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The UN recently released yet another report on trafficking which says:

a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, not only as victims (which we knew), but also as traffickers (first documented here). Female offenders have a more prominent role in present-day slavery than in most other forms of crime.

Sillies . . . if they only had listened to what some of us were saying from the beginning, they wouldn’t find themselves so surprised now. By which I mean that those who help move people around in informal networks are very often friends and relations of the people doing the moving, so why shouldn’t they be women as often as men? If you take away Crime as the framing of this sort of movement, then you don’t have to expect the criminals to be men. The work of smuggling does not require particular physical strength. As an article about coyotes on the Mexico-US border shows, women can be highly adept at people smuggling and trafficking.

Note in the following excerpts that the words trafficking and smuggling are used interchangeably. The original story was published in Spanish, where what English-speakers are calling trafficking is often called la trata and smuggling el tráfico or el contrabando. The article is not about that dread term sex trafficking, and as you’ll see, those trafficked are not seen as victims. I’ve highlighted some suggestive quotations in bold.

Women Are the New Coyotes

La Opinión,  Claudia Núñez, 23 December 2007

Gaviota has six phones that don’t stop ringing. Her booming business produces net profits of more than $50,000 a month. She has dozens of customers lining up for her in a datebook stretching three months ahead.

“The old story of the man who runs the ‘coyotaje’ business is now just a myth. It’s finally coming out that the big business of human trafficking is in female hands. As long as they make it known that they are women, they have lots of business all along the border,” explains Marissa Ugarte, a psychologist, lecturer and founder of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition of San Diego, Calif.

Female coyotes tend to employ other women – most of them single mothers – to line up customers, arrange food and lodging for the undocumented, and participate in cross-border money laundering.

“A real ‘coyote’ organizes everything for you. From who and where to take the ‘goats’ across, and where they will stay on this side of the border, to who will deliver them to the door of the customer (the immigrant’s family). The other ones who just take you across the river or through the desert – those bastards are just sleazebags . . .  says Gaviota, whose smuggling network operates in Laredo, Tex. and transports migrants into the United States at border crossings or across the Rio Grande, depending on the customer’s budget.

“The business is a real money-maker,” says Ramón Rivera, a DHS spokesperson in Washington, D.C. “These women inspire confidence in the immigrants and when the authorities stop them and take them to court, they give them shorter sentences because they are mothers, daughters, because they are women. . . . Read the rest of this entry »


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This story comes from Southall, an area of west London often called Little Punjab, but it has a lot in common with a story about mexicanos in the US called Migrant workers wait around for work and another one about algerians in France: The Suffering of the Immigrant.

The migrants are called faujis, Punjabi for unauthorised immigrants. Before coming to the UK in the backs of lorries via Russia and Europe, or overstaying tourist visas, they were mostly poorer farmers from India’s Punjab region.

The following report doesn’t talk about ‘sex trafficking’, but the sense of victimisation is not dissimilar. Although the report shows different ways migrants use false papers and are used by employers, it highlights the latter. Maybe that’s a good thing for readers who think all unauthorised migrants are criminal scroungers. The reporter tells us that most of the migrants knew they were taking risks when they left home, but we need more information about that, particularly what they themselves have to say.

Migrant criminal network exposed 

excerpts from BBC News 2008/07/16 By Richard Bilton

More than 40 houses packed with illegal immigrants were identified in one square mile of Southall, west London. The young, mostly male Punjabis are not here lawfully and, although most know the risks, they have few legal rights. They are surrounded by forgers, criminals and ruthless employers.

Vicki said he could get people into the country on lorries, known as donkeys, organised by what he called his “man in Paris”, and told how he could provide a fake “original” passport that had been “checked” to beat security at a UK airport.

Some try to get by without any documents. Others will have cheap, fake documents, and some will pay good money for original passports, for bank accounts, a Home Office registration card or for stolen identities on driving licences.

One reporter went [to a chip shop] for work. The owner said to “never mind” the fact he had no papers, that he would “handle that issue” and that the reporter should not mention it “otherwise you may be nicked”.

I have often recommended that we find a way to talk about this kind of migration without being forced to choose between two contrasting and simplified traps. In trap one, everyone in the story except for the reporters is flouting multiple laws and should be treated like a criminal, even though their labour is wanted and paid for in the country they’ve travelled to. In trap two, the migrants are complete victims, first of a global economy that has led them to desperate, last-ditch solutions, and then of various bad characters who have misled them about what their life abroad would be, overcharged them for fake documents, forced them to live in lousy, overcrowded conditions and underpaid them for unsafe, illegal jobs.

In Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants, I address the second, victimising trap and I say 

Of course I believe that the world is a place of terrible differences between the poor and the rich, where men almost always have more power and money. It’s not fair. But given the unfairness, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, generalised categories like Exploited Victims. I also don’t agree that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. The same goes for people who get into prostitution or sex work – I prefer to give the heaviest weight to what they say they are doing!

I see plenty of possibilities for exploitation in the fauji story the BBC tells, but I also see the kind of opportunities thousands of migrants have told me they want to take advantage of. Even though they didn’t fully comprehend how difficult it would be before they left, now they want to make the best of it. And even though they engaged in something illegal in order to cross the border, many are now eager to become useful, regular residents with both responsibilities and rights. Including some of those who sell sex, which is not mentioned in this BBC article but is not unknown in the fauji world.

There isn’t going to be one legal model for dealing with the many different kinds of quasi-legal, semi-illegal and egregiously illegal migration – of which trafficking and ‘sex trafficking’ are part. Current political rhetoric seems to imagine only two possible ‘solutions’: a hard-line, mean, law-and-order KEEP OUT policy or a soft-line, generous, utopian NO BORDERS policy. Since these reflect deeply contrasting world views, most of the debate about them remains abstract, symbolic and confrontational – as though a fundamental ‘way of life’ were at stake. 

This has a lot in common with debates about the sex industry, in which two sides representing two different world views are opposed. What I’d like to see in both areas is more pragmatism about what workable improvements – not solutions, for now - might look like.

Some related posts on the different sorts of irregular migration include:

  • Not sex trafficking: False papers as a means to migrate
  • The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders
  • Sex trafficking v prostitution: How do we judge the evidence?
  • The Sex in ‘Sex Trafficking’
  • Working on ships, Travelling by ship
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    I wrote this as the UK’s Home Secretary launched her legislative proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex from those ‘controlled for another person’s gain’. An earlier attempt to criminalise all purchases of sex, always, was shouted down. This version of the abolitionist urge is totally unworkable, as well as silly and patronising towards men and women in general. Not only foreign, brown Others would be targeted – ordinary white Brits seen as insufficiently independent could be accused of being  ’controlled’ by others. Only in this line of work are people required to work alone and possibly lonely – no workplaces, no managers, no colleagues allowed!

    The Guardian – Comment is Free

    The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders

    The government’s latest proposals for sex workers do little to tackle the problem of human trafficking

    Laura Agustín

    19 November 2008

    Today the government proposes that paying for sex with those “controlled for another person’s gain” be a criminal offence. High on the list are victims of trafficking, and punters’ defence that they didn’t know women were trafficked is declared inadmissible. But clients may still have an out. How, they will ask, can the police prove that sex workers were trafficked?

    The police will have to identify the real trafficked victims in order to identify customers at fault – a notoriously difficult enterprise. In a few high-profile cases, self-identified victims name and help find their exploiters, and sometimes these traffickers are successfully prosecuted. But these cases are few and far between. More often it is difficult to point to migrants who knew nothing about their future jobs, who agreed to nothing about their illicit travels and who are willing to denounce perpetrators who may be family or former friends and lovers.

    More than a decade ago, while working in a Caribbean Aids-prevention organisation, I visited a small town famous as a market for informal migration. In one cafe, a waiter offered me anything I asked for in return for helping him reach anywhere in Europe. Later, I met a woman determined to travel to Paris to work. Highly informed about prices, she steered clear of brokers promising to “take care of everything”.

    I visited a village where most families spoke proudly of daughters who maintained them by selling sex abroad. And I met many people who arranged papers and transport for travellers, some charging fees and others as a family obligation. Scholars understand these as social networks and community strategies used to get migrations underway. Where few jobs are available at home, local institutions rarely try to prevent such trips. To those involved, this travel may feel irregular but not criminal, given the market for migrant labour abroad.

    The rub is that most jobs available are not recognised by national immigration regimes that only value highly educated professionals and formal-sector employment. Work permits are not granted for low-prestige jobs in kitchens, sweatshops, night clubs or agriculture. The strict regulation of labour markets can fairly be said to promote an increase in unauthorised workers. Read the rest of this entry »


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    Here’s a story about sex and borders where both sides of a cultural conflict are Europeans on holiday. The simple ability to travel between Poland and Germany without passport controls has caused people to wind up in the same space – a beach – only to offend each other. It’s instructive to see how different moralities confront each other this strenuously in what is, after all, a pretty mild situation. 

    Europe: Grin and bare it, German naturists tell Poles

    Jess Smee in Berlin

    The Guardian, Monday July 28 2008

    For decades, Germans holidaying on the white sandy beaches of Usedom have opted to leave their swimming trunks at home. Their penchant for naked bathing is nothing unusual in a country where naturism is popular and seen as, well, natural.

    But this summer, border controls between Germany and Poland were dismantled as part of the Schengen agreement. Now flocks of Poles stroll along the leafy coastal paths to nearby German towns – and many are shocked by what they see.

    Approach to airport on Usedom

    Approach to airport on Usedom

    “It is unheard of. People sunning themselves in the nude! And right on the coast, where normal people go walking,” Stanislawa Borecka, a 63-year-old from the Polish town of Szczecin, told the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper. “What should I tell my grandson?”

    But for Germans of all ages who enjoy swimming and sunbathing on naturist – or FKK (free body culture) – beaches, the disapproving glances from Polish walkers are incomprehensible and intrusive.

    “It’s an FKK beach. It’s awful that fully dressed Polish people come and stare at us,” said 46-year-old Elke Bernholz.

    Naturism is so popular on the Baltic coast island of Usedom that German travel agent Ossi Urlaub selected it as a destination for its first nudist charter flight, a trip which was later cancelled because of “moral concerns”.

    The culture clash between the border towns is a recent phenomenon. Many cheered in December, when the barbed-wire fence was dismantled as part of the Schengen deal.

    “Finally we can cross the border without passport controls,” said Szczecin’s mayor, Janusz Zmurkiewicz.

    Little did he know that some German tourists prefer to stroll in their birthday suits. With the FKK beach lying close to the border, some naturists have strayed on to the Polish beach. For many, that is a step too far.

    “It is disgusting,” said Edward Zajac, a Szczecin politician who wants to move the FKK beach from the Polish border.

    But the Germans, who have been unfolding their towels on the beach year in year out, are unlikely to want to move. For the time being, authorities plan to put up signs marking the boundaries of the nudist beach – in both German and Polish.


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    The Guardians, by Ana Castillo (2007, Random House), is about the lives of Mexicans living near the border in the US. In this excerpt, two of them make a tour with a photograph of someone who’s disappeared.

    [We went] to Paisano to ask if any of the laborers recognise him. Pero nel. No luck. Young and old men alike shake their tired heads. IT’s six in the morning and they already looked tired out.

    So we go walking around downtown, over by the Stanton bridge, up and down Paisano and down and up Oregon. We go by the Tiradero as the merchants are setting up their puestos and all los hombres are out there already. That flea market’s open all year long. Across the street you got the KFC-Taco Bell combo in one lil building-men are waiting there. They’re waiting in the McDonald’s and Church’s Chicken parking lots, too. Across from my old parish, El Sagrado Corazon, where Lola used to make me go to Mass, you got them waiting. ‘Maestro,’ they call out, ‘take me. I’ll work hard for you. See”‘ They flex a muscle or try to. They flash a smile at us.

    Me and Oso make our way down to all the bus stations with Rafa’s picture that’s falling apart from so much passing around. The one closest to my house is on Santa Fe and Overland. Then over to Los Angeles Limousines. I understand that some women take that one all the way to LA to get clothes deals at the garment district there. Then they come right back on that bus line and take the clothes to Juarez to sell. I go to the Plaza de los Lagartijos where all the women housekeepers wait to be picked up by patrones. The city used to keep live alligators in the fountain but the animals kept getting killed.

    Once I even asked a couple of Migra parked on the street. ‘Let me see your ID, sir,’ one tonto said of answering me about the photograph I was trying to show him. N’hombre. La perrera anda brava. They’ll take anybody in.

    LATimesBlogs 17 April 2008

    Another time, me and Oso asked some puchucos standing around waiting-not for work but to make dope deals. I knew who they were-los Mexika Tres Mil. Pretty bad pachucos, but they still ain’t the worse. The Mexika Tres Mil or the MTM like they call themselves, come straight out of federal prisons. They operate inside the prisons, too. Maybe they’re tied to the big narcos. I ain’t claiming to know nothing. Just like my neighbors never hear nothing, I walk around but I don’t see nothing…The MTM ain’t no lil ganga, neither. They’re spread all the way down to Centroamerica. Matones mostly. I ain’t afraid of them, though….

    All up and down now there are los day laborers who cross over every morning, the skilled and unskilled, good workers and not-so-good ones. The borracho types hiding cuartos in paper bags underneath the muebles they’re leaning against. You gotta look behind the tires to check for a hidden half-pint to make sure you don’t pick up un tipo who’ll be pie-eyed by noon.

    It almost looks like something outta the Depression era, so many men needing work. But back then, they couldn’ve waited all darn day and no one wouldn’ve come for them. Then again, back then they weren’t allowed to cross over precisely ’cause there was no work. Now, during the child harvest season, La Migra turns a blind eye at all the men that come to be picked up.

    p 131-2


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    cb767e2dc78a52a15d3972568e9283d7Here’s another example of smuggling of migrants in the informal economy, from Dorothy B. Hughes’s The Blackbirder, 1943. The conversation takes place at a bar in New York, between two ‘refugees’, one a Frenchwoman pursued by Nazis in France and the other a German man who was living in France. The woman has tried unsuccessfully to avoid him, because she thinks he may be a Nazi and also because she herself travelled via Portugal and Cuba, where she bought a false passport to enter the US. The man takes her to a ‘rathskeller’ in Yorktown, on New York’s Upper East Side. The discussion centres on how to get in and out of the country using ‘informal’ methods.

    ‘You say it is simple. But you are a German.’

    ‘A refugee,’ he said smugly.

    She pressed it. A German would not be admitted. ‘How did you come into this country?’ [...]

    ‘If you can pay for it, it is easy. There are planes every week from Old Mexico into New Mexico. A regular tram line. You pay for your seat, in you go! Or if you like – out you go. So simple.’

    ‘Who runs this? Not – not the Gestapo?’

    ‘Oh no!’ Now he looked over his shoulder as if he sensed a listener. Now he did drop his voice. ‘It is not run for governments – not for any governments, nor by any governments. It is a business venture. In Mexico and New Mexico. I ask no questions. A passenger does not question the carrier which transports him. Certainly not.’ The line of his mouth was greedy. ‘It is a good business, this blackbirding. A big business.’ Again he winked. His thumb and forefinger made a round. ‘I wouldn’t mind having a little slice of it.’ His eyes were slits of obsidian. It is like the American prohibition. No taxes to pay. You pay no tax when there is no business, no registered business. Certainly not! The receipts – some are very large – are all for you.’

    14392168185Later in the book the protagonist is in a position to help US authorities catch the real bad guys but won’t, in case she is deported, since she has no legal entry visa. Does all this not ring a large bell loudly?

    -Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist


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    I’m reading a lot of older noir fiction these days and noting references to informal migration, however it’s talked about. In the following exchange between detective Lew Archer and a cop, the market for smuggling is linked immediately with the victimisation of migrants. It’s from The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald, 1949:

    ‘They’ve been running an underground railway on a regular schedule between the Mexican border and the Bakersfield area. The southern end is probably at Calexico.’

    ‘Yeah,’ Spanner said. ‘That’s an easy place to cross the border. I took a trip down there with the border guard a couple of months ago. All they got to do is crawl through a wire fence from one road to the other.’

    ‘And Troy’s truck would be waiting to pick them up. They used the Temple in the Clouds as a receiving station for illegal immigrants. God knows how many have passed through there. There were twelve or more last night.’

    ‘Are they still there?’

    ‘They’re in Bakersfield by now, but they shouldn’t be hard to round up. If you get hold of Claude I’m pretty sure he’ll talk.’

    ‘Jesus!’ Spanner said. ‘If they brought over twelve a night, that’s three hundred and sixty a month. Do you know how much they pay to get smuggled in?’


    ‘A hundred bucks apiece. This Troy has been making big money.’

    ‘Dirty money,’ I said. ‘Trucking in a bunch of poor Indians, taking their savings away, and turning them loose to be migrant laborers.’

    He looked at me a little queerly. ‘They’re breaking the law, too, don’t forget. We don’t prosecute, though, unless they got criminal records. We just ship them back to the border and let them go. But Troy and his gang are another matter. What they been doing is good for thirty years.’

    ‘That’s fine,’ I said.

    p 341-2 in a large-print edition


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    In January of 2008, Suzi Weissman interviewed me for her program Beneath the Surface on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. The interview concentrates on migration issues and the Mexico-US border region and can be listened to here.


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    Susie Bright’s Journal, 9 October 2007

    Sex at the Margins with Laura Agustín

    For quite some time, we’ve heard about the sex slaves— the traffickers, the sexual bondage emerging at the border. The discovery makes free citizens sick; we feel like we must to do anything to make it stop, to uncover the beast.

    But something very weird has been happening. Last month in the Washington Post, a shocking story appeared: Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence: U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short.


    It turns out nearly 30 million dollars was spent, in a passionate effort, to find a relative tiny number of victims. The “experts” had estimated over 50,000 sex slaves, then up to a million, and warned of a tidal wave on the horizon. Yet over ten years, and aggressive funding, the activists on the ground found closer to a thousand undocumented workers who matched the description of who they were looking for.

    Of course, even one person found in bondage is more than enough. But the politics and polemics of rescue seemed strangely out of whack. Other reporters had raised a red flag years before: see Debbie Nathan’s “Oversexed,” and Daniel Radosh’s critique of “Bad Trade.”

    When well-intended social workers and enforcement agents sought out female migrant workers with grievances, they often found people who said, “I’m desperate for papers, but I’m not doing sex work— I’m in a different sort of bondage!”

    Or, they found migrants who said, “I am doing sex work, but I’m making it worth my while, and the one way you could help me is by either getting out of my way or getting me legal documents so I make my own decision.” Or, they found male prostitutes who didn’t fit the feminine portrait of victimization at all, and they weren’t eligible for “help,” either. The problem as conceived by the policy makers was completely mismatched with the reality.

    Author Laura Agustín has written a new book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industry, which rethinks the arguments of this entire tableau. If you’ve EVER read a story about trafficking, “immigration problems,” and felt like you didn’t know where to turn, this book will turn every assumption you might have on its head. Read the rest of this entry »


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