Gringos Do Their Thing with Our Boys

— Tucked behind a Toyo Tires shop, where Tijuana's Centro and Rio zones meet, stands a boys' home operated by Desarollo Integral de la Familia (integral development of the family). Better known by the acronym DIF (pronounced "DEEF"), it's the Mexican agency that cares for orphans and children who end up as wards of the state.

But not all such children in Tijuana are under the care of DIF. Many run the streets in small bands, camp out in canyons, or, when they have money, live in cheap hotels. They juggle oranges, sell flowers, and wash car windows at the city's many busy intersections to make a little money. And when that's not enough, they sometimes sell their bodies.

"It's a very serious problem," says Jorge Bedoya, director of the DIF home, "and we recognize the problem. For a lot of years it was not recognized at all. And when it was recognized, it was not considered a priority. But with Presidente Fox coming into the government, he recognizes fully the importance of this problem, and he has made it a priority of the national government. It's also a great priority of this municipal government. But [the governments] are basically the ones that hand out the laws, the statutes, and on the municipal level, we are the ones that work directly with the kids."

Bedoya says DIF's fight against child prostitution in Tijuana begins with a national campaign of information. "The first step -- and this is on a national level -- there is a consciousness campaign to create awareness in all of Mexico that this problem exists and that we have to fight it. We tell them that this is a crime and that the people who directly or indirectly participate are criminals. We do this on TV spots and in the papers. And we give out information directly to kids that could be involved in this, to report and give us information of any abuse."

Leaning forward onto his desk at the DIF office, Bedoya continues, "In Tijuana, we have a serious problem because of our geographic situation. We are a border city, and we are the most-visited city, the busiest border crossing in the world. There is a lot of trafficking, and we fall into a term that is called 'sexual tourism,' where people from the United States and from other countries, including people from Mexico, come here and search for these children. There is a lot of movement of people and kids from the heart of Mexico to here. They come with their families, hoping to cross over into the United States, and when this does not happen, most of the time, the eldest son or daughter is on the streets washing windows or trying to make money somehow."

That, Bedoya says, is the first step toward prostitution. "Unfortunately, for our city, there is a lot of demand for these types of services. When these kids are selling bubble gum or washing windows on the streets, they can be asked or someone can propose this type of activity, and since they are minors, they don't fully understand this problem; they just see easy money, $20, $50, $100. We've heard of kids making $1000 in one night."

Carlos Godoy, a 24-year-old DIF counselor, steers an aging 13-passenger Dodge van east through the Rio Zone of Tijuana. It's 7:30 p.m., and he and two other DIF counselors, Claudia López (28) and Jorge Gonzalez (23), are just beginning a sweep of the city, which will last until 2:00 in the morning. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, they drive around the city finding street kids they already know and making initial contact with new children they see working on the streets. "The weather's not very good tonight," Godoy says, craning forward to look up at the overcast evening sky. "So we might not see many kids tonight."

But just as he says that, López, sitting in the front passenger seat, points to three boys selling flowers on the corner of Sanchez Taboada and Cuahtemoc Norte. The van's springs and joints creak as Godoy whips the big vehicle into a furniture-store parking lot on the same corner. The three boys look a little apprehensive until they recognize Godoy. "¿Que onda?" he asks the group before hopping down from the van along with López. González stays in the van. "Where's Christian?" Godoy asks the boys, who don't answer. The five chat for ten minutes or so before Godoy gives three-phase handshakes -- shake, bump, bump -- to each and asks again, "Where's Christian?"

One boy waves westward. "He's down there washing windows."

Back in the van, Godoy turns left out of the driveway and heads west. But as he drives through the intersection, he spots two kids, one boy and one girl, both under ten years old. The girl is sitting on the narrow median. The boy is juggling oranges at lightning speed in front of a row of cars waiting at a red light. Godoy pulls the van over and López jumps out and runs back to the kids. Godoy, driving the van around the block, explains, "This is the first contact we've made with those kids. So Claudia will tell them what we do with our program. We tell them they can stay at our center if they have no place to live; that if they live at the center, they'll be able to go to school, play sports, and other activities."

After five or six trips around the block, Godoy pulls the van over and parks where he can see López talking to the two children. He and González never join her. "We don't like to approach the kids with more than one or two people," he explains. "Three is too intimidating." After a half hour, López comes jogging back to the car, her ponytail bouncing behind her. She's laughing as she climbs into the van. "Ay, she could talk," she says. They said they live with their mom near here. Their mom is working, asking for money, not far from here. And one of the boys we talked to before is their brother. I asked if they needed anything, and the girl said, 'Yes, could you bring us some bread and milk...and maybe some notebooks.' "

Godoy, who wears his hair spiked and frosted, drives the van the few blocks back to the center. He and López run into the building and return with a box full of food: six quarts of milk, a dozen small bags of Mexican sweet rolls, and 15 to 20 oranges. "We normally don't give out food because we don't really have the resources," Godoy says as he hefts a box in the side door of the van. "We're trying to find somebody to provide us with food to bring to the kids."

At 8:30, after a stop to give milk and bread to the kids they've already met, the van creeps east through the La Mesa district of Tijuana on the traffic-clogged Via Rapida. Twenty minutes later, Godoy stops at the busy intersection of Insurgente and Jesus Clouthier in the barrio of Gato Bronco. On two of the four corners, men are blowing fire like circus performers. "They do that by mixing diesel with water and spitting it from their mouths," Godoy explains as the smell of diesel smoke wafts through the open windows of the van.

López notices a girl about 13 sitting with her back to a concrete road divider looking dejected. "Come on, Jorge," López says as she jumps out of the van. González follows out the side door. The light turns green, and Godoy speeds up the steep hill ahead into another area known as Monarca. At the first intersection, a burst of flame to the left gives away the location of a boy about 16 whom Godoy recognizes. He makes a U-turn and, bumping up a curb, parks the van in a median. The fire-breathing boy spots the van and runs up the street, ducking into some bushes next to a Pemex station. With a couple of traffic maneuvers, Godoy brings the van up to the bushes where the boy and four companions are hiding. "¿Que onda?" he calls to the group, but they take off running again. "I know these boys," he explains, as he whips the van around. "But last time I was here I was driving a different van. They don't recognize this one. That's why I try to drive the same van every time."

Four of the five boys -- average age, 14 -- make it across the six-lane divided street. But one very fat kid tires and slows to a walk on the near side, and Godoy pulls the van up alongside him. "Hey, why are you running?" he asks.

"Because we thought you guys were going to question us."

"No, no, no," Godoy responds, "we don't do that. We're not the police. We're here to help you."

Godoy climbs down from the van and shakes the kid's hand. When the other four boys see what's going on, they come running back from across the street. Godoy gives them all the three-phase handshake, which everyone in Tijuana seems to know, and chats with them for 10, 15 minutes. Before leaving, he gives the boys a couple quarts of milk and three bags of pan dulce.

Heading back down the hill to where he left López and González, Godoy explains, "Here in Mexico we have people called reglamentos. They go around checking to make sure people working in the street have licenses. When those boys saw me, they thought I was a reglamento. But when I got out, they recognized me and started laughing."

Asked if he invited the boys to stay at the center, Godoy answers, "Yes, I have to, though usually I don't the first or second time I see them. If they ask, I'll tell them about the center. Or, if they ask for money for a hotel, I tell them they can come stay at the center. But most of the time they say no. They don't want to live under the rules. They'd rather live out on their own. Of course, they might say no this time but say yes the next time. So the important thing is for me to make contact with them and for them to get to know me and trust me."

Godoy continues, "Part of the problem is, when they run away, boys usually end up living in a group with three, four, five other boys their own age. They'll live together in a room or camp out in one of these canyons. Girls will usually go live in the house of a friend. So when I ask these groups of boys if they'd like to come back to the center, maybe one or two do want to come back, but the rest of the group doesn't. So the one or two who want to come still say no because they don't want to go against the rest of the group."

López and González are still talking to the girl when Godoy makes it to the intersection, so he bumps up onto a road median and waits. "Out in these areas," he says, "the kids wash windows and blow fire and things like that for money. But in the Zona Norte and around Revolución, a lot of teenage boys are selling their bodies in order to have enough money to live."

Their customers, Godoy says, "are almost always gringos. They come down here and do their thing with our boys."

When the others are back in the van, Godoy drives toward the center of Tijuana, making stops in Cinco y Diez and La Hermita to talk to two older teenagers washing car windows in the first neighborhood and, in the second, to a teenager dressed as a clown juggling for tips from motorists.

"A kid can make maybe 300 pesos [$33] in a night working on the street like this," Godoy says. "How much depends on what they're doing. It might be less washing windows, unless they're a little boy. Then they can make a little more."

The giant digital screen hanging from beneath the arch at the north end of Avenida Revolución reads 10:33 as we turn right off of Seventh Street. Music of various styles rings out from the second-story clubs and mingles in a horrible cacophony over the street. Locals and gringos strut along the sidewalks in their best clubbing costumes while doormen hail to groups of prospective customers. Signs advertising cheap drinks and low cover charges hang from every doorway. It's not these sights Godoy is looking for, as he cruises, slowly scanning the streetscape. He's looking for kids working on the street: shining shoes, panhandling, or worse.

North of Second Street, Revolución grows dark and quiet. Godoy turns left onto First Street. Past the crowd of mariachis waiting to be hired to provide entertainment at someone's party, partially dressed women lean against the walls on both sides of the street, one every four feet, waiting to be hired to provide another form of entertainment. This is the red-light district, known as the Coahuila, after one of the streets running through it.

For half an hour, Godoy drives the big blue van slowly up and down Calle Primera, Coahuila, Constitución, and Calle Primera, silently scanning the streets for kids. Around 11:45, he spots four boys cruising down Constitución on in-line skates. He calls to them, and they yell back, instructing Godoy to pull around the corner. There, they all pile in, and the van, which had been quiet for the last hour, becomes a box full of noise. López and González chat with the four boys -- average age, 13 -- who are all talking at the same time, each trying to be heard by speaking the loudest. Godoy inquires about other boys by name and, following the directions yelled at him from the back of the van, he drives around the Coahuila picking up more kids until the van is packed full of pubescent boys.

The boys aren't riding in the van because they want to go back to stay at the DIF center, Godoy explains. "They just want to ride around for a while, and that's fine with us. It's another way to build trust between us and them. And it gets them off the street for a few hours."

At 11:30, Godoy leaves the Coahuila and drives the few blocks to the DIF center. There, the boys pile out and start shouting up at the third-story dormitory windows above. The boys who are sleeping start waking and coming to windows to shout back. A few barbs are traded between the groups, and soon it's an all-out, profanity-laced war of insults. González, López, and Godoy let the boys have their fun and even laugh at the more clever insults. "They're kind of like rival groups," Godoy explains. "That's why they're yelling at each other. But they're not really serious. They're just having fun."

After 15 minutes of trash talk, Godoy orders the street kids back in the van if they don't want to stay. All of them get back in the van. A couple of minutes later, the van is back in the red-light district and one of the boys is calling to a girl who looks no older than 16 walking along the sidewalk. She sees the van and quickens her pace, walking around a corner into a short alley at the end of which is La Starlita Hotel. The girl ducks into the hotel before Godoy or López or González can make contact with her. Still, the two men get out of the van and begin chatting with three kids who are standing in front of the hotel. As they chat, more and more older teenagers spill out of the hotel, which seems populated entirely by teenagers.

For an hour or so, the three young social workers mingle among the street kids, all boys, who seem to be divided into two groups. The 14-and-unders hang out in the van, playing rowdy games and flirting with López, who calls each of them mi hijo, my son. One boy, about 10, curls up on the back bench seat and falls asleep. The 15-and-overs stand in groups on the sidewalk and in the street, talking and laughing with Godoy and González. This latter group, Godoy says, are the boys who often sell their bodies for money.

Around 1:00 a.m., Godoy sticks his head in the van and asks, "Is there any food left at DIF?"

"No, nada," López and González answer in unison.

Taking two older boys with him, Godoy walks down the alley out onto Coahuila. Five minutes later the three reappear, and the boys are carrying shopping bags of food with them. As they thank Godoy, he gives them each his three-stage handshake.

Back in the van, Godoy makes a few more sweeps through the Coahuila and Avenida Revolución while López and González write down the names and ages of the boys in the van and the boys that they've seen tonight. At 1:15, stopping at the corner of Constitución and Coahuila, Godoy announces, "Time to get out if you don't want to stay at DIF."

Immediately, five boys climb out. Two more hop out at Revolución and Second, another at Sixth and Revolución. Four boys, all members of the 13-and-under set, stay in the van. The mile-long ride back to DIF is very quiet as the night's excitement and chatter gives way to fatigue.

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