Before they can reach the American Dream, many migrant women have to survive a Mexican nightmare. A staggering 80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped along the way, according to directors of migrant shelters interviewed by Fusion.
That's up from previous reports by non-profit organizations like Amnesty International that estimate the number at 60 percent.
"Women and girl migrants, especially those without legal status traveling in remote areas or on trains, are at heightened risk of sexual violence at the hands of criminal gangs, people traffickers, other migrants or corrupt officials," the 2010 Amnesty International report stated. "…Many criminal gangs appear to use sexual violence as part of the "price" demanded of migrants. According to some experts, the prevalence of rape is such that people smugglers may require women to have a contraceptive injection prior to the journey as a precaution…"
Detective Gabriel García, a prosecutor and investigator based in Huixtla, Chiapas, says certain parts of the migrant trail are hot spots for assault.
One of these spots is La Arrocera, where rape is so common women and teens plan for it, García says.
"There have been times where women will take contraceptives beforehand, so if they become a rape victim, then they won't end up pregnant," he told Fusion during a recent tour of the area.
Still, exact numbers are hard to come by.
"I think almost all of the women are abused on the way north," said lawyer Elvira Gordillo, who helps trafficked migrant women who get trafficked into prostitution. She's lived and worked in Frontera Comlapa, along the Mexico-Guatemala border, for over a decade. "[These migrants] know the price to pay for getting to the United States. The price is being sexually violated."
Perpetrators can be coyotes, other migrants, bandits, or even government authorities.
"We have active cases here of officials who've been detained and are facing criminal proceedings… for abusing the vulnerable migrant women specifically," said Alejandro Vila, head of a special prosecutor's office in Chiapas dedicated to investigating and prosecuting crimes against migrants. "We've seen that for woman crossing alone, the risk of becoming a crime victim increases significantly."
Vila's office, whose jurisdiction ends at the Chiapas state line, is unique in Mexico, standing slightly at odds with Mexico’s national migration agency, which is largely dedicated to catching and deporting migrants.
That’s why the statistics for rape and sexual assault are so fuzzy. Almost all migrants crossing north don’t have permission to be in Mexico, so reporting a crime to the authorities means risking deportation. Other victims are ashamed to admit they’ve been brutalized.
Sex is also seen as an economic exchange or form of payment; a physical "currency" for those women who lack the cash needed to pay bribes or "protection" fees on the journey north.
"Of course we know about this —how could we not?" said Vila. "There are cases where women offer their bodies in exchange for being able to cross over."
The arrangement is so common there's a slang term for it—"cuerpomátic," or "cuerpomático" (an apparent wordplay on Credomatic, a Central American credit-card processing firm), which means to use one's body — or cuerpo — as a source of currency.
The situation becomes even more alarming given the recent spike in unaccompanied youth arriving at the U.S. border.
According to a July 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of unaccompanied Central American girls under the age of 18 arriving at the U.S border has skyrocketed — up 77 percent this year alone. Those figures are based on reported apprehensions from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. For teenage girls, the increase is 62 percent.
But rape and assault aren't the only dangers migrant women face.
Hundreds of brothels and "table-dance" bars clutter Mexico's southern border. The majority of sex workers in border towns like Mapastepec and Frontera Comalapa are migrant women who've been tricked or, as they say, "fallen" into prostitution.
"Women come here with the intention of working somewhere else," says lawyer Gordillo. "They never say, hey, I'm going to go to that town — in Chiapas, Mexico — to work as a prostitute."
Many migrant women are cash-strapped by the time they make it this far, and are tempted by offers of temporary work in restaurants and bars. But those establishments serve more than food — many are also brothels.
"Lety," now 21, left her native Honduras in 2009 and says she was tricked into working in a Mexican brothel at age 16.
"I was a waitress, and I also had to fichar," she said. "That’s what they call it when someone arrives and invites you to have a drink, and pass time. They say fichar. And well, we had to fichar."
Passing time drinking in the bar often leads into passing time in the back rooms of the bars. The accounting system is one of tabs and of debt—which adds up quickly to become bondage. Women generally end up owing room, board, alcohol, and even food expenses to the brothel owner, which often keeps them working there.
Inside Bar Las Vegas, 36-year-old "Charity" explained that she became a prostitute by accident, after a Guatemalan friend promised her work serving food.
"When I first arrived here," Charity said, "I was like, wait… This isn't a restaurant."
Yet she stayed. "Little by little, the time passes, and then… well, it's not that you enjoy working here. It's that the situation meets a need."
For many women in similar economic situations, the income made from prostitution in Mexico can eventually become enough to send remittances back home.
In a shelter for migrant families and children in Tapachula, Mexico, Olga Benítez, a mother traveling with three children, admits she's concerned about what lies ahead. She left her native Honduras after her teenage son was kidnapped by gang members.
"I’ve heard many horrible things," Benítez says. "I've heard a story about a Honduran girl, who was raped along the way… they just left her there… She went back to Honduras pregnant. I've heard that they'll trap [women]… that they do awful things to them. They force them to sell sex."
But she’s convinced that with prayer, her and her family will reach the U.S. unscathed.
"I say, everyone will fail me but God," she confides. "This is my hope, my confidence… that there will be guardian angels along the way."