SAN LUIS TEOLOCHOLCO, Mexico, Mar 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A t a spacious, tree-lined high school at the foot of the Matlalcueyetl volcano in central Mexico, students gathered outside to play a game of snakes and ladders with a twist.
One boy stepped on a panel that read: ‘Sexual relations should never be forced’. A female classmate took a ladder away from a square warning men against becoming human traffickers.
“Do women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies?” one student asked her peers during another exercise.
This was not an normal lesson but a unique workshop designed to prevent boys from becoming sex traffickers and stop girls from falling prey in Tlaxcala state, which has become synonymous with the crime after more than a decade of high-profile cases.
Some of the pupils’ families are known to traffic women for a living, to other states and also the United States, and often encourage their children to one day join the family business.
“‘I want to be a trafficker like my grandfather’ ... is what you’ll usually hear at least from some of them,” one of the teachers running the project, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Mexico is an origin, transit and destination country for human trafficking. Victims range from men forced to kill for criminal groups to indigenous women in domestic work under slave-like conditions and girls coerced into the sex trade.
“It’s important for them to see that it’s not normal ... that it’s violence.” If the workshops changed the attitudes of just a few students, they were worthwhile, the teacher added.
Yet such schemes are few and far between in a country where concern is rising over widespread violence against women and the use of young people as footsoldiers for organized crime groups.
Mexico suffered its highest homicide rate in years in 2019 - with 23 victims per 100,000 people - while femicides rose almost 10% against the previous year, according to government data.
The recent murder of a 7-year-old girl in Mexico City sparked outrage across the region over violence against women in a nation where at least three quarters of women reported feeling unsafe, a 2019 survey by national statistics body INEGI found.
In Tlaxcala, the normalization of sex trafficking is related to broader discrimination against women and gender-based violence, said Alejandra Mendez, head of the Centro Fray Julian Garces, the nonprofit group that started the workshops in 2014.
“What we’re attempting here is a relationship of equals, saying men and women can reach their potential,” Mendez said.
During one workshop, a 14-year-old assumed the role of teacher and asked her younger schoolmates - split into small groups - several stark questions such as: “What is violence?”.
Some of the scenarios dealt explicitly with trafficking, others were about trying to develop healthy relationships and preventing other forms of violence against women.
“I want you to answer freely, to feel trust,” one of the older school girls urged her peers.
Soon after starting the workshops, the Centro Fray Julian Garces and teachers at the school realized they would have more impact if delivered by older pupils to the younger ones.
The student leaders have even held sessions for some of the parents of children at the school in a bid to change mindsets.
Yet prevention efforts are rare and fragmented in Mexico despite growing violence, said Juan Martin Perez, head of nonprofit the Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico (REDIM).
“We don’t have a national strategy, no program or public action to talk about violence against women, girls or the armed violence the country is living with,” he said, adding that there was no support for teachers who addressed the issues themselves.
Federal security forces periodically raid communities in Tlaxcala to arrest suspected traffickers, usually for extradition to the United States.
Federal police and the newly-formed National Guard last year stormed nine properties in Acuamanala - a municipality located just a few kilometers from the school - and arrested seven people allegedly linked to international sex trafficking.
Santiago Nieto, head of the finance ministry’s Financial Intelligence Unit, said this week that his team had blocked bank accounts containing millions of dollars of a sex trafficking group that operated in Mexico City, Tlaxcala and other states.
The alleged perpetrators forced girls as young as 12 into commercial sex and kept most of the proceeds, he said.
Yet Mendez of the Centro Fray Julian Garces said it was tough to get people to recognize trafficking as a problem in the state, which opened three investigations into the crime in 2019.
Former governors have dismissed the phenomenon as minor and accused Mendez’ group of damaging the state’s reputation, she said, adding that they have been in “denial” about trafficking.
Tlaxcala’s government said trafficking had gone unaddressed for decades but that it did not “evade its responsibility” and was working to tackle it - with measures ranging from a shelter for victims of serious crimes to training for civil servants.
Yet a spokesman for the state said that efforts to combat human trafficking should not be focused on just one region.
The federal government has yet to publish its anti-trafficking strategy, nearly a year after it was expected, while an independent auditor has said the former administration’s efforts to curb the crime were “disjointed” and “lax”.
At the school, girls walked around the playground arm-in-arm - joking and laughing - the teacher involved in the project recounted some of the harrowing stories shared by the students.
“They start telling you, that in my town there’s a basement where they take the women ... they tried to take my neighbor,” the teacher said.
“(But) they never tell you who or where, obviously.” (Reporting by Christine Murray. Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)