Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

I have spent three years in Belize and owned a number of businesses in the country. I had to leave because of my attempts to save women from the slavery and brutality they experience. Now some people want me silenced for what I know and a private $20,000 US bounty has been placed on my head.

Most do not understand the disgusting idea of dealing with a human life as a piece of property. Belize is viewed by their neighboring countries' work force as the jewel to reach and find a wealth of income to send home to their impoverished families. Most are young women, trying to make a change and help their families. Some have passports or travel documents, so they can enter Belize with ease, arriving either at Belize City or one of the tourist islands to seek work.

Those without papers travel a different path. An employer will go to, say, Honduras, find girls and bring them back through a border crossing. For $400 Belize per girl paid to Immigration, the girls are processed into Belize. From that point on, the employer owns them, and if they try to run they are either beaten or turned over to Immigration.

Most find work in what is known as a ficheras bar. Ficheras are Latinas who work in Latin cantinas/bars as escorts who accompany men in the bar for drinks. They drink for monetary commission. The word originated from "ficha" (ticket). The male client purchases her a beer or cocktail drink at an inflated price. For example, a 12-ounce beer for her would be $10. The bar owner keeps $2 and the fichera keeps $8 as commission.

The term "fichera" stuck and is always used to describe these women, even among themselves. The fichera life is tough. Almost all ficheras use cocaine or crystal meth to counteract the depressant effects of alcohol. This allows them to stay alert and drink more beers/cocktails.

My first exposure to this practice happened when I arrived home one night to find a girl on the deck of my house. She lived across the lagoon from me and I often saw her fishing with someone I thought was her boyfriend. She had been beaten. I will call her Maria. I called a local woman I knew and asked her to come over and offer me some aid. Upon her arrival she said, "Oh, her."

Maria, Mexican, 24, was owned by this man I saw her with and was sold off as a prostitute by him for profit and drugs. His main point of operations was a bar owned by the mayor of the town I lived in. He had taken her from Mexico, paid immigration and had kept her for six months as his slave and form of income.

With the help of this local woman, we cleaned Maria up. She stayed the night and was gone in the morning before I woke. That morning at my business, I asked the locals, Okay, do you know this girl, yes? With some further questioning, I found that many of the bars I sold liquor to engaged in this business practice.

This bothered me. I felt stupid, all this time right under my nose this existed. I contacted my attorney in Belize City and asked, What can be done about this? Nothing. "A human-trafficking task force exists, contact them." I did, I did and I did. Finally I get a call back: Oh, we work with Immigration and Social Services; this is not a matter to concern yourself with.

Getting off the call, I thought, she did not even ask about the women I helped. Like names, anything, nothing.

Belize is a country where all you have to do is pay and you can get anything. I had a taxi driver in Belize City who could get anything done. "Brother, tell me, I want three girls to work in a bar I plan to open." "Easy," he said, "how many do you need, how old," etc. It was that easy. Yes, he said, we could take a ride to the Belize border with Guatemala. We walk across, pick some girls, I pay my friend at Immigration, and we're set.

A few weeks pass and I find Maria at my door. She had been locked out of her room by her boyfriend and had not showered in days. After her shower, she thanked me and wanted to leave. I asked her, Do you need help? She explained that her boyfriend would kill her and me and left.

Over the next few weeks I found thirty-two ficheras bars existed on this small island community I called home. I started handling the liquor deliveries to these bars. I met the girls, and as the owners seldom worked at the locations, I quickly discovered the ugly facts of what was going on.

Some of the girls are locked up in a room more like a box at night after they had finished all the services required of them. In some cases, five women are padlocked in a room 6 by 6. Locked from the outside. Travel documents held until a debt for travel and claimed paperwork with Immigration is paid off.

My life changed one night when a girl named Jenny appeared at my door. She was a worker at one of the bars. It was 2 in the morning. "We need some help," she pleaded. We. I looked out in my yard to see three other girls. "One of our girls got beat up by my boss, she is hiding and she needs help."

Like an organized troop, we are off on my golf cart. From a call, Jenny learned the girl had been beaten by the owner and left (reason: she would not have sex with him). A number of cell phone calls are made and received during the short trip to the center of town and we have a location for this girl.

I could not believe what happened next. With the calm of a person who had obviously done this many times, Jenny approached this small, curled-up ball of a women in the corner of a bank parking lot. With the kindness only a mother can express, the first words Jenny spoke were, "It's okay, baby, we will help you." She fought her. I mean, she was out of control. Jenny held her and just swept her up, and we were off into the night.

My first thought was, What about a doctor? No, the doctors won’t treat her, she is a whore. At home I watched a MASH unit work on her; they had everything and knew how to use it well. The injuries, while not life-threatening, were a serious head wound, massive face wounds...hell, I’m not a doctor, but it looked bad.

Jenny asked, Can we stay the night and we will find her a place in the morning? This girl stayed three days and I made arrangements to sneak her off the island. Which I did, to Belize City and then home to southern Belize to her family. She was just 18.

Jenny came to me often over the months and we became true and trusted friends. I got her out of the life she hated. She moved to my home and we started saving girls. At one time we had as many as fifteen living in our house. This became a revolving door of women coming for help, and help they got. I was amazed at the process Jenny had developed. She was well organized. Some were sent on the way from which they came, others taken in for a week and then either proper work found for them or transportation arrangements made to get them off the island and home to the country from which they came.

My home became a compound. Local gringos branded my home a whorehouse and me the pimp of the island. One night on my way home I was attacked and beaten. All I remember is making a turn, seeing a man and waking up several hours later in my bed. Nothing was taken, it was a message. The police? Well, who cares?

From that night forward, prior to leaving Belize, my life consisted of a very tall ugly man with guns sitting in my laundry room every night. "Tell me, how far would you go with this?" he asked, with a smile, without a look back. "If they outside the fence, I kill 'em and drag them inside the fence." Okay, you have to ask the obvious questions, "So you like me?" I hate gringos, they all lie. "Okay, why do you protect me?" "You save the girls."

What are these women like? Wonderful, educated, an attorney once, so why? You have to understand the culture from which they came. Most might earn $75 US a month. They can earn that in one night in a bar. All with one purpose, to send money home every week to the family. Families that never are never told, out of pride, what they are doing to make this money. The girls are lied to when told of the type of work they are coming for. However, once in place they have no way out.

Did I contact organizations for help? Yes, the basic answer is "Belize has its own trafficking task force, contact them."Or they tell us, "We do not cover Belize, contact this organization."

Have we made a difference? Yes, we saved more than eighty-seven women in the past year. Sadly, each month a new group replaces those we have taken. Maria was one of the eighty-seven; I purchased her from her boyfriend for a trip to Belize City. She never came back and is safe at home in Mexico with her family.

How bad did it get for me? I was thrown in prison for three weeks and had my bank accounts frozen on false charges of trafficking in humans and money laundering. I went to the media quickly to find they had a hand in the rumors about me. Belize is corrupt--it all comes down to who and how much you pay. I had touched a system about which I knew all the facts. Who is paid and how much, who knows and who looks the other way. Doing something in Belize is not the best way to live a long life.

I now work from a distance. Jenny remains and works in a different way from a different house. I am hunted and the bounty continues to grow. Pictures, well, you understand, it's best the girls are not known.

james jensen

New Richmond , WI

Oct 15 2009 - 12:38pm

Web Letter

There is no place on the planet where we can help raise the status of oppressed women more than by defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Press forward so that we do not abandon them.

John D. Froelich

Upper Darby, PA

Sep 17 2009 - 7:47pm

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.