Story by Jude Joffe-Block
Fronteras Desk


Rape is one of the greatest risks for women migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

A pharmacy in the smuggling town of Altar in Sonora, Mexico is the last stop for many migrants preparing to make the dangerous trek across the Sonoran Desert into Arizona.

Pharmacist Maria Jaime Pena said women often come in asking the same, exact question: "What can I do in case I'm raped, and I don't want to get pregnant," Pena said in Spanish.

Pena said she recommends injections for 48 pesos, less than $5. Sometimes, she said, 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.

Salina, whom was at a crowded kitchen in Nogales, Mexico for migrants who've recently been deported, said 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.

"Because coyotes know what they are going to do in the middle of the desert," she said in Spanish.

Once Salinas started walking with the group, she couldn't keep up. She said 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.

"It's awful," she said. "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, Border Patrol spokesman, hiked out to a remote spot in Southern Arizona, to show the area where agents found a group of nine migrants this winter, among them a 14-year-old girl.

"If a migrant is walking through this area, they have walked for 4 or 5 days from the border to get here, through extremely rugged terrain in the Atascosa and Tumacacori mountains," Bidegain said.

This group was almost all men. The 14-year-old was from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and was crossing to meet her parents in the U.S. Since she is a minor, we are calling her by her first initial, L.

When agents arrested the group, they hurried to load everyone into the truck for processing. But L hesitated.

"The young girl seemed pretty scared to get in the vehicle with everyone, Bidegain said. "One of the members of the group pulled an agent aside and told him the story that the girl had been raped by one of the guys in the group."

L's alleged rapist is also alleged to be the group's coyote. 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 said L was assaulted twice in Arizona, meaning American law enforcement has jurisdiction to prosecute. And they are.

Bidegain said what happened to L wasn't unique, but the outcome was.

"We have a brave young girl who was able to speak up, we have members of the group who witnessed the crime, and we have this alleged rapist in our custody," he said.

For years, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada has been trying to get justice for rapes against migrants.

"Finally, finally we were able to be successful and hopefully catch someone we could hold accountable," he said.

El Viboro, who is 2,3 and whose real name is Jose Ramon Mancinas-Flores, is now facing two felony counts of sex with a minor and could face decades in prison.

However, Estrada said it's rare for migrants to report violent crimes to his office.

"They will continue in spite of having been assaulted, having been robbed, having been shot at and having been raped," Estrada said. "Because it has been a real long journey, a very dangerous, expensive one. And for them to report it to the authorities would mean they will more than deported."

There aren't reliable statistics on border rapes. Estrada said he 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, Salinas said she'd be wary of reporting any crimes that happen to her on the border. She'd worry about retaliation from organized crime, she said.

"Even if they don't do anything to you right then, you worry they could do something to your family," she said. "That's the fear."