San Diego 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.' "