AUSTIN—Poverty in Mexico fuels the destructive cycle of human exploitation and trafficking that consumes many young lives, experts on both sides of the Rio Grande agree.
A volunteer at Cornerstone Children's Ranch in Quemado, less than two miles from the Texas/Mexico border, tells a familiar story.
"I've had parents offer their children to me when I go do ministry in Piedras Negras, in hopes that I can bring them back to the States to study and better themselves," he said.
Parents in extreme poverty offer their children to travelers, asking them to take those children to a place where they may lead a better life.
But what happens when the children end up in the wrong hands?
Although parents aspire for a better life for their children, many only can offer an inheritance of low skills and poverty. Often, circumstances force children to leave school at young ages to join the workforce, primarily in the fields alongside their parents. Lack of education makes children vulnerable and prone to exploitation. Some turn to crime to help their families survive.
Mexican businesses have a hard time making profits. Drug cartels have implemented taxes on them in the northern border cities and elsewhere in the nation.
Violence has driven entertainment-related businesses, hotels and restaurants from northern Mexico into the United States and countered Mexico's efforts to make economic progress.
"Violence is, without a doubt, the principal limit to economic development in Latin America," the Inter-American Development Bank reported.
With limited options, many impoverished families seek out coyotes—human smugglers —to help them and/or their children enter the United States.
Coyotes have established smuggling routes. And unfortunately for many women and children, so have transnational criminal cartels. The step from human smuggling to human trafficking is small.
Fraudulent employment op-portunities are common. Trafficking victims are subject to forced labor in agriculture, domestic service, construction and street begging, according to the Trafficking in Persons Report of 2011.
Drug cartels are no strangers to the arena of kidnappings, prostitution and the pornography industry.
"Children are sold for illegal adoptions within our borders and abroad. They are kidnapped for labor and sexual exploitation," said Maria Elena Solis, president of the Mexican Association for Missing and Kidnapped Children.
Sometimes a pimp may invite a young woman to run away with him to build an exciting future together, offering false promises of marriage and a pledge to treat her like a princess.
But soon, the fairy tale ends. The pimp needs her to work to make ends meet, and soon, she ends up subjected to sexual servitude. "Prince Charming" vanishes, and the nightmare begins. Through manipulation, threats and violence, victims are forced to remain silent.
Victims become modern-day slaves belonging to their traffickers. Unable to send money back home as they hoped, they wait for someone else to speak on their behalf.
These patterns have in-creased dramatically since 2000. During the administration of President Vicente Fox, Mexican organized crime experienced tremendous growth and gained momentum. As drug trafficking sales skyrocketed, kidnappings and extortion occurred around the country with little opposition.
The narcotics industry makes an estimated $600 billion, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Monetary Fund. Drug cartels' resources have made them powerful enough to buy out government officials at local, state and national levels and make deals to secure their trade routes.
Shortly after Felipe Calderon became Mexico's president in 2006, he declared war on el narcotrafico—drug trade and organized crime. Changes led to armed clashes with drug cartel members, and violence broke out across the nation—particularly along the Texas/Mexico border.
"Where crime and corruption reign and drug money perverts the economy, the state no longer has a monopoly on the use of force, and citizens no longer trust their leaders and public institutions," said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Whether through deception, inheritance or violence, the route to human trafficking remains a busy highway.
Bianca Dueñas is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is serving a public policy research internship jointly sponsored by the Christian Life Commission and the Baptist Standard, made possible by a grant from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation of Waco.