Targeting and Recruitment of Central American Teens through Social Media

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It starts as 15 year-old Maria’s modern day love story. She receives a Facebook friend request from a man named Juan who lives in the United States.  Maria lives in a small town in Honduras, but her uncle lives in the United States and is Facebook friends with Juan.  Juan looks a little older, but his photos show him with nice things, pictured beside a swimming pool, and posed in front of a sports car.  Maria and Juan start to chat online.  He asks her for her cell phone number, and they talk by phone.  He tells Maria she is beautiful and calls her his girlfriend.  Maria tells Juan about her problems at her cousin’s house, where she lives, and Juan says he will help her come to the United States.  Maria knows a lot of people who have gone to the U.S., and now they put up photos with nice clothes and smartphones.  Maria says yes, and before she knows it, Juan has arranged for a smuggler to bring her through Mexico and into the United States.

Maria’s story sounds like the start of many domestic human trafficking stories: a runaway with a complicated family life meets a man who starts as her boyfriend and ends as her pimp.[1]   Thanks to the global reach of social media, the nightmare has spread worldwide.  Technology and social networking sites like Facebook provide predators an outlet to recruit naïve girls from previously inaccessible areas.  Technology has become widely accessible in Central America, even in more rural areas through internet cafes.  In Honduras, a country of 8 million, there are 1,073,940 Facebook users.[2]  Most users are young and have not been trained to protect themselves or their information on the internet.  The result creates the perfect victim: a girl without a family structure to protect her, with few options, and with access to the internet.  Girls from Central America meet a “boyfriend” through social media, and that boyfriend pays her journey from Central America.  Once the girls are in the United States, they lack immigration status, language ability, knowledge of the laws and the legal system, and a social network.[3]  This compounds the problem, making it basically impossible for the girls to leave the trafficking situation.

Long-distance relationship, arranged marriage, or human trafficking? One of the challenges in understanding and finding solutions for these teens is that it is hard to categorize what is going on.  At least in the beginning, the girls feel they are in a consensual, long-distance relationship.  They want to be swept off their feet, saved from a bad home environment, and the predator knows all the right things to say.  Until they have arrived to their “boyfriend’s” home, they do not see anything wrong with the relationship.  Family members are often involved, setting up the first contact and approving of the child being smuggled into the United States.[4]  This gives the situation an appearance of sanction, making it look like a kind of arranged marriage.  However, this arrangement is not based in culture, tradition, or religion, and it is not an agreement made between two loving families.[5]  The girl is a child, coming to the United States to live with an adult man she has never met.  She is selling herself, agreeing at a minimum to keep house and have sex with an adult man. Furthermore, it is a child agreeing to these terms, with no guarantee of how she will be treated and no way to escape the situation if and when it turns bad.

Federal laws protect victims of human trafficking, but these girls often stay under the radar.  Even when they are caught entering the United States, the trafficking issues often go unrecognized.  The girls may be deported, or they may wind up with the same family members who approved of the sketchy Facebook “boyfriend.” Even when authorities know what it is going on, they may see it as an abusive romantic relationship rather than a trafficking case.

[1] U.S. Department of State , Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2011, 372 “U.S. citizen child victims [of sex trafficking] are often runaways, troubled, and homeless youth”; Technology and Human Trafficking: A Project of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy  “In June 2010, Dwayne Lawson was sentenced to 210 months in a federal prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking of children.  The investigation began when Los Angeles police arrested a teenage girl for prostitution.  Investigators learned that the girl was a runaway working for Lawson, who initially ‘contacted the girl in the fall of 2008 on and, after promising to make her a star, gave her a bus ticket from Florida to Las Vegas, Nevada.”

[2] Jose Kont, Estadísticas de Internet y Redes Sociales en Honduras, 2012, May 18, 2012 available at

[3] Interview with Violeta Discua, Accredited Representative at the ProBAR Children’s Project on the Texas/Mexico border, “The men are much older than the girls, the girls don’t speak English, the girls don’t have money, the girls don’t know their way around, if/when there are relatives of the girl nearby they are afraid of authority due to their immigration status, etc.”

[4] Polaris Project, Challenges Facing Child Sex Trafficking Victims: Child Sex Trafficking At-a-Glance, at p.3.

[5] Interview with immigrant advocate, December 6, 2013, “[M]y concern is the motivation that started the relationship. It is not tradition, it is not religion, it is not an agreement between loving caretakers planning her future; instead it is because the girl lives in poverty and lacks of proper caretakers.”


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