Sexual assault of migrants from Latin America to the United States

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Many women and girls migrating from Latin America to the United States are victims of sexual assault. People who migrate through or from Mexico without legal permission must enter into dealings with smugglers and, often, criminal gangs. Perpetrators may be smugglers or gang members, but can also be government officials, bandits, or other migrants. Sexual assault is sometimes part of the "price" of smuggling, and some women have reported preparing for it in advance by taking contraception.

People without legal permission to migrate are much less likely to report being the victim of a crime or otherwise take actions which may jeopardize their ability to cross the border or remain in the United States. Although data is difficult to collect and analyze, Amnesty International reported in 2010 that as many as 60% of women and girls are sexually assaulted over the course of their journey.


People travel from or through Mexico to the United States for several reasons, including poverty, lack of opportunity, and unsafe conditions.[1] Many determined to improve their conditions, but who are unable to migrate with legal permission, find other means to cross the border, often at great risk to themselves. Despite the risks and abuses suffered along the way, many people make several attempts.

Amnesty International published a report in 2010 which found that "women and children -- particularly unaccompanied children -- are especially vulnerable. They face serious risks of trafficking and sexual assault by criminals, other migrants and corrupt public officials."[1]


Perpetrators of crimes against these migrants are often those involved with people smuggling, known as coyotaje.[2][3][4] They may also be bandits, members of criminal gangs, other migrants, or government employees in either Mexico or the U.S.[2][4][5] Sexual violence may be considered part of the "price" women must pay in order to be smuggled over the border.[1][4] Sexual violence, or threatening to sexually assault someone, may also be one part of a larger criminal plan to extort money from the migrants or their families.[1]

Rape of migrants is so common that some women and girls plan for it, taking or bringing contraception, or they may be required to take it by smugglers.[1][6][4][7] A PBS NewsHour story about sexual assault of female migrants interviewed a pharmacist in Altar in Sonora, who said that the town is one of the last stops for someone about to cross the border, and that in the pharmacy she frequently receives the same question: "What can I do in case I'm raped, and I don't want to get pregnant."[8][7]

The parts of Mexico near the U.S. border, and the state of Chihuahua and city of Juárez in particular, are some of the most dangerous places for women in general in Mexico, according to a Reuters report on the "pandemic" of violence against women in Mexico.[6] In some areas near the border, rapists began hanging their victims' garments from trees as trophies.[6][3][4][9] These trees are sometimes called "rape trees" by members of the Minuteman Project, and the term has been taken up by anti-immigration activists and politicians.[10][11] According to Harel Shapira, in his book about the extrajudicial border patrol organization, "for the Minutemen, the rape trees are a powerful symbol of the Mexican male’s immorality and simultaneously imbue their own actions with valor; by patrolling the border, the volunteers are defending not just America but women, and not just American women but all women, even the ones who are 'illegal.'"[12]


Cases of abuses are rarely reported or prosecuted, and data about these crimes is difficult to acquire or assess.[1]

People who do not have legal permission to migrate from or through Mexico do not typically have effective access to the same criminal justice system as legal migrants.[2][1] In addition to the stigma attached to sexual assaults for anyone, they are unlikely to be willing to take actions which they believe may result in being unable to cross the border or remain across the border.[1][4] Because many of the offenses involve people in power or connected to organized crime, many women also fear retaliation for speaking up.[7]

The newspaper La Jornada surveyed women attempting to migrate while they were in Mexican border cities. 30% said coyotes forced them to have sex as payment.[13]

The United Nations estimated that among women crossing without husbands or families, as many as 70% were victims of some form of abuse.[4]

At the time of the Amnesty International report, the non-profit estimated "as many as six in 10 women and girl migrants experience sexual violence during the journey."[1] It cites a 2006 study of already-detained migrant women in which 23 of 90 reported experiencing violence, with 13 saying the perpetrator was a state official.[1] The researchers involved believed actual numbers were likely higher.[1]

According to a report by Splinter News, as many as 80% of women and girls coming to the United States from Central America are sexually assaulted.[2]

Michelle Brané of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children told Tucson Weekly that "nonprofit groups and even the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement ... estimate that the vast majority of women and female children encounter some sort of sexual assault en route to the United States," and that "it's become the norm, and in many cases with female children, they just assume that there's been some sort of incident."[4]

Efforts to provide help or remedy the problems[edit]

Amnesty International called for state and non-government organizations to ensure proper medical and psychological services for people who have experienced sexual violence, to design processes that facilitate safe reporting of crimes, and to evaluate the ways in which they find and protect victims.[1]

In 2007 the Mexican government passed legislation intending to curb violence against women. According to Reuters, it also "established so-called gender violence alerts, a tool to mobilize national, state and local governments to catch perpetrators and reduce murders. Yet in practice the gender alert has never been activated."[6]

In an interview with NPR, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Arizona, correlated increased sexual assaults at the border with increased border security that pushes migrants into increasingly remote areas, and also points to the increased role of organized crime in smuggling.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico". Amnesty International. 2010. Archived from the original on April 12, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d Bonello, Deborah; McIntyre, Erin Siegal (September 10, 2014). "Is rape the price to pay for migrant women chasing the American Dream?". Splinter News. Retrieved June 7, 2018. 
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Scott (August 10, 2014). "Busy "Pipeline" Migrant Route Makes Texas Town Hub for Human Smuggling". National Geographic. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Vanderpool, Tim (June 5, 2008). "Price of Admission". Tucson Weekly. 
  5. ^ Human Rights Watch (Organization) (1992). Brutality Unchecked: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S. Border with Mexico. Human Rights Watch. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-1-56432-075-9. 
  6. ^ a b c d Rama, Anahi; Diaz, Lizbeth (March 7, 2014). "Violence against women 'pandemic' in Mexico". Reuters. 
  7. ^ a b c d Inskeep, Steve (March 23, 2014). "The Rarely Told Stories Of Sexual Assault Against Female Migrants". All Things Considered. NPR. 
  8. ^ Joffe-Block, Jude (March 31, 2014). "Women crossing the U.S. border face sexual assault with little protection". PBS NewsHour. PBS. 
  9. ^ Fox, Lauren (July 5, 2013). "The Watch". U.S. News & World Report. 
  10. ^ Khimm, Suzy (April 25, 2012). "Rape trees, rosaries and English-only: Why the Supreme Court won't quell the immigration debate". Washington Post. 
  11. ^ Johnson, Jennifer L. (2014), "Border granny wants you", in Nancy A. Naples, Jennifer Bickham Mendez, Border Politics: Social Movements, Collective Identities, and Globalization, NYU Press, p. 49, ISBN 9781479858170, [S]peculating about the rhetoric and reality of rape trees...this discourse [structures] Minuteman activism in highly gendered ways... 
  12. ^ Shapira, Harel (2013). Waiting for Jose: The Minutemen's Pursuit of America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 116–117. ISBN 9781400846764. 
  13. ^ Jimenez, Maria (October 1, 2009). "Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border" (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union.