Alma Tucker discovered what her lifework would be when she was about to retire. She had been working for the Mexican Consulate’s Department of Protection in San Diego when she was called in to be an interpreter. The assignment involved a teenage girl who had been discovered trying to cross into the United States and brought to a local hospital.
“One of the assignments I had was to see patients in hospitals,” Ms. Tucker says. “Some were undocumented migrants.” She would act as an interpreter and help them find family members in Mexico.
This time, it was a 14-year-old girl, who spoke no English and had been crying for her mother. “It was difficult for her because nobody spoke Spanish, and when I arrived I found she was being sexually exploited” by a smuggler, Tucker says.
The smuggler, who was supposed to be transporting the girl into the US, had told her that her parents hadn’t paid him, and so, he said, she was obligated to have sex with anyone he wanted her to – or both she and her family would suffer the consequences. By the time the girl arrived in the US, she had been forced into sex by multiple men.
“She had to go through that horrible, horrible experience,” Tucker says. “I was able to give her some comfort, and noticed once she found somebody she could trust and relate to that she calmed down, and I finally I got in contact with her mother.”
That was when Tucker realized that victims of sex abuse and human trafficking need comforting as well as practical help. She already had the contacts and knowledge of the laws from her years with the consulate. As she looked further into the problem of human trafficking on the US-Mexican border, she realized how few resources existed for Mexican victims.
She vowed to do what she could to help.
In 2010, Tucker and her husband established the International Network of Hearts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking, particularly underage ones, and raising awareness about the enormous problem of labor and sex trafficking. Then Tucker opened a home for underage victims in Tijuana, Mexico, called La Casa del Jardin – The Garden House – so named because, she says, she thinks of each girl as a flower waiting to bloom.
She decided to locate La Casa del Jardin in Tijuana, 15 minutes south of the US border, not just because human trafficking is so often a cross-border issue, but also because Tucker was born and raised in the city before immigrating to the US. The large, sprawling home is perched on a hill just outside Tijuana, overlooking the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
Its ordinary appearance belies its heavy security: Cameras scan the doors and outside walls to keep people from getting in, and former police guard the home at night – a necessary precaution, explains Tucker, because some of the girls who live there were trafficked by cartel members or otherwise involved in organized crime. And since the girls are taken to the home by law enforcement personnel from both the US and Mexico they are often getting prepared to testify against the people who victimized them.
Inside, the rooms are homey and sunny, full of art, books, and toys. Between five and 10 girls live in La Casa del Jardin at any given time, their ages ranging from
8 years old to 18, when they “graduate” and are free to move out if they wish.
Mexico is classified as a Tier 2 country by the US Department of State. That means that, unlike Tier 1 countries, Mexico is not fully compliant with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and that the number of victims is either very significant or increasing yearly. The act establishes minimum standards for eradicating human trafficking and slavery – whether for labor or for sex – and details steps toward correcting them.
What that means in practice is that thousands of people are trafficked through Mexico – some researchers say 20,000 a year, though assigning an actual number is difficult because of the shadowy nature of the crimes. They are smuggled through the legal and social gray areas that permeate the border region: many for labor, more for sex work.
Those who are forced into sex work are mostly female and young. That is why, Tucker says, she decided to open the shelter in the Mexican state of Baja California.
Rosi Orozco is a high-profile advocate for trafficked people. A former Mexican congresswoman and current president of Mexico’s Commission Against Human Trafficking, she learned about sex trafficking during a trip to Washington in 2005. When she returned home she found that no shelters existed to help victims – and few laws were in place to protect them.
Ms. Orozco created a nongovernmental organization to help people who had been forced into sex work, opened a shelter in Mexico City, and campaigned for a seat in Mexico’s Congress in 2009 using human trafficking as her only issue.
“In my campaign..., I was thinking, ‘I won’t be able to win, but at least I will really make a prevention campaign,’ ” she says. “But I won! I won ... because of the human trafficking subject.”
Six years later, Orozco says, despite the efforts of NGOs and others to combat trafficking, there is still a real need for more resources for those who are forced into sex work and labor.
“We were the only NGO that committed ourselves to take care of the victims,” she says. “There was nothing, because there was no authority that wanted to do something about human trafficking.”
Eventually another independent shelter opened in Mexico City. “The third one that opened its doors was La Casa del Jardin,” Orozco says. “Those are the only ones in all the country! Three shelters.”
“This is not an easy job,” Tucker says. She deals with children and young adults who have emotional scars and burdens.
“It costs a lot to provide services for these victims. They come with what they’re wearing and that’s it,” she says. “And they come with a lot of hurt – emotionally, psychologically, medically. They have a lot of needs ... clothes, dental appointments, you can see the need for care....
“And in most of the cases we are serving they have been victimized by their own families. It’s not safe to send them back home.”
Tucker is clear-eyed about what the girls have endured, and how far they still have to go after they leave La Casa del Jardin.
Diana, not her real name, was one of the first girls to graduate. She’s now 18, with her own apartment, and working at a job that Tucker helped her find. She is slender and quiet, and ready to begin her new life.
“I feel so excited,” she says. “It’s a different world.... You can see and feel the difference, inside and outside. It’s so cool.”
Diana will never forget what happened in her life, she says. But she will also never forget the people who care about her. “My plans are to go out into the world, to get up, to keep walking, to keep going...,” she says.
That is the best outcome Tucker could hope for, she says, for every girl who comes through La Casa del Jardin – that the girls feel confident enough to be able to leave.
“We try to create a very healthy ambiance,” she says. “They’re survivors. We give them a lot of love.”
• To learn more, visit www.inetworkofhearts.org.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to two organizations that protect children:
• Plan International USA works side by side with communities in 50 developing countries to end the cycle of poverty for children. Solutions are designed to be run by the community for generations to come, and range from clean water and healthcare programs to education projects and child protection initiatives. Take action: Protect girls from sexual exploitation. Or finance birth certificates for children born without them so that they can receive social services.
• Made In A Free World seeks to abolish slavery. Take action: An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 children are enslaved right now working in Ghana’s fishing industry on Lake Volta. Help to free these child slaves.