ask the court to give Francisco Meléndez Pérez the harshest sentence possible for what he did to me and to the other victims.” (He got 25 years).
Forcing teenage girls into sex slavery is one of the most horrific of all crimes and justifiably provokes a visceral reaction. It’s a vital issue that I will follow in this newsletter which focuses on organized crime and drugs. Yet there can be confusion, bad information and at times mass panics around such an emotive offense.
One issue is that people can conflate the much smaller number of human trafficking cases, which is when people cross the border to work under coercion, with the much larger business of human smuggling, in which people willingly pay “coyotes” to take them north. Some activists also classify all cases of prostitution as sex slavery cutting into a deeper debate about whether prostitution itself should be abolished (and if that is possible) or kept in a grey area or fully legalized.
We need to better document what is really going on and its scale so the most abhorrent crimes can be fought effectively. Unlike the vast drug trade, which is very hard to combat, I believe the concrete cases of sex trafficking could be massively reduced with effective law enforcement.
Tenancingo is a genuine ground zero for sex trafficking in Mexico and leaves a trail of deeply-scarred victims. Yet we need to be careful of projecting the crimes there as representative of what happens across the whole country and there are questions about how the racket really functions.
“Tenancingo is a phenomenon. There is a very high number of people engaged in this activity,” says Juan Alberto Vázquez, author of a new book called Los Padrotes de Tlaxcala, or Pimps of Tlaxcala (the state that Tenancingo is in). “You have these main clans of extended families with several generations. They act like family companies where the mothers, the sisters, even the girlfriends are involved in the trafficking. ”
The Walled City
The name Tenancingo comes from the indigenous Nahuatl tongue and roughly means “important fortress,” but is commonly translated as “walled city.” People in the state of Tlaxcala spoke the same language as the Aztecs but they famously allied with the Spanish against them. Today, Nahuatl is largely forgotten, although Tenancingo has deep indigenous roots.
Various TV crews including Fox News and CNN have gone to investigate Tenancingo’s sex trade and been threatened and chased out of the city. So when I went in August, I kept a low profile, discreetly taking photos and talking to people.
Tenancingo contrasts with Mexico’s hardcore narco towns such as La Tuna, Sinaloa (home of El Chapo) or Agulilla, Michoacán (home of El Mencho). While La Tuna is on a dirt road in the mountains and has gunmen openly guarding it, Tenancingo is close to the capital and just 20 minutes from the thriving city of Puebla. There are no obvious triggermen on the road, although word of outsiders can quickly go round the close-knit community.
In many ways, Tenancingo resembles other working class towns in central Mexico. Buses and cars crawl down cheaply-paved streets past walls painted with ads for political candidates and cumbia concerts. A central plaza surrounds a church with stalls cooking giant quesadillas unleashing clouds of smoke with the scent of chili.
The pimps are known as padrotes, a rather twisted term as it plays on the word for father. They leave scattered visual signs around town. Motels painted in pink offer two-hour stays; the Tenancingo sex trade begins at home, catering to men from the area and truck drivers en route to the capital. A few flashy cars of likely padrotes circle the plaza blasting beats.
Much has been made of “mansions” the sex trade has built. But the ostentatious dwellings are more like large houses with walls and pillars that stand out in a poor area yet are a long way from the homes of the super rich. Claims the traffic brings a billion dollars annually to the town, repeated in Wikipedia, are surely vastly exaggerated.
Sex trafficking in Tenancingo was first exposed by Tlaxcala’s Fray Julián Garcés Human Rights Center in the early 2000s. A center coordinator, Emilio Muñoz, says the padrotes make cash but within limits. “Compared to the socioeconomic level of the region, they have more money, but they are not millionaires. They do have luxury cars that local workers don’t have, and constructions with a higher value. But they don’t have the power of the big drug traffickers.”
Still, Muñoz says, the padrotes are big players in a small town with power and status that youngsters look up to. In 2010, sociology students from Tlaxcala’s state university conducted a questionnaire in Tenancingo schools, asking boys directly if they wanted to be padrotes. A full 26 percent said yes. While that is a loaded question, it’s still alarming.
Muñoz says the figure of 10 percent working in the sex trade is difficult to prove but could well be true. In addition to padrotes, there are drivers, look outs, money launderers, cooks, messengers and others keeping the racket going. The money from the violent exploitation of its victims is divided among many hands.
The Dark Art of Recruiting Victims
Local anthropologist Oscar Montiel studied the growth of the Tenancingo padrotes, tracing it to the 1970s when industrial development and new roads took men to work in Mexico City where they learned about the sex trade. But the harsh treatment of women also echoes older rural practices such as “robbing brides.”
The padrotes have developed a modus operandi of traveling to towns in poor Mexican states such as Puebla, Veracruz and Chiapas, and finding vulnerable girls. They flash their cars and jewellery and seduce them. In some cases, they spend months grooming them but in others it’s only days.
Several years ago, I interviewed a victim who had been recruited in a her hometown in Veracruz when she was 16. Marcela was beautiful and articulate and I found it hard to imagine how she could be so badly tricked. But the padrotes are adept at controlling their victims through emotional manipulation. Marcela’s abuser promised her a comfortable life in a big home and then sold her for sex in La Merced area of Mexico City. “When it was happening, I just blocked it out, as it was so painful,” she said. Marcela was rescued in a police raid after a week while many victims are abused for years.
About a quarter of the women that police rescue from sex trafficking in Tlaxcala are under 18; in 2021, it was 11 out of 48. Furthermore, many of the adults rescued may have been recruited as teenagers. The former victim Karla Jacinto, who has become an activist against trafficking, was recruited at 12. The padrotes use violence and threats against the girls and their families to keep them working. But they also send groceries to parents, and still insist to girls they love them and in some cases have children with them. This makes it tougher to recognize victims and to convince them to testify.
The Tenancingo padrotes utilize La Merced in Mexico City as a base for their prostitution. It’s a sprawling marketplace in the historic center with canvas-covered stalls next to dilapidated buildings, and rows of trendy sneakers close to smelly heaps of osyters and piles of garbage. Scantily-clad women line up by a fence opposite a row of shops, looking into their cellphones and holding up umbrellas.
The girls and women are sold for sex in La Merced for as little as 200 pesos or 12 dollars but the padrotes can make more than four times that in the United States. They often lure girls on the journey north with a promise of work and when they have them in a house without papers force them into prostitution. The padrotes can slip over the Rio Grande by paying human smugglers, who in turn work with the cartels that control the southern side of the border.
Tenancingo padrotes set up in U.S. cities including Houston and Atlanta but New York is their biggest hub. The author Juan Alberto, who now lives in Brooklyn, investigated how the prostitution network functions in the Big Apple. “In New York there is ample demand. Many of the padrotes live in Queens and they have drivers who have long lists of clients. They take the girls to private houses. Or they take them to Connecticut, where are there is a character with a brothel in a house or another in a trailer. Or they take them to Pennsylvania or other nearby states for a few days.”
The drivers and padrotes divide the money but the girls make next to nothing. “They just give them food and a place to live. That is why they are slaves.”
Ending The Nightmare
So what is the scale of this “modern day slavery”? As with all organized crime rackets, its clandestine nature means we can’t be sure. Yet we have clues.
The annual report of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) says they rescued 765 victims of human trafficking in 2022. However, they say about 80 percent of their cases are of forced labor (which can mean underage workers in fields) so less than 200 would likely be sex trafficking victims.
There are of course many victims that aren’t rescued. Still, HSI appears to put a lot of resources and agents into fighting this crime, as it should. Victims are also recruited inside the United States itself. But even taking this into account, it looks more likely there are thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of victims on U.S. soil.
Yet the crime does continue, and the padrotes wouldn’t do it unless they kept making money. For it to be stamped out then policing would need to be more effective still. A big part of the problem lies in Tlaxcala. The padrotes have influence at a town and state level, likely buying off police and other officials. The human rights defender Muñoz says that between 2017 and 2022, Tlaxcala investigators opened 52 files on padrotes, but only one has led to a prison sentence.
Three things are needed to smash the trade, Muñoz argues: more prevention work teaching girls to avoid the padrotes; better support for victims; and stronger prosecutions. People need to exert pressure to make these things happen, he says. “Governments come and go. But we need the communities to become conscious and demand these issues are dealt with.”
These local measures make sense. But Mexico’s federal government could also go after the Tenancingo padrotes harder. There’s a lot of public anger about the crime and in 2007, Mexico’s Congress approved a tough federal law against human trafficking.
A problem is that Mexican police use the conflation of human trafficking with all prostitution to go after easy targets. Cops can raid strip clubs and round up sex workers in red light zones en masse, sometimes to extract bribes, rather than doing the difficult investigations to save the real victims.
The issue of the broader sex trade is complex. But it’s important to focus on the clear-cut cases of the most abhorrent sex slavery. If you collected strong evidence on the prostitution of girls who are under 18 and of those who suffer clearly violent coercion, Mexican federal agents could smash the padrotes of Tenancingo with the same force they have taken down certain cartel kingpins.
This is a reader-supported newsletter, which means I work like a nutcase to bring you these stories because I love it - and some of you stars make it happen. To get the new stories and give support, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Copyright Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023. Photos 1 and 6 are from TV report Mexico City Vice, by Ioan Grillo and John Dickie 2009, other photos are by Ioan Grillo 2023