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A Harsh Price to Pay in Pursuit of a Dream

For Central American Women, Sexual Coercion Is Hazard on Route to U.S.

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A01

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala -- "If you come to my office and lie down with me, you can pass." That was the offer, Ileana Figueroa recalled, that taught her sex was the price of passage to the United States.

As she considered the Honduran border official's demand, Figueroa, 20, said she thought about her brother waiting for her in Miami, where he had promised she could earn unimaginable sums as a caretaker for the elderly. She thought, too, of how devastating it would be to return to her Honduran village and tell her family she had handed over their life savings to a smuggler for nothing.

Ileana Figueroa, 20, of Honduras, was deported from Mexico en route to Miami. Now a prostitute in Guatemala, she is saving to make the trip again. (Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

_____A Hard Road North_____
The route that brought Ileana Figueroa from Honduras to a Guatemalan brothel.

So, the mother of two walked reluctantly into the checkpoint office on the Honduras-Guatemala border and shut the door. It was August 2003. "I didn't want to be a failure. I wanted to go to Miami," said Figueroa, her brown hair tied in a ponytail.

When the official was finished with her, Figueroa continued her journey north. But after just one week, she was caught in Mexico and deported, poorer than when she set out and too ashamed to return home. She ended up in this shabby but fast-paced town near the Mexico-Guatemala border, sleeping in the back of a saloon and selling her body for $6 a customer.

"What else can I do now?" she said.

Coerced into sex by smugglers, border officials, street gang members and others who control the underground route to the United States, many female migrants are paying an especially harsh price for a chance to land a job in the north, according to government and church officials.

The problem is particularly acute for Central American women without skills or legal documents, who must navigate 1,500 miles of Mexican territory to reach the U.S. border. Those who fall short of their destination, yet feel too ashamed to go home, often end up stranded in brothels along the way.

"Sex has become a negotiation mechanism. Many times it is the only way women can cross," said Rene Leyva, a public health researcher in Mexico.

The Rev. Ademar Barilli, a Catholic priest who runs a shelter for migrants in Tecun Uman and has spoken with hundreds of women who stay there, said he believed that "many more than half" are coerced into sex along the way. Sometimes, he said, men pretend to befriend them and offer them a place to sleep, only later adding the condition that they engage in sex.

Barilli said the church, from pulpits across Central America, has warned women of the dangers involved in traveling north, including rape and sexual extortion, and that some women have recently made the journey in groups. Despite the dangers, they still go.

"Those who have nothing to live for back in their home country decide to risk it anyway," he said.

No one knows precisely how many undocumented female migrants are trying to enter the United States, but more than 800,000 women have been deported by U.S. border officials since 2000. Nearly all were Mexicans and Central Americans who were caught and detained on the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican officials said that, over the same period, they had detained tens of thousands of Central American women heading north.

Hugo Eduardo Beteta Mendez, a Guatemalan academic and presidential adviser, said the stories of rape and extorted sex along the route are now so common that when women do not reach the United States, many cannot return to their villages because neighbors and parents assume that they, too, have become victims. Thus, some of the women see prostitution as their only option.

"It's a double tragedy," said Beteta. The map from Central America to the U.S. border, he added, is "full of pain."

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