The Drug Cartels’ Sex-Abused Street Kids


ACAPULCO, Mexico — Elena met Rafita a few years ago on the malecón, the breakwater along the port of Acapulco. His shyness and his eyes like the eyes of an injured puppy stole her heart, she remembers.  Tourists were throwing coins off their boats and yachts and they were amazed to see him prance along the dock, then nail a dive that seemed almost impossible in order to retrieve their money.

At night, his body went through a different kind of test, used by rickety gringos or Canadians who paid a pimp to do with it what they wanted.

At the time, Rafita was eight.

He was like many others Elena has seen. He had come from the neighboring state of Morelos to this one, Guerrero, which, by 2015, had the highest homicide rate in Mexico, with 54.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. (By contrast deadly Chicago—“Chi-raq”—has a murder rate of 15.09.) And he had wound up in Acapulco.

Here, the violence has grown steadily worse. Last April 24, the main avenue of the port, the Costera Miguel Alemán, became a battlefield contested for more than two hours by Mexican federal forces and the organized crime cells that control the non-tourist zones of the municipality.

“I told Rafita he could get away from all this, go to our house,” says Elena, a woman who speaks with reticence and suspicion—who asked that her real name not be published because she fears for her life and for those she protects—but who claims to have helped more than 150 child victims of sexual exploitation at the hostel she runs.

“Rafa lived with his biological mother and stepfather,” Elena told us. “It was the stepfather who sexually exploited him and offered him to friends. He was with us two years … and then he returned to his family. His case is the one that has most affected me. I never thought I’d see a child in such vulnerable conditions.”

Since 2000, Elena has been working to rescue as many children as she could. “We decided to help these little ones—help them have a home, an identity, and respect,” she told me. “They wouldn’t be street kids anymore, they’d have a roof over their heads.”  

But something happened in 2007. After the declaration of war on drugs launched by former President Felipe Calderón at the start of his administration, the social climate in Acapulco changed totally. Violence began to increase dramatically, according to figures from INEGI, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (PDF).

Before, there was no war between drug traffickers in the poorer neighborhoods of this warm-water port that was sometimes a world-class tourist destination. Elena and other volunteers could take food to the kids and move about without problems. But now, suddenly, there were shootouts, executions, and decapitations to contend with. In the deadly July of 2015, in less than 30 hours, 14 people were killed.

Thanks to Los Rojos, Los Ardillos and the Cártel Independiente de Acapulco fighting for territory, the municipality got a reputation as “Mexico’s Iraq.” It became the most violent city in the country and the fourth most violent city in the world, according to a study by Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Justice and Criminal Justice.

This profoundly affected the work of Elena and her team at the hostel, who had to dial back their efforts to rescue child victims of sexual exploitation because of the murderous violence in the more remote neighborhoods of the coast.  There were children who ought to have been rescued, she knows, but who were abandoned to their fate.

«What we were doing for the little ones was about finding them, caring for them, giving them shelter and schooling—protecting them and making them good people—that was the purpose,” said Elena, again asking that her name not be used, such is the long reach of the narcos and the terror they impose. In Acapulco today, opening your mouth can have mortal consequences.

There was a time when telling her story might have helped her and her cause, and sometimes she did. But those days are past, and now she speaks only reluctantly, a tinge of sadness mingling with fear.

The cartels wanted the children, she admits finally. They used them as mules to carry drugs, and as lookouts. The children forced into prostitution became another facet of the cartels’ business.

When Elena had first come across Rafita, there seemed so much good that could be done. «He was sort of chubby, short, very shy. That boy filled me with compassion,” she says. But he was drawn back into the world of his parents and of the cartels. “He would be almost an adult today,» said Elena. But she does not see him or hear from him.

“Acapulco today is unrecognizable,” said Elena. “The level of violence is huge. Everyone is afraid and we are held captive in our own state. We are afraid to venture out, and there’s nothing left of the beautiful Acapulco of years past. All of Acapulco, all of the port is the same. It’s war among the narcotraficantes. So we decided to end our operations. I can’t tell you more because in truth my life is in danger. But in seven years, we helped 150 sexually exploited children.”

Rosy Orozco, who leads the civil association Unidos Contra la Trata (United Against Trafficking) and is the former president of the Special Commission to Combat Trafficking in Persons in the Chamber of Deputies, says that, given what these children suffer, the word “prostitution,” which implies a certain level of consent, is deeply misleading.

«There is no child prostitution because no child five or eight years can decide what happens to his body,” she says. “That point is very important because understanding the terminology helps. Children are not prostitutes, they are victims of commercial child sexual exploitation.”

Orozco says that poverty is one of the core reasons the children of Acapulco are so vulnerable. Here, 13.6 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, and the children suffer the most in the poorest communities. She says she is not surprised that now they are sucked into the business of the drug traffickers.

They go from one hell to another, from the nightmare of sexual abuse, to living with hate, ending up part of organized crime as eager, angry children ready to do anything. Many of these victims have suffered sexual aggression so many times, says Orozco, that as they grow up they become victimizers.

«Those who are passive, depressed, often take to drugging themselves until they kill themselves, or drink until they die an early death as alcoholics. No girl or a boy can take this kind of repeated aggression, reducing them to objects, to human merchandise sold 20 or 30 times a day. Unfortunately the people who come from other countries to exploit them are truly bestial.”

At present, here are more than 2,000 children being sexually exploited in Acapulco, according to Orozco, prey to the «vultures» from abroad, as Orozco calls the Americans and Canadians traveling to the port to prey on boys and girls.

«Even if this were in the animal world, we would find it abhorrent, but these are humans with the power to reason,” says Orozco. “They are able to see when a person is weak, but instead of extending a hand, they violate them, they carry them off to hell. I don’t think they have a human heart. I cannot understand what they may have in their soul.”