- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras The arrangement sounded perfect to many people in sleepy, provincial Choluteca, where jobs are scarce and poverty is overwhelming.
"Coyotes" migrant smugglers would whisk their daughters across four borders into the United States, where jobs would be waiting for them, enabling them to not only pay off their smuggling fees but start sending money back home.
It was not until May, when Cholutecan households huddled in disbelief around their television sets, that they learned the true nature of the arrangement.
In raids on several bars and residences in Fort Worth, Texas, FBI agents rescued dozens of Honduran women and girls from what U.S. authorities are calling a human-trafficking and slavery ring.
The Hondurans mostly from Choluteca, and some as young as 14 years old were forced to work as prostitutes to pay off as much as $10,000 in smuggling fees. In the United States, four Hondurans have been charged in connection with the case, and arrests of suspected members of the trafficking ring in Honduras are expected soon.
Of about 70 women rescued in the raid, 41 were Hondurans, six of them minors. All are still in Texas while federal investigations continue.
While human rights groups have denounced trafficking of Honduran women and girls for sexual exploitation in Mexico and Guatemala, this is the first time a case of this size involving Hondurans has been uncovered in the United States.
The case has forced the issue to the front of the Honduran national agenda and shed light on what many here say is a big and largely overlooked problem.
"Every two or three years we have a case like this [in the United States], but in the past it has involved women from Thailand, China or Korea," said Joe Banda, the Immigration and Naturalization Service attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.
"What is unique about this case is that it is the first one involving Hondurans to this extent. I suspect the Fort Worth case could be one of several operations involving Hondurans in the U.S. We have been informed of similar operations in Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans," Mr. Banda said.
Compared with its neighbors, Honduras is new to illegal emigration to the United States. With wars raging during the 1980s in places like El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, many citizens of those countries fled northward to escape violence.
Hondurans didn't start to migrate to the United States in large numbers until the mid-1990s, to escape severe economic problems. But it was only after Hurricane Mitch leveled vast tracts of the country and economy in 1998 that large numbers of Hondurans began heading north in search of a better life.
Today there are an estimated 1 million Hondurans living in the United States, almost all of them illegally.
Mr. Banda said the U.S. government repatriates 5,000 undocumented Honduran migrants each year. He estimates that for every illegal immigrant that U.S. authorities detain, nine others slip through.
In Mexico, authorities say they send back as many as 8,000 Hondurans per month heading north without visas.
Because Honduran migration is so new, those who head north don't enjoy the support and resources of networks of relatives already established in the United States, as do Salvadorans and Guatemalans. It is for this reason that Hondurans are widely considered to be the most vulnerable Central American migrant group.
And among them, women and children, many say, are the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, migrant-rights activists say that while illegal immigration rises, the number of women heading north is growing faster than that of men.
This is because, activists here say, some smugglers have developed niche markets in the form of highly organized mafias to traffic women and girls into prostitution.
"There are now enormous movements at the border that we never saw before. As the flow grows and as the interest in going to the U.S. grows, so does the possibility that women are trafficked for sexual exploitation," said Mirta Kennedy, who has researched the issue for the Honduran-based Center for Women's Studies.
"The population movements toward the U.S. are so great that it offers perfect cover beneath which this kind of sexual exploitation is taking place," she said.
Activists say that while this high-profile case has catapulted the issue onto the national agenda, it is problem that has existed for years. In the past two years, Mrs. Kennedy said, four studies have detected a human-trafficking pattern involving Honduran women and children.
Other activists have described similar cases where women and girl migrants are forced into prostitution en route to the United States while still in Guatemala and along the Guatemala-Mexico border.
It wasn't until the Fort Worth story broke in Texas that Honduran government officials began to take the issue seriously.
"At the level of civil society, many people were working on the issue, but not on a government level. The news of what happened in Texas was like a wake-up call," said Lilian Jimenez, president of the family and children committee in the Honduran Congress.
"And we formed a commission to search for immediate solutions to this problem," she said.
The attention of the congress is certain to be welcomed by U.S. authorities.
In June, Secretary of State Colin L. Powel issued his department's second annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
Honduras was among the countries listed as having made some improvements, but the report said that minimum standards to eliminate the trafficking of persons had not been implemented.
"The coyotes talk a good game, and everyone thinks they are going to go to the U.S., get in without problems, find a great job and start sending lots of money home," said Mr. Banda.
"But many times it doesn't work out that way," he said. "I'd say most of the time it doesn't work out that way."


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