The home of human trafficking

A new investigative series asks why so many modern-day slaves are from Guatemala.

Published February 2, 2006 3:02PM (EST)

By now, most have us have read enough news stories to know where young trafficking victims end up: in crowded rooms with stained mattresses and locked doors, forced to toil in fields and factories as laborers, in private homes as domestic servants, and in motels and basements as indentured sex slaves.

But a lengthy new series in the Naples (Fla.) Daily News turns the trafficking equation around, asking instead, 'Where do these victims come from?' The answer, to a surprising degree, seems to be Guatemala -- indeed, according to reporter Janine Zeitlin, in the past year investigators from south Florida have focused their attention on three high-profile cases involving girls from the impoverished Central American country.

Why has Guatemala become a trove for modern-day slaves? "Trying to mine reasons why the trade thrives between Southwest Florida and Guatemala feels like getting stuck in a spider web," writes Zeitlin. "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."

The victims' stories sound a grim refrain: They are sold by desperate parents, unable to care for and feed them, or abandoned and attacked by 'coyotes' paid to transport them across the U.S. border, or sent alone on a 1,000-mile migration, so young and naive that they are easily exploited.

Zeitlin's story makes it profoundly clear that for young Guatemalans the choice between staying at home and risking the perilous journey north is no choice at all. It is a battle between certain poverty and the hope of escape. And the costs are enormous. Isabela Pascual admits that she sent her 11-year-old daughter north four years ago -- though she insists her daughter's claim that she was sold to a man is a lie. "She said, 'Mommy, let's take a picture together because I'm going north tomorrow,'" Pascual tells Zeitlin, pointing to a photo in which neither one is smiling.

Pascual's daughter never contacted her again.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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