A conversation with Marisa Ugarte in her office is not likely to continue uninterrupted for long.
Urgent matters – a call from a Honduran victim of sex trafficking in San Diego, a request from a co-worker for help in writing a grant request – frequently punctuate the flow in Ugarte’s office, located in National City, part of metropolitan San Diego and just 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Tijuana, Mexico.
But assisting trafficking victims is the raison d’être of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a group Ugarte started building in 1997. And support from other organizations—and thus grant writing—is BSCC’s lifeblood.
“Our emergency response line gets about 30 calls a month,” noted Ugarte, who is the grandmother of two, was born in Mexico City and is a social worker by training. She said that her case load has included victims from many places – Latin America (Mexico, Guatemala, Salvador, Colombia), Asia (China, Korea, the Philippines), Africa (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Somalia), as well as from within the United States, where vulnerable youngsters living in the foster care system may become trapped in prostitution after they are recruited by pimps.
Similarly, BSCC’s webpage, bsccoalition.org, displays numerous, important liaisons, some of which bring funding, including the U.S. Departments of Justice, State and Health and Human Services, the Hitachi Foundation, Rotary and Soroptimist Clubs and more, underscoring that it is essential for the group’s survival that Ugarte tend to these ties.
Ugarte reports that she had not specifically heard about a Puerto Vallarta party recently busted because young teenagers were thought to be in danger from traffickers (Guadalajara Reporter, June 23), but she was not surprised to learn of it.
“Resort areas like San Diego and Tijuana are where you see a lot of these things happening – and Puerto Vallarta is a resort area. They announce parties over Instagram or WhatsApp, they rent a room through Airbnb and have sex parties. The girls don’t know what they’re getting into. They’re given drinks and drugs like Ecstasy. Parents need to monitor the messages kids get on their phones.
“Sometimes girls get kidnapped or murdered. There was one from Mar Vista High School [in the San Diego area city of Imperial Beach] who went to a party in Tijuana. She came back to San Diego in a body bag.
“My organization is registered in Mexico and we have a program in the Tijuana library, but the climate of organized crime there makes it very convoluted – people involved in trafficking are sometimes in the local government. In Tijuana’s Zona Norte or Red Zone there are lots of massage parlors and you hear stories about places like the Hong Kong Bar, saying they use minors.
“But I’m working with one victim who is 60 years old,” Ugarte noted, underscoring the breadth of the problem.
Victims from many countries are brought into the United States via the Tijuana and Mexicali corridors, Ugarte explained, adding that organized criminal groups are behind the problem.
“For example, Chinese criminals establish themselves in Mexico, then apply for U.S. tourist visas for people they are trafficking. Once they enter, their visas are taken away. So there are now 132 clandestine massage parlors in San Diego run by Asians – the so called ‘happy ending’ places that offer manual and oral copulation. Law enforcement closes them but they reopen.”
San Diego attorney Alex Landon explained that, working without a fee, he helped a Korean client of Ugarte’s who had been told by smugglers that she was being loaned money to come into the United States to work as a domestic. But once in San Diego, she was threatened and forced into prostitution, and then arrested.
“I was able to get her case dismissed,” Landon reported. Then BSCC found her a shelter.
“My typical work day,” Ugarte said, “is lining up services for people like her – shelters, psychotherapy, food stamps, medical.
“I get them T visas, a special visa that lets victims of human trafficking remain here for three years and the option to apply for citizenship. But I don’t know what’s going to happen with the current administration,” she lamented.
“All the arresting of international immigrants makes trafficking victims afraid to come forward for fear of deportation.”
Landon explained that another complication is a recent bad federal law with unintended consequences – FOSTA, for Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, signed in April by President Trump.
“Marisa told me that this law, which impedes or shuts down online sites, like Backpage, that openly advertise prostitution, makes it harder for her to reach out to trafficking victims, which BSCC used to do by using the ads. It will just drive prostitution more underground, at the same time interfering with other forms of free speech. The ACLU might file an action against it.”
Ugarte agreed that many recent developments are making life worse for the victims she tries to help. “Everything is starting to get complicated. Even agricultural workers are going down the drain and crops are rotting.”
“I have nightmares,” she said.