Mexican Congresswoman Rosi Orozco, the sponsor of a new Mexican law against human trafficking, with girls rescued from sex traffic. (Anne-Marie OConnor/The Washington Post)

The Salvadoran single mother was hoping to support her children in the United States. Instead, gunmen from the Zeta drug cartel kidnapped her in Mexico and forced her to cook, clean and endure rapes by multiple men.

Now the survivor of this terrifying three-month ordeal is a witness for a growing group of legislators, political leaders and advocates who are calling for action against the trafficking of women in Mexico for sexual exploitation.

As organized crime and globalization have increased, Mexico has become a major destination for sex traffic, as well as a transit point and supplier of victims to the United States. Drug cartels are moving into the trade, preying on immigrant women, sometimes with the complicity of corrupt regional officials, according to diplomats and activists.

“If narcotics traffickers are caught, they go to high-security prisons, but with the trafficking of women, they have found absolute impunity,” said Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman in Mexico and sponsor of a proposed law against human trafficking.

In Mexico, thousands of women and children are forced into sex traffic every year, Orozco said, most of it involving lucrative prostitution rings.

“It is growing because of poverty, because the cartels have gotten involved and because no one tells them no,” said Teresa Ulloa, the regional director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We are fighting so that their lives and their bodies are not merchandise.”

“This is an inferno of sexual exploitation for thousands and thousands of women,” President Felipe Calderon told officials in mid-July after they heard the testimony of a young survivor. “With this new law, we will all be obliged to act, and no authority can say it’s not my responsibility or turn a blind eye to the terrible crime of human trafficking.”

Mexico passed a law against human trafficking in 2007.

Hopes for enforcement have been raised by the appointment of Mexico’s first female attorney general, Marisela Morales, who was praised for her efforts against human trafficking this year when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honored her as an International Woman of Courage.

Authorities said federal police mounted a massive raid against human trafficking in bars and hotels in Ciudad Juarez last weekend, arresting hundreds of suspects and recovering a missing 15-year-old girl and four other minors who were being used for sexual exploitation.

But convictions are still rare, making the attention seem like empty political rhetoric or a response to international pressure, said Saul Arellano, an analyst at the CEIDAS think tank. He viewed the proposed law as a much-needed step in the right direction, but he said it would have to be matched by a stronger effort to arrest and convict traffickers.

A ‘godfather’ sentenced

U.S. prosecutors have won stiff sentences for Mexican traffickers in recent years, often in cooperation with Mexican authorities. In Georgia, a Mexican “padrote,” or “godfather,” from a trafficking stronghold in Tlaxcala state, was sentenced to 40 years in March for luring 10 victims, one of them 14, to the Atlanta area and then forcing them into prostitution. If they refused to work, he beat them.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement probe led to the conviction in Mexico of four people, sentenced in late June to 16 to 18 years, for involvement in a ring that forced immigrant women into prostitution in Miami by holding their children hostage in Mexico.

Some witnesses in trafficking cases find refuge in a new privately funded shelter in Mexico City.

There is a skinny 9-year-old from Cancun whose father began renting her to traffickers for 100 pesos a day when she was 7. A 13-year-old from Oaxaca whose aunt sold her to traffickers in Puebla. A tiny, shy 14-year-old, taken from her foster mother in Guatemala and offered to men in southern Mexico.

Two 15-year-old girls from Honduras were sent to the shelter after escaping a trafficker who demanded that they service 20 men a day.

One survivor-advocate was 17 when she accepted a job offer in Monterrey and found herself locked in an upscale brothel with women smuggled in from Slovakia, China, Russia, Venezuela and Cuba — the kind of transnational operation that is drawing the attention of drug cartels.

The Zetas have begun their own prostitution ventures, rather than acting as suppliers of women, diplomats say.

“They’re starting to change their business model and branching out into things like sex trafficking,” a U.S. official in Mexico said. “They realize it is a lucrative way to generate revenue, and it is low-risk.”

Kidnapped immigrants

One arrested Zeta leader was accused of “buying” Central American teenagers from an immigrant smuggler and forcing them into prostitution in Reynosa bars and hotels.

A few weeks ago, Zeta gunmen kidnapped Nicaraguan immigrant Maria de Los Angeles, 29, in Veracruz, with another immigrant woman. The Zetas said they would send them to Monterrey or the United States.

“They wanted to put us in a prostitution network or give us to their friends to be the women of mafiosos,” Maria said.

The women, who fled to a church, escaped by promising the gunmen thousands of dollars that they said relatives had wired to a town nearby.

The Zetas have held women for weeks or months for forced sexual services.

The Salvadoran single mother was traveling through Veracruz by train when strange men turned her group of immigrants over to the Zetas.

She was brought to a house where brutality ruled. Immigrant men were ordered to get money from families abroad. “The Butcher” executed some who couldn’t.

Dozens of immigrant women passed through the house during her three-month captivity.

Zetas from nine safe houses held meetings to inspect the female arrivals. A few they raped right there. Others they took to hotel rooms. When the women returned, “they cried a lot,” she said. “They had bruises.”

One night in early 2009, a gunman let her go, along with a Guatemalan woman whose uncle had traded her to the Zetas for his freedom.

“I knew they robbed you along the way, but no one warned me about this,” the Salvadoran woman said. “I prayed to God to let me see the faces of my children again. I thought I would never live to tell.”