“Please open, I’m Rebecca a widow whose two daughters have been turned into slaves in Mexico. You write a lot about human trafficking and I know you can help me.”
Those were the words spoken by 66-year-old Rebecca, whose daughters aim to reach the United States through Mexico, as she knocked on the door of my hotel room in the northeastern Nigeria city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram.
Rebecca was at the hotel reception enquiring about a friend of hers who lodged there when I arrived to request for a room. She heard me say my name to the receptionist and quickly recognized who I was. Minutes after I had settled into my room, Rebecca came knocking.
The troubled widow fell on my feet crying for help as I opened the door. Her twin daughters, known unofficially — and only to their mother and brothers — as Sarah and Miriam, are stuck in Mexico where they’ve been since arriving in July after a dangerous journey through South and North America aimed at ending in the United States. With the Trump administration making it almost impossible for migrants from far away countries to enter the U.S. through its southwest borders, Mexican sex traffickers and their American cohorts are taking advantage of the desperation of young Africans to sexually exploit them, and Rebecca’s daughters, who arrived North America at the age of 17, are among their victims.
“Please write [a news article] about what is happening to my daughters in Mexico so that the world can come to their rescue,” a sobbing Rebecca, who has read one of my numerous accounts of human trafficking in West Africa's conflict regions, said to me. “I’m calling their phones right now. You need to hear directly from them.”
Rebecca and I spent the next hour on the phone talking to her daughters in Mexico. Thereafter, we sat for nearly three hours talking about her family and how her daughters entered the situation they are currently in.
“It was never my decision for them to travel to America,” said Rebecca, who also has three sons who are much older than her twin daughters. “They took the decision on their own and refused to change their minds even when I persuaded them.”
Sarah and Miriam first nursed the idea of traveling to America when they saw a footage of U.S. President Donald Trump hosting two Chibok schoolgirls who escaped from Boko Haram in 2014 after the militants invaded their secondary school in northeastern Nigeria and seized more than 300 female students. The sisters learned that the two Chibok schoolgirls, who moved to the U.S. after the incident to further their education, had just graduated from the Canyonville Christian Academy in Oregon at the time they met Trump in July 2017 at the White House and wanted to follow in the footsteps of their compatriots in achieving the same kind of education.
"They kept insisting that the only way they can return to school is if they travel to America," Rebecca said of her teenage daughters. "They didn't want any mention of attending school in Maiduguri."
Rebecca's daughters suspended their education in their final year of secondary school after Boko Haram attacked their compound at the start of 2016. The militants beheaded their father during the attack and forced the girls to flee with their mother and brothers to Maiduguri where they first stayed in the Madinatu Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp for a few hours before moving to live with a relative in the heart of the city. It was at the home of their relative that they learned that a number of Chibok girls had moved to the U.S. to further their education and wanted to follow suit.
The sisters needed more than their mother's help to reach their dreamland. They had contacted a travel agency in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, seeking help to travel to the U.S. but were told they didn't qualify for an American visa as they had no genuine reason for travelling. The girls then sought help from a man known as Ahmed, a middle-aged Nigerian national who had approached them and unsuccessfully offered to take them to Europe for work during the few hours they stayed at the Madinatu IDP camp, a place notorious for child trafficking (the sisters were not interested in working at the time but wanted to focus on completing their secondary education).
Ahmed, who claimed to work for a travel network that has helped many Africans travel to America, suggested a different way of reaching the U.S. with the help of smugglers in both South and North America. But the girls couldn't immediately afford the $5,000 fee he demanded from each of them for the trip so they had to wait for months until their relatives in Maiduguri sold their crops and livestock to add to the money their mother had raised from the sale of her expensive jewelry before starting their journey.
"My siblings and I have given away everything we’ve got to make sure my daughters travel abroad," said Rebecca. "I don’t know what will happen to me if this whole America thing doesn’t work out well in the end."
Rebecca’s relatives didn’t support the trip of her daughters for nothing in return. The twin sisters had been assured by Ahmed that they will be granted asylum once they applied at the U.S. border with Mexico based on the argument that they feared persecution by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria as a result of their Christianity religion and that they will be able to work and earn good pay in addition to furthering their education once their asylum request is granted. It was the same explanation the girls gave to their uncles and aunts who labored to raise money for them with the expectation that they will get back their monies in a year’s time, at least, with an additional cash reward.
It took close to a year to raise the $10,000 Rebecca's children needed in total for the trip. They were told by Ahmed that the money covered the cost of traveling by land to Senegal, an air ticket from Senegal to Ecuador, and then the fee for a spidery network of smugglers (including $500 the Nigerian agent receives as facilitation charge) who eventually would help the sisters reach the U.S. southern border with Mexico.
In the weeks that followed my conversation with Rebecca, I met face to face with Ahmed after spending three days in the town of Ogoja (about 1,200 kilometers south of Maiduguri), not far away from the south-western border with Cameroon, tracing the address the mother of the two sisters gave to me. The smuggling agent once worked as a broker for a Maiduguri cartel that transports Europe-bound Nigerian migrants through the Sahel into Libya but left the group after it began to lose patronage following a crackdown on the migrants-smuggling trade by the government of Niger, backed by the European Union. When thousands of Cameroonians in the country's Anglophone regions began to flee into Ogoja late in 2017 after the government began a clampdown on English-speaking minorities for protesting against perceived marginalisation, Ahmed relocated to the southern Nigerian town, just about 114 kilometers away from the Cameroonian border, to search for buoyant refugees who are willing to travel to the U.S. through his connections. But it was in one of his frequent visits to Maiduguri, his hometown, that he met again with Rebecca's daughters.
"It is in IDP and refugee camps that you find people like Sarah and Miriam who are willing to do anything to move to where we make them believe they can get a better life," said Ahmed, who was introduced to smugglers in South America by a former colleague in the Maiduguri cartel now based in Ecuador and actively involved in the country's notorious human and drug smuggling trade. "Smugglers love to have clients as young as the two sisters because they are naive and they do exactly what you want them to do."
The teenage sisters are among the thousands of mostly Africans and Central Americans who are fleeing poverty, wars, and repression in their countries and heading up through Mexico toward the U.S. border in an attempt to enter America.
Traveling from West Africa to Ecuador isn't so difficult. A decade ago, the country passed a new constitution that established an “open door” policy for all foreigners visiting Ecuador. A visa was not required to visit, making the South American nation one of the most liberal countries in the world in terms of accessibility, and turning it into a popular destination for people who wanted to travel to or through the Americas (Ecuador later reinstated visa requirements for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia).
The two girls decided to travel in January using Cameroonian passports so as to escape the huddle of obtaining a visa if they had to do so with Nigerian travel documents. Their background made it relatively easy for the Cameroonian consulate in Nigeria to issue them passports.
In 1960, Rebecca's husband, Francis, who was born in English-speaking northwest Cameroon, fled the country at the age of 11 with his parents to Bama during the time the French army fought alongside Cameroonian government forces against members of the leftist Cameroon Peoples Union (UPC) movement which wanted the Central Africa nation to separate completely from France and establish a socialist economy. By the time the violence, which claimed more than 70,000 lives (most of those killed were from the northwest region) ended in 1964, Francis had already met Rebecca in the same informal craft-making school both of them attended and the two became married in 1970, when Rebecca was 17 years of age.
Sarah and Miriam first travelled to Senegal from where they flew to Ecuador along with two other women from Cameroon who had paid Ahmed to help them get to the U.S. southern border with Mexico. From there, the migrants, accompanied by a smuggler working with the Nigerian agent, traveled by road through Colombia and over trails in the Darien Gap, a lawless forest wilderness that straddles Colombia and Panama.
"[Armed bandits] asked us to take off our clothes as they searched all over us for money,” said Sarah. “We saw dead bodies in the forest, including those of children.”
In Panama, the migrants — joined by several others from West Africa and Asia who had made the same journey from Ecuador — turned themselves over to border security officials in the hope that they would be granted visas to pass through the country freely. Unfortunately, they were arrested and detained in a military camp by officials who wanted to check their identities before deciding whether or not to grant their request. The migrants were eventually released after being granted exit visas to move to the next country.
The smuggler, who had travelled with the girls, handed them to another smuggler who then took them across the Panamanian border into Costa Rica where he handed them over to a truck driver who smuggled them up through Nicaragua to Honduras.
After the girls spent nearly two months in Honduras, another smuggler helped them get on a bus that took them through El Salvador to get to Guatemala. The sisters eventually crossed into Mexico in July and quickly arrived at Tijuana, the largest city along the US–Mexico border, where they became stuck, as Mexican authorities began a clampdown on migrants hoping to reach the United States.
Since the talk of thousands of migrants trying to reach the U.S. through Mexico became big news last year, the focus has been on Central Americans who make up most of the over 80,000 foreigners deported in the first seven months of the year by Mexico acting under immense pressure from the Trump administration to stop migrants from getting to the U.S. border.
Between January and July of this year, Mexican security agencies apprehended a record 4,779 migrants from Africa. The figure is nearly four times the number of African migrants detained during the same period in 2018. Surprisingly, only two Africans were deported in the first seven months of 2019.
Sarah and Miriam escaped arrest when they arrived in Mexico but it wasn't of their own making. Rather, it was the plan of the smugglers who led them into Tijuana to ensure that the girls do not get into the hands of Mexican security officials so as to introduce them to Tijuana's booming commercial sex industry.
"When we got to TJ (as the girls refer to Tijuana), the smugglers told us that Mexican authorities no longer gave visas to migrants to get to the American border but were rather arresting migrants and deporting them," said Sarah. "We were then told that the only way we could achieve our dream [of reaching the U.S.] is to sleep with American men who patronise sex workers in TJ after which they'll be able to assist us in reaching America."
Tijuana has an age long ugly reputation of telorating prostitution especially in the city’s La Zona Norte, where clients, including many who travel from the U.S., get involved in commercial sex in brothels or on the streets. Children are often offered secretly by cartels.
In recent years, they've been numerous reports in the media of Americans traveling to Tijuana with intent to have sex with minors. Most cases, according to the FBI, involve Tijuana men setting up sexual encounters between U.S. citizens and young children.
“There's a lot of sex trafficking going on in Tijuana, carried out by smugglers and cartels,” Marisa Ugarte, founder and Executive Director of Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC), an alliance of over 60 government and nonprofit agencies in the United States and Latin America that is convened along the U.S.-Mexico Border Region to combat slavery and human trafficking, told me via telephone. "Migrants who are trying to come in [to Mexico] and seek asylum are the most vulnerable because they have no resources and they don't know anybody who can protect them."
Out of fear they could be arrested and deported, Sarah and Miriam agreed to hook up with American men in the hope that the men would assist them in their bid to reach the United States. Their smugglers introduced them to a sex broker who offered them a place to stay at Tijuana's red-light district and then took photos of the girls and sent them to familiar clients to see if they were interested. The photos were sent along with a note stating their Cameroonian nationality and date of birth which the broker put as 16.
As the sister moved into their two room – one room for each girl – apartment, they met a note on the table in their tiny sitting room informing them that payment by clients for their services will go directly to the broker who will only give 20 percent to the girls and share the remaining 80 percent with the smugglers who got them to Tijuana.
The following day, the sisters hooked up with their first American clients. Sarah met a man who gave his name as Ben, a Jewish American, while Miriam was hooked up with Javier, a Latino American. Both men arrived from Texas. While the Americans wanted to have fun with young, underaged black girls, the sisters were looking for an easy way to get to the United States.
"They asked us to request asylum in Mexico and thereafter apply for an American visa once our asylum is granted," Miriam said. "They promised they were going to send us invitation letters and other supporting documents for the visa application."
It appeared like a plan that could work especially because they arrived during the period when Mexican authorities offered the possibility of asylum in Mexico to migrants aiming to reach the U.S. border. But as the girls prepared to join the bulging queues waiting for refugee status — a process that can drag on for months — the broker showed up at their apartment one morning to inform them that the two men, who are close friends and work in the same office back home, have returned to the U.S. and will not be going ahead with their promise to assist them.
“They just used us and dumped us,” said Miriam. “We were told that is what many American men do to women in TJ.”
Sex trafficking is reportedly very rampant in Tijuana and in most of Mexico, where sex work is legal under federal law, with each of the country's 31 states — thirteen of which allow and regulate prostitution — enacting its own laws and policies on commercial sex activities. One study by the National Institutes of Health found that 9,000 women at least worked in the sex industry in Tijuana alone, and that the number keeps increasing as more and more women get involved in the business for self-sufficiency. Africans fleeing conflicts in their countries are now being dragged into the trade.
Before Sarah and Miriam even thought of travelling to North America through the help of people-smugglers, thirty-year-old Agnes, a Cameroonian amateur soccer player, had arrived in Tijuana in December 2017 hoping to be signed by a local women's soccer team. She had fled the fighting in Cameroon's southwestern Akwaya village into Ogoja, where she met a broker for a South American trafficking cartel who said he could connect her to officials of Club Tijuana Femenil, the Mexican city's most popular female team, for a professional contract. Agnes paid $6,000 to the broker to facilitate her trip to Mexico through the same route the teenage twin sister later travelled. She was told to apply for asylum once she got to Mexico and was assured by the broker that her smugglers will work with their friends in the Mexican immigration service to grant her request. But when Agnes arrived Tijuana, her smugglers told her it was impossible for her to get signed by the soccer club because of her advanced age and then convinced her to go into prostitution to be able to raise money to return home.
"The biggest gainers from the sex industry are not the sex workers but the cartels and business owners," said Agnes, who returned to Ogoja on her own after spending close to a year working in Tijuana's red-light districts. "So much of what you make goes to the broker who gets you the customer and another huge amount goes into payments for hotel and security guards, which explains that you spend almost everything before you even make it to a room with a client."
Since the 19th century, Mexican border towns have reportedly been known to welcome American men who travel there in search of cheap sex which often cost tens of dollars. Mexico's tolerance for prostitution in many areas and its weak laws against sexual exploitation appear to be the motivation for many Americans who travel there for sex tourism.
“An American living with HIV for example can be accused of attempted murder for having unprotected sex in the U.S., but it is not so in Mexico,” said Ugarte of the BSCC, which is the only bilateral bi-national project that provides services in Tijuana in Mexico and San Diego in the United States. “All kinds of Americans — sick, peodophiles — go into Mexico for sex tourism."
Sarah and Miriam said they were often manhandled and verbally abused by their clients the week they stayed with the Americans.
“On two occasions, he [Ben] slapped me so hard and called me names like ‘black devil’ and ‘smelling animal’ for not being on the bed at the time he wanted,” Sarah said. “I couldn’t do anything about it because I wanted his help and even if I reported to the broker or smugglers, no one will question him because he is American.”
After the sisters were jilted by the Americans they first related with, their broker took them to another American, a so-called businessman from Atlanta whom the broker said he was convinced he was going to assist them with the supporting documents they needed for a U.S. visa.
“He swore he was going to invite us for a program he was planning to organise in Atlanta for social workers provided we had sex with him,” Miriam said. “We told him that as sisters we could not sleep with the same man.”
Back in Nigeria, Ahmed, the smuggling agent who connected the twin sisters to smugglers in South and North America, denied being aware that his associates in Mexico were involved in sex trafficking but was not surprised about it, neither did he condemn the act.
"Helping women, young or old, find jobs whether in the sex industry for elsewhere is part of what smugglers do," said Ahmed, who claimed to have assisted six other Cameroonians from the Anglophone regions travel from West Africa to the U.S. border with Mexico. "The smugglers in Tijuana are just doing their jobs."
Sarah and Miriam are not keen to continue hooking up with Americans in Tijuana. They rather want to try their luck in reaching the U.S. port of entry just south of San Diego and fulfil their dreams of getting to America.
"A social worker we recently met told us that American authorities will let us get into the U.S. because we are unaccompanied minors," said Miriam. "But we have just turned 18 and don't think anyone will want to listen to us."
The other problem the sisters must deal with is how to settle their debt with the broker who insists they must each pay him $1,500 for finding accommodation for them and for bringing them into Tijuana's sex industry where they've gained experience and contacts of American clients. The girls have been warned that they'll be hunted down and killed if they report the broker or any of his associates to the police and if they leave the city without paying what they owe.
"We have been been pleading with him to accept the $1,000 we both have in total but he is refusing to listen to us," said Miriam. "We are now forced to stay in TJ and continue to work until we can raise money to pay [the broker] and regain our freedom."
The twin sisters are confident that they can pay off their debt by the end of the year and head to the American border shortly after. The girls are encouraged by the news that some Africans have still been able to reach the United States despite the crackdown on U.S.-bound migrants by Mexican authorities. Between May and July of this year, U.S. Border Patrol arrested and detained close to 1,200 African migrants along a single 210-mile stretch of border in south Texas — far more than the nearly 300 apprehended along the entire southwest border in the whole of last year.
Should the teenage siblings by any means make it to the U.S., their chances of being allowed to remain in the country are extremely low, as a new policy by the Trump administration stipulates that American officials will not look into asylum applications from non-Mexicans arriving at the southwest border unless they have unsuccessfully filed for protection in one of the countries that they passed through to reach the U.S.
Despite the challenges and risk involved, Sarah and Miriam are determined to reach the country of their dreams.
“It is either America or nothing,” Sarah said. “We’ve gone too far to give up too easily.”
While the sisters keep their American hopes alive, those who fight to protect girls like them from exploitation are demanding the arrest and prosecution of Americans who exploit minors in Mexico as stipulated by the U.S. Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003 which authorizes fines and/or imprisonment for up to 30 years for U.S. citizens or residents who engage in illicit sexual conduct abroad including getting involved in commercial sex with or sexual abuse of anyone under 18.
"At the moment, the law is not being implemented to its fullest," said Ugarte, who has more than two decades of experience in advocacy for exploited women and children. "It is the responsibility of the Justice Department to make sure that the law is fully implemented in America and that the people that go to buy sex with minors in Mexico are detained and brought to justice."