It was a dusty, sunny day on the outskirts of Tijuana. While much of Mexico roiled in civil unrest last month, the upscale neighbourhood overlooking the Pacific Ocean was an oasis of calm. Inside a sprawling two-storey home, a group of girls sang a traditional birthday song to a slim young woman dressed in scrubs as she laughed and wiped away tears.
"I'm making a wish!" said Hilda, squeezing her eyes closed. She stooped and blew out the candles on her cake to claps and cheers. The girls swarmed to hug her. This was a goodbye party as well as a birthday celebration, because Hilda, now 18, is the first woman to graduate from La Casa del Jardin – The Garden House – a group home for victims of child sex-trafficking in Mexico.
La Casa del Jardin is one of three such homes in the country, and the only one that exists along the border between Mexico and the United States, where the need is high and growing.
Hilda was one of the first girls turned over to the home by Mexican authorities after they discovered she had been sexually abused and, like many trafficking victims, sold into prostitution by her family. Over the past months, she has emerged from a self-imposed cocoon of silence; she now works with children at a health centre and has just found an apartment of her own, a few kilometres away from the group home.
"She's been sharing with me that she feels ready [to go]," said Alma Tucker, who opened La Casa del Jardin a year and a half ago. "We see her happiness every day. Now she's in the process to be independent, and that's our goal."
There are now eleven girls like her living there, between nine and 17 years old, and each with a story like Hilda's. The home provides them with a team of teachers, therapists and cooks. Ms. Tucker, an American citizen born in Mexico, crosses the border daily to oversee the Casa's workings.
Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon's 2006 tougher drug-law reforms, combined with ever-tightening U.S. border security, have made the trafficking of women and girls exponentially more profitable, dramatically increasing the need for programs such as Ms. Tucker's Garden House.
At least 20,000 people are trafficked through Mexico every year, and the vast majority of them are women and girls, said Rosi Orozco, a former member of Mexico's Congress, who opened a similar shelter in Mexico City. She said some girls are sold to the cartels by their families, often for drug money, while others are kidnapped and prostituted by cartels – one of the many reasons the exact location of La Casa del Jardin is kept a strict secret.
Ms. Orozco, a public figure, said she faces daily death threats despite employing heavy security, another aspect of the culture of impunity that means few people are apprehended by police or charged.
The shift from drugs to women and girls is a matter of simple economics, said Mary-Ellen Barrett, a deputy district attorney in California who deals with cross-border trafficking. "With a pound of cocaine, if you sell it, you have to go get some more. But with a woman, you can sell her several times a night, seven days a week."
Human smugglers who, not long ago had a lucrative underground industry helping Mexicans and Central and South Americans slip across the border to find work in the United States, are now expanding into trafficking women and girls for sex as well.
Ms. Tucker first became aware of the enormity of the problem more than a decade ago when working with migrants through the Mexican consulate in San Diego.
"One case in particular really touched my heart," she said. "They called me to visit a patient, and when I arrived, I found a 14-year-old girl. She didn't speak any English and was crying for her mom."
As it turned out, the girl had not only been raped by the man her parents had paid to smuggle her into the United States, but was also sold for sex by him before she was able to flee. Ms. Tucker eventually was able to reunite the girl with her family, but was haunted by her story.
When she retired, she decided to dedicate herself to offering a second chance to young girls who had been trafficked. By opening La Casa del Jardin she hoped to help victims who have been largely ignored by the state. Mexico is classified as a Tier 2 country by the U.S. Department of State, which puts out yearly trafficking reports. That means it does not fully comply with minimal anti-trafficking efforts, although it is taking steps to do so. This includes writing new laws to make human trafficking a "grave offence," punishable by 18 years in prison.
Still, social services that could offer help to victims aren't seen as a priority in Mexico. In a country where machismo dominates, politics is seen largely as the domain of men whereas social welfare is treated as women's work. Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, the government agency that administers programs for underprivileged children and adults, including victims of trafficking, is considered to be something of a token agency, generally headed by elected officials' wives.
When Ms. Orozco opened her Mexico City group home in 2007, she said nobody was doing anything about the problem. "There was nothing, no authority who wanted to do something."
In fact, the weak state, combined with the strength of Mexico's notorious cartels, creates the perfect conditions for human trafficking, said Everard Meade, director of Trans-Border Institute, a San Diego-based think tank. Mr. Meade said there is tremendous power in community-based projects such as The Garden House.
"I think there is political will to look at things that we know work on the local level and scale them up," he said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Tucker is ramping up her own project to keep up with demand. She recently moved the Casa del Jardin to a larger building so they can also offer a safe place for adult victims of abuse and trafficking.
"We call it The Garden House, not because we have a huge garden, but because each of the girls represents a flower," Ms. Tucker said. "We have to take care of them just like a flower, create for them a healthy ambience, nourish them with education, give them a lot of love and that way they will grow."
Hilda says she is blooming. Now that she's 18 and officially an adult, she has a job and a place of her own. She is both reluctant and eager to be leaving The Garden House.
"I'm happy and kind of sad, but it's okay. I'm okay," she said.