Tijuana, the dangers of being a woman in a border city

Temps de lecture : 10 minutes

Tijuana, the dangers of being a woman in a border city

Tijuana, the city where women pay with their lives the high cost of the proximity with the United States. A geopolitical analysis on the current events of a border city invaded by insecurity and violence against women.
For the last ten years, the number of disappeared women has been alarmingly increasing. According to local newspapers, 80 women disappeared in 2018, the number grew to 120 in 2019, and up to September 2020 there have been 145 registered cases[1]El Sol de Tijuana, Desapariciones de mujeres aumentan, 27/09/2020. There is a trend among most of the recent cases; many of the disappeared women are between 18-26 years old. The families of these women, along with local associations, have denounced the lack of results from the local authorities. However, Mexican government officials argue that due to the lack of information or witnesses, it is not clear if these are cases of trafficking, femicides or if they simply ran away from home, which makes the research process more difficult. Yet, one thing is certain, these women are nowhere to be found.
Nonetheless, the disappearance of women in Tijuana is not limited to a certain age range. In fact, little girls from one year-old up to elder women, have been reported as missing. This includes all economic status, predominantly middle to low class. This problem has taken notoriety, as its victims have been local residents, Mexican nationals as well as immigrants.
In the case of Tijuana, disappearances have been constant in this border city since the early 2000’s. During the period of 2007-2009, the narco rival cartels had been disputing the territory, making Tijuana a common grave, and kidnapping people related to their fighting event in daylight. However, those disappearances were always somehow related to their territorial disputes. Most of the disappeared were men, while women and children were a minority. A sense of calm and security returned to the city after this period.
Nonetheless, the disappearances of young girls and women have intensified over the last years, prompting a collective fear among residents. Although daylight territorial disputes among different narco cartels have at some sort diminished, the number of missing women continues to grow. Everyday there is at least one new case of a young missing woman on the local news and social media. The fear from society is completely understandable as the places of disappearances can vary from outside of their school, while taking an Uber, walking on the street, or simply outside their homes.
As previously mentioned, there have been cases of missing girls and adult women all over the country. Migrant women add to the list of disappeared, they arrived in Mexico with the intentions to cross the border to the United States, however their families claim they have never heard from them after their departure. Plus, some of the missing girls share some similar characteristics on their disappearances. The fact that these missing women share an age range and similar physical traits, has led authorities to believe they can be victims of human trafficking, in this case women trafficking. However, there is still the possibility these are cases of femicide, labor exploitation or organ trafficking[2]El Imparcial, Estan desaparecidas 271 adolescentes en Baja California, 30/08/2019.
Why is this happening in Tijuana ?
A possible response is the city’s geostrategic position; Tijuana is located at the border with San Diego, its American counterpart. Tijuana is situated at the northwest side and is the third biggest city in the country. The borderline between Tijuana and San Diego is the most transited border in the world. According to the United Nations on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), the San Diego-Tijuana border registers a migration flow of 40, 000 cars and 100, 000 people everyday[3]UNODC, Tráfico ilícito de migrantes: #NegocioMortal combatido por México y Estados Unidos. Although there is a secured standard procedure from the American side, the Mexican part lacks stronger regulations to prevent foreigners from visiting the city in search of sexual tourism. This, consequently, makes the city a red flag for sexual exploitation activities by organized crime. Nonetheless, Tijuana is not the only city in the Baja California region that is involved in women disappearances. The neighboring municipalities of Rosarito, Ensenada, and Mexicali have also reported growing numbers of missing girls and women. Authorities, local associations and researchers believe the disappearance of these women is linked to a rise in organized crime activities that reappeared since the early 2000’s.
Organized crime and the human trafficking business
The great network and organization of the group of people that profits from human trafficking leaves room for speculation that narco cartels have now expanded their operations to this activity[4]Zeta Tijuana, Familia y narco en trata de menores migrantes, 29/09/2015. In the study “Assessment of human trafficking: women and children on Mexico’s northern border, with a particular focus on Baja California”, researcher Fabiola Vargas Valencia from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) argues that there is a great network of people involved in the business of women trafficking; it goes from the recruiter or perpetrator, the driver, the host, brothels’ owners, “polleros” (smugglers), to Mexican government officials, white collars, and even US border patrols. In this city, organized crime operates woman trafficking as a highly organized and underground business. When you walk the streets of the city center such as Avenida Revolución (Revolution Avenue) or Calle Segunda (2nd Street) little do you imagine that next to the “men’s club” or “casa de masajes” (massage spa) you are walking by, there are young girls being sexually exploited.
The organized crime has been transporting girls from all over the country to bring them to Tijuana for sexual exploitation. Tijuana is the arrival destination and point of operations of human trafficking, but it also serves as a transit city to smuggle women to the United States for sexual exploitation. As prior mentioned, not all girls are from the country. A local newspaper argues that 93% of the victims are Mexican nationals, the rest coming from Central and South American countries, such as; El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, even Spain, and China. Most of the Mexican nationals that are victims of sexual exploitation in Tijuana, come from the poorest states of the country. Their regions of origin are mostly from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Nayarit, Guerrero, Estado de Mexico. However, more economically developed states such Sinaloa, Jalisco, Puebla, Michoacan, Mexico City, and the Baja California peninsula have also been affected by these events. In her report, Mrs. Vargas Valencia argues that the majority of exploited women aspire to cross to the United States.
In fact, most of the victims are persuaded to migrate to the United States in search of a better future. The proposal to cross the border illegally comes from the recruiter who creates personal ties with the victim to facilitate the persuasion. Most of the women who come from other states of the Mexican Republic or from abroad end up in Tijuana forced to prostitute in order to pay for the transportation fees or for the fake documents with which they have been brought. In her study[5]Fabiola Vargas-Valencia, “La trata de personas, dilema de la frontera norte de México: un análisis de política pública en Baja California, desde una perspectiva de género y los derechos … Continue reading, Mrs. Vargas Valencia states that there are 5 different routes from which the victims are brought to Baja California:

  • The first one comes from South America via Mexico City, in this route migrant women are exploited in bars and strip clubs.
  • The second route starts in Central America passing by Chiapas ending in Tijuana. In this case victims arrive with the recruiters they met on their cities of origin. The victims are forced to prostitute to pay for housing, food, and documentation.
  • The third one is Baja California where women are stuck in the municipalities of the region because they were deported from the US or could not cross the border, are offered money in exchange of prostitution.
  • The departing point of the fourth route is Tijuana that directs women to Ciudad Juarez. Some of the witnesses consulted in the study argue that a lot of the women found dead in Ciudad Juarez came from Tijuana.
  • The last and most controversial route is Tijuana as a departing point with direction to the United States, via San Diego. In this route, women and children are smuggled to the US by polleros with fake documents or hidden in cars. The study argues that sometimes border patrols from the American side are involved in the process.

Historically, Tijuana has been the vice city for northern countries
Tijuana has successfully developed economically thanks to agriculture, the “maquiladora” industry, and tourism. Since its foundations, it has acted as a source of entertainment for American visitors who came in search of the activities that were prohibited in their country. In 1920, the Volstead Act or formally known as the Prohibition Act, banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The moralist wave that was living in the United States under President Wilson later extended to the interdiction of gambling and prostitution. Ironically, the implementation of this law in the United States led to the blossoming of the alcohol business in Tijuana. Americans were attracted by the soft rules in the southern city close to their border. Since then Americans, mostly men, have travelled to Tijuana to liberate those behaviors that were frowned upon in the US.
In the 20th century, Tijuana managed to boost its development by a surge in sex trade and sex tourism. Throughout the century, the city turned tourism on its main economic activity; all services were destined to fulfill the needs of American visitors. Ever since, Tijuana has been the provider of amusement for foreign visitors, many times at the expense of the security and well being of their residents.
Walking along the infamous Zona Norte, the red light district located in the city center, one can see the numerous brothels, massage spas, and hotels offering their services to their clientele, foreign visitors most of the time. Although Mexican citizens participate in the prostitution business, it is mostly North American, Western European men who come down to Tijuana in search of sexual tourism.
Sexual tourism, supplying the demand
The high demand on prostitution has increased criminal groups dedicated to human trafficking. This has resulted in the rise of kidnapping and recruitment of victims to force them into sexual exploitation. There are registers of Americans coming from all around the country down to Tijuana in search of prostitution.
The case of Joel Alexander Wright, is one of the most notorious. In 2016, the seminary student from Ohio was sentenced to 15 years of prison in the US after pleading guilty of trying to adopt and buy baby girls in Mexico so he could sexually molest them[6]NBC San Diego, Seminary Student Sentenced to 15 Years in Federal Prison for Seeking Sex With Babies in Tijuana, 01/07/2016. One of the most common ways for sexual abusers to demand for these services is through Craigslist. The website serves as a link for these people to recruit locals as “tour guides” in Mexico, in order to establish a contact[7]San Diego Union Tribune, ‘Brand new, recently stolen’: Inside Tijuana’s sex tourism trade of young children, 21/10/2017. The dynamic is always the same, the tourist crosses the border without many questions asked by the Mexican immigration officials, he then walks the bridge connecting the border to the downtown area and contacts the trafficker, who afterwards handles him the victim. This “transaction” can take place at daylight, in a spot close to the border where anyone can see it. Indeed, many of the local merchants are aware of this but are afraid to denounce it fearing reprisals. It is a round business in which everyone is involved, the criminals, the client and the local police who turn a blind eye in exchange for money.
The sexual exploitation business has also benefited from the high flux of immigration in the city. As stated on the five routes, the fifth route is composed by people from different parts of the country or foreign women who believe they will only pass by the city to cross to the United States, but end up stuck in the trap of their traffickers. Due to the recent wave of immigrations form Southern and Central American countries, the State Unit against Human Trafficking of the Attorney General’s Office of the State of Baja California launched an information campaign in all the migrant shelters of the city. The unit’s director declared “Migrants are the most vulnerable people, they are easy prey to the issue of trafficking and more so if they are foreigners. If you are undocumented, it is difficult for families to find the migrant from another country, and then help her/him, that makes them very vulnerable[8]San Diego Union Tribune, Advierten de trata de migrantes en Baja California, 29/07/2019”.
Going beyond the scope of exploitation itself, it is important to question the actions of the American government to prevent their nationals from crossing the border in search of sexual tourism. So far, their approach has been reactive instead of preventing this from happening.
Binational cooperation has fallen short on the fight against human trafficking
 Under the UNODC, both countries share a common work to prevent immigrant trafficking. The Oasis Initiative is the program shared by Mexico and the US to establish a judiciary framework in cases of human trafficking of immigrants. Through the program, both states aim to establish coordination in the fight against international organized crime. Furthermore, SOMMEX is a program that aims to prevent and fight human trafficking of immigrants in Mexico.
Certainly, there is progress on the talks that aim to protect immigrants who end up in the border area. However, both States have fallen short on the coordination of programs devoted to the fight against human trafficking dedicated to children and women. On the opposite, in the “2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Mexico” by the US Department of State, the US government points out to their Mexican counterparts. The report states that during the actions in 2019, the Mexican government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. “The government investigated, prosecuted, and convicted fewer traffickers than in the previous year; provided limited specialized services for trafficking victims, which were unavailable in most parts of the country; and maintained an inadequate number of shelters compared to the scale of the problem[9].”
Indeed, numerous local reports point out the unwillingness of Mexican officials to fight human trafficking. Although the lack of transparency and corruption within domestic institutions has allowed this problem to develop, there is a need for an international pressure to end this situation. The Mexican government has failed to protect its citizens and immigrants trying to cross to the neighboring country. Yet, the United States has also failed to set harsher restrictions on their citizens that could further prevent them from crossing in search of sexual and other vice services.
This is a problem where the victims are Mexicans or foreigners, whom in most cases are seeking a better life in the United States. Certainly, organized crime is composed of Mexican citizens. Nonetheless, the demand for sexual tourism comes from the northern side of the border. Common talks or initiatives leading to both States understanding the current situation have fallen short to this problem. Mexico and the United States need to work together on the elaboration of a binational plan on the fight against this new way of slavery.


Arun Kumar Acharya, Francisco Gomez, Armando Suarez, Araceli Morquecho, Tania Dominguez, Andres Benitez, Jose Cervantes, Abel Garza, Myriam Quistiano, “Perspectivas del tráfico de personas en México. Un análisis de las entidades federativas”, 2011, Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo León.
Fabiola Vargas-Valencia, “La trata de personas, dilema de la frontera norte de México: un análisis de política pública en Baja California, desde una perspectiva de género y los derechos humanos”, July-December 2018, Huellas de la Migración, pgs 93-131.
Oscar Guillermo del Toro Ramirez, “La vulnerabilidad de género en la trata de personas en suitación de explotación sexual en Tijuana”, 2012, Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Pour citer cet article : Friday GARIBAY, “Tijuana, the dangers of being a woman in a border city”, 1.11.2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique.


1 El Sol de Tijuana, Desapariciones de mujeres aumentan, 27/09/2020
2 El Imparcial, Estan desaparecidas 271 adolescentes en Baja California, 30/08/2019
3 UNODC, Tráfico ilícito de migrantes: #NegocioMortal combatido por México y Estados Unidos
4 Zeta Tijuana, Familia y narco en trata de menores migrantes, 29/09/2015
5 Fabiola Vargas-Valencia, “La trata de personas, dilema de la frontera norte de México: un análisis de política pública en Baja California, desde una perspectiva de género y los derechos humanos”, July-December 2018, Huellas de la Migración, pgs 93-131, url : https://huellasdelamigracion.uaemex.mx/article/view/11919
6 NBC San Diego, Seminary Student Sentenced to 15 Years in Federal Prison for Seeking Sex With Babies in Tijuana, 01/07/2016
7 San Diego Union Tribune, ‘Brand new, recently stolen’: Inside Tijuana’s sex tourism trade of young children, 21/10/2017
8 San Diego Union Tribune, Advierten de trata de migrantes en Baja California, 29/07/2019