At the heart of slavery

Carl Robinette

Wed January 8, 2014 1:52pm

Juana, a teenage girl in Mexico, went online a few years ago and discovered that she had been singled out by a talent agent. The agent convinced Juana she had the goods to be a model and he said he would help her. She saw a new life of glamour and fame ahead of her.
When she met this so-called agent she soon found out the only life he had to offer was one of slavery in the human trafficking trade.
Juana’s real name has been changed to protect her identity and she is one of the many victims who have been helped to reenter society by Eastlake resident Alma Tucker and International Network of Hearts.
“Everybody can be vulnerable, at any time and at any age,” said Alma, founder and president of Network of Hearts. “Many times the children don’t know who is on the other side of the computer screen.”
The Network of Hearts was created to give a secure environment to victims of human trafficking who have been found and rescued by authorities in Mexico and the United states, and gives them counseling and resources they need to overcome their trauma.
Juana was rescued from slavery after her mother’s relentless pressure on police to continue pursuing her case. Eventually she was found but, for victims like her, the nightmare doesn’t end with rescue.
“Who’s helping those girls after they are found by authorities?” Alma said.  “Now they testify against their predators and what happens to them afterward? There is no care for them. There are no services or resources.”
Traveling across the border to Tijuana every day, Alma provides those services. Currently La Casa del Jardin, the network’s Tijuana safe house, is the only one of its kind in Baja and houses 12 survivors from ages 12 to 17. There they get long-term shelter and other resources that will give them a shot at having a normal life.
Working in the Mexican Consulate’s protection department, Alma got a first-hand education on the protections against human trafficking and benefits and resources available to its victims, often at no cost. She took that knowledge with her when she left and started the organization in 2010.
“Without these resources and help, it’s not a good vision of the future for them,” said Alma. “What they have been through is so painful. They are going to either die or live a life of suffering.”
Human trafficking is a $32 billion per year business, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and usually involves organized crime and cartels. But Alma dismisses any fear for her own safety with casual indifference.
“We just stay away from politics and organized crime and just do our job,” she said. “I don’t ever have time to be afraid, we’re so motivated in what we’re doing.”
Some girls are witnesses who will testify and are considered to be at risk of attack from organized crime.  Alma and her organization keep these girls on the move, never staying in one location for more than a couple of days.
Human trafficking is prolific now and Alma knows her efforts will not end it, but with a mantra common to everyone who fights to end human suffering in the third world, she says, “Each life counts.”
“We’re neighbors with Mexico, but many times we are so far apart,” she added.  “We have more slaves in the world now than during the time of Abraham Lincoln.”
Plans for a second house that will shelter another 12 girls are in the works with a third on the horizon that will be exclusively for mothers and pregnant victims of human trafficking.