By Christine Murray
TAPACHULA, Mexico, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexico's few shelters for victims of human trafficking are under threat - one has recently closed and another is on the brink - following a government crackdown on funding for non-profits that campaigners say could leave vulnerable women in fresh danger.
Several heads of Mexico's dozen or so civil society-run trafficking shelters said they have long struggled financially but either had closed or feared having to cut services after the government said in February it would stop funding non-profits.
Mexico's previous government identified about 8,000 victims of trafficking over its six-year term. But there is no public data on how many of them stayed at shelters and the United Nations said that management of the homes had been disorderly.
The new administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador last month said helping victims would be a priority as it prepares its anti-trafficking strategy, yet the closure of cash-strapped shelters could endanger lives, activists say.
"You can't take down these spaces from night to the next morning," said Wendy Figueroa, head of the National Network of Shelters whose members run spaces for women victims of violence.
"There will be higher rates of femicides and revictimization of the women that need these spaces of protection," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The president's office referred questions to the Ministry of Wellbeing, which said civil society organizations had been doing work that the government did not want to do, meaning that the groups had to almost work "miracles" to help vulnerable people.
The ministry said the government was working on a strategy to prevent and address violence against women and girls.
"It's very important to clarify and reiterate that shelters don't close, they won't close. It's the opposite, they will be supported, they will be strengthened," it said in a statement.
The National Human Rights Commission says there may be between 50,000 and 500,000 trafficking victims in Mexico, from people exploited for sex to those forced to work for drug gangs.
One shelter in Mexico City, which housed up to 20 victims of trafficking, closed in December after eight years as it became clear that federal and local governments would stop distributing vital grants, according to Teresa Ulloa who ran the center.
Unlike shelters for victims of other types of violence, there has never been a clear source of government funding or support for those housing victims of trafficking, activists say.
And funding fears were heightened in February, when President Lopez Obrador said the government would no longer fund civil society groups but instead give money straight to people in need. It was not clear how this would work in practice.
Ulloa relied on about 300,000 pesos ($16,000) annually from a government program called "Social Co-investment" to run the shelter. The program was assigned money in the 2019 budget, but has not been dispensed in the wake of the president's letter.
The running costs of Mexico's trafficking shelters vary widely - ranging from 400,000 pesos a year to 4 million pesos.
"(Funding) has always been difficult," said Marian Gonzalez, a director at the National Institute of Social Development (INDESOL), who has surveyed the country's trafficking shelters and warned that many now risked having to reduce their services.
ON THE BRINK
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says there are 18 trafficking shelters, six of which are government-run. All are high security, closed-door facilities which do not allow victims to have phones or come and go for safety reasons.
The vast majority of the homes are for women and children.
In a humble three-bedroom house in the southern city of Tapachula, Elsa Simon has cared for women trafficked by their boyfriends, gangs and bar owners for more than a decade.
But Simon may soon have to close the trafficking shelter - the only such facility in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state.
"There's no money except from my pocket," said the 65-year-old, who has had an armed bodyguard since one trafficker came to the shelter demanding to see the woman he had exploited.
"I'm at the point of saying that I won't carry on."
On top of her funding problem, Simon's Chiapas shelter is currently empty, and just a handful of women stayed there last year. She says this is because prosecutors in the state are not doing enough to investigate human trafficking and find victims.
Government data shows that Chiapas, a gateway for thousands of Central American migrants each year, reported one trafficking case in the first two months of the year, and about 26 in 2018.
Representatives from the Chiapas state government did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The UNODC has a $2.9 million grant from the U.S government's Merida Initiative, a security aid program to Mexico and Central America, to help improve standards across trafficking shelters.
UNODC Public Information Officer Felipe de la Torre said Mexico's government lacked a robust public policy related to shelters, resulting in disorder around how they are run.
"There's a huge disparity between how one shelter operates from another," the U.N. official said.
"LIVES AT RISK"
There are six shelters run by state and federal government in Mexico City, Colima and the state of Mexico. Civil society groups say that local and national authorities are obliged to run or fund shelters as laid out by the 2012 trafficking law.
"It's not about charity, it's about complying with the law," said Mariana Wenzel, director of Anthus, which has a trafficking shelter part-funded by the state of Puebla.
Lopez Obrador sparked a backlash in February when his health ministry withdrew a grant for shelters for female victims of violence. The move was reversed, but Figueroa said the money has not yet been disbursed and next year's funding was uncertain.
Yet trafficking shelters are not entitled to this cash, and any violence shelter that takes in a trafficking victim can have its funding taken away, according to several shelter directors.
Raising money from private donors to fill the gap left by government would not be easy, several groups said.
"There isn't much trust in civil society organizations because there have been abuses by some," said Iliana Ruvalcaba, head of nonprofit Pozo de Vida that runs a trafficking shelter in the capital, propped up by private donors at home and abroad.
A failure by trafficking shelters to secure funding could even have deadly consequences, said Maria, a survivor who was sex trafficked by an older man in her first year at university.
She arrived at Casa Anthus, 18-years-old, with her face and body covered in bruises, and unable to walk properly. The shelter provided healthcare, counselling and legal advice, and two months ago she went on to finish her law degree.
"When I arrived I didn't want to know anything ... I was disappointed with life," said Maria, asking not to use her real name. "When I left, I left with eagerness to move forward."
"If there weren't shelters like Casa Anthus I think that lots of victims would fall into the same traps again, or even their lives would be at risk."
(1 peso = $.05 USD)
(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Kieran Guilbert; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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