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The Rarely Told Stories Of Sexual Assault Against Female Migrants


A dust-covered car has been in our parking lot at NPR West this week. It was the vehicle that took Steve Inskeep and several colleagues along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. We've been hearing what they found in recent days, stories of people and goods and culture that cross the border. Steve's in our studio now with a rather difficult story to tell. Steve, what is that?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Well, Arun, it involves people who migrate illegally across the border into the United States - which, of course, has been happening for decades. But that migration has been changing over time. It's believed that more and more women and children are crossing the border than was true in past years, and they're very vulnerable. They're apparently being subjected in large numbers - nobody knows exactly how large - to sexual assault during their journeys. And this is a story that is rarely getting told.

RATH: I know that these stories are hard to tell just the way that they are - with undocumented immigrants in America - because people are in a difficult position to go to the law. So what can we know about this?

INSKEEP: Well, there are fragments of the story, which we were able to gather as we traveled along the U.S.-Mexico border. We, for example, visited a shelter in northern Mexico - in Nogales, Sonora, the Mexican state of Sonora - where one woman said her entire trip north was effectively a sexual assault. She was brought across the border by a man under false pretenses, taken to the city of Atlanta and, she says, used as a prostitute for years. Now, she's back in northern Mexico. That's where we found her.

We were also in Southern Arizona on an Indian reservation, which is right along the border. And we drove around with Lt. Michael Ford. He is a tribal public safety officer. And we saw the tracks of someone who'd been in the desert; it appeared someone who had walked up to a point and then gotten in a vehicle. You could see the tracks of the vehicle driving away. And they left something behind. It was a condom, which Ford read a certain way. He said he's worked a lot of sex crimes.

LT. MICHAEL FORD: Females, a lot of times, may carry those just because there's an expectation that there may be an assault somewhere along the way. And they already are kind of prepared that the people who are transporting, they're completely at the will of the people that are - the coyotes who are transporting them.

INSKEEP: The coyotes, those are the people who you have to hire to bring you across the border through the desert. And so what we have here is evidence that women have come to expect this treatment as part of the journey. Now, Jude Joffe-Block has been gathering some more of that evidence. She's a reporter who covers border and immigration issues for our member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: This pharmacy in the smuggling town of Altar, in northern Mexico, is the last stop for many migrants preparing to make the dangerous trek across the Sonoran desert into Arizona. Pharmacist Maria Jaime Pena says women often come in asking the same, exact question.

MARIA JAIME PENA: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: What can I do in case I'm raped, and I don't want to get pregnant?

PENA: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: Pena recommends an injection for 48 pesos, less than $4. Sometimes, she says, the guides or coyotes advise their female clients to go on birth control. That was the case for Maria Salinas, a petite 43-year-old who recently tried crossing with her teenage daughter. I met Salinas at a crowded soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, for migrants who've just been deported.

MARIA SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: Salinas says at first, she was confused why a coyote at the start of the trip would offer her and other women birth control. Later on, it made sense.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: Because the coyotes know what they're going to do in the middle of the desert, she says. Once Salinas started walking with the group, she couldn't keep up. One of the coyotes said he'd wait for her, but only if he could have sex with her daughter. They refused, and he abandoned them. They only survived because they found Border Patrol.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: It's awful, she says, about making this trip as a woman.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: I wouldn't wish it on anyone. And when a woman is raped in remote stretches of the border region, it almost always goes unpunished - almost.

PETER BIDEGAIN: You can see where we're at here. We're up on a tall mesa. There's mesquite, not a lot of water here.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Border Patrol spokesman Peter Bidegain hiked me out to the remote spot in Southern Arizona where agents found a group of nine migrants this winter, including a 14-year-old girl.

BIDEGAIN: If a migrant is walking through this area, they've walked for four or five days from the border to get to here, through extremely rugged terrain in the Atascosa and Tumacacori mountains.

JOFFE-BLOCK: This group was almost all men. The 14-year-old was from the southern state of Oaxaca and was crossing to meet her parents in the U.S. Since she is a minor, we're calling her by her first initial, L. When agents arrested the group, they tried to load everyone into a truck for processing, but L. hesitated.

BIDEGAIN: The young girl seemed pretty scared to get in the vehicle with everyone. One of the members of the group pulled an agent aside and told him the story about how this girl had been raped by one of the guys in the group.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Her alleged rapist is also alleged to be the group's guide. L. just knew him by the nickname El Viboro, or The Snake, according to records from the local sheriff's office. Because of where the group was walking, authorities say L. was assaulted twice in Arizona, meaning American law enforcement has jurisdiction to prosecute. And they are. Bidegain says what happened to L. wasn't unique, but the outcome was.

BIDEGAIN: We have a brave, young girl who's able to speak up. We have members of the group who witnessed the crime. And we have this alleged rapist in our custody.

TONY ESTRADA: Finally, finally, we were able to be successful and hopefully catch somebody that we could hold accountable.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Tony Estrada is the sheriff here in Arizona's Santa Cruz County. He's been trying for years to get justice for rapes against migrants. El Viboro, who's 23 and whose real name is Jose Ramon Mancinas-Flores, has been charged with two felony counts of sex with a minor and could face decades in prison. Estrada says it's rare for migrants to report violent crimes to his office.

ESTRADA: They will continue in spite of having been assaulted, having been robbed, having been shot at and having been raped - because it's been a real long journey, a very dangerous and expensive one for them. And for them to report it to the authorities would mean that they would more than likely be deported.

JOFFE-BLOCK: There aren't reliable statistics on border rapes. Estrada thinks they've increased since amped-up border security has funneled migrants into remote areas of the desert, and organized crime has taken over the smuggling routes. Over the past three years, six women in Border Patrol custody - coming from El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala - reported sexual assaults to Estrada's office. There are still no suspects in any of those cases.

Back across the border in the Nogales soup kitchen, migrant Maria Salinas says she'd be wary of reporting any crimes that happened to her on the border.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: She'd worry about retaliation from organized crime.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: Even if they don't do anything to you right then, you worry they could do something to your family.

SALINAS: (Spanish spoken)

JOFFE-BLOCK: That's the fear, she says. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block.

RATH: That story came to us from the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest focusing on the border and immigration. Steve Inskeep, thanks again for dropping by. I look forward to hearing the rest of these stories.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Arun. I appreciate the invitation. We've heard so many dramatic stories - many of them wrenching, many of them sad; but all of them intensely human. And we're looking forward to putting more of them on the air. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.