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Sex Trafficking of Latinas Flourishes in U.S. Cantinas and Bars

New report highlights the need to fight the sex trafficking of young women and girls from Latin America in cantinas and bars across the United States

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 8, 2016) – Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors, released a report today shedding light on an underground sex economy that is operating out of U.S.-based cantinas and bars and is exploiting young women and girls from Latin America. The report, More than Drinks for Sale: Exposing Sex Trafficking in Cantinas and Bars in the U.S., details how these commercial-front brothels continue to operate largely unchecked by posing as traditional bars or nightclubs. Meanwhile, their victims are trapped in an industry characterized by unimaginable violence and exploitation.

From December 2007 to March 2016, Polaris identified 1,300 potential victims from Latin America in cantina-related cases in 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico through its operation of the National Human Trafficking hotline and Befree Textline. In the same period, federal law enforcement prosecuted several such cases in Houston, but much more work is needed to end this kind of trafficking.

Deceived and enticed with false promises of good jobs, love, or a better life, victims are lured to the U.S. and forced to engage in commercial sex. Powerful criminal networks and individual traffickers use brutal threats, physical violence, and other severe forms of abuse to keep their victims compliant. The report reveals how, too often, law enforcement and immigration officials miss the signs of trafficking in cantinas – and a critical opportunity to help victims get out.

Click here to download the report.

“Every day in the U.S., young women and girls are held prisoner by criminal networks that sell sex in cantinas and bars right in our backyards,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris. “If we want to stop the victimization of Latina women in these highly abusive venues, we have to change the equation for traffickers by disrupting the business model and making the crime high-risk and low-profit.”

“Once communities understand the horrific exploitation victims of sex trafficking in cantinas experience, of course they want to end it – but they need to know how,” said My Lo Cook, director of Polaris’s Strategic Initiative, Mexico. “Law enforcement need training and resources to identify more victims and effectively pursue cases, and service providers need to be equipped to respond to the unique trauma experienced by these victims in a way that is culturally and linguistically competent.”

More than Drinks for Sale is based on data gleaned from Polaris’s normal interactions with individuals contacting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline and BeFree Textline. The report looks at several specific business models in cantina-based sex trafficking throughout the U.S. Key findings include:

Who are the Victims? Victims are overwhelmingly young women or girls from Latin America.

  • 96 percent of potential victims were female, typically from Mexico or Central America.
  • 63 percent were minors. Traffickers in cantinas are eager to target young girls.

Who are the Traffickers? Traffickers are typically Latino males and may also be U.S. citizens.

  • 67 percent of traffickers were male, but nearly a third were women.
  • 70 percent were of Latin American descent, and at least 35 percent were U.S. citizens.

Means of Control: Threats, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are rampant in cases involving cantinas and bars. Traffickers often use multiple tactics to control their victims.

  • 62 percent of potential victims were confined or physically isolated in some way.
  • 51 percent reported economic abuse – including wage theft or the imposition of unattainable debts – but the real figure is likely much higher.

Recruitment: Traffickers trick and lure vulnerable young women and girls fleeing violence in their home countries or seeking better opportunities into violent trafficking situations in the U.S.

  • 34 percent of potential victims were recruited through smuggling-related tactics. But some victims may not even realize they are crossing the border illegally.
  • At least 29 percent received fake job offers, only learning the real nature of the work on arrival.

Access Points: Victims occasionally have access to people and agencies who could help them.

  • 31 percent reported commercial sex clients as a primary point of access to help.
  • 14 percent interacted with law enforcement or immigration officials, but in most cases, this contact did not lead to their identification as victims.
  • 19 percent reported accessing health care services, but the real figure is likely higher.

More than Drinks for Sale outlines specific steps various stakeholders can take to fight sex trafficking in U.S. cantinas and bars, as well as in a broad range of venues. Polaris stresses the urgent need for bilateral cooperation between government agencies and law enforcement, and between service providers and community partners on both sides of the border.

To receive help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or send a text to Polaris at “BeFree” (233733).


About Polaris
Polaris is a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery. Named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S., Polaris acts as a catalyst to systemically disrupt the human trafficking networks that rob human beings of their lives and their freedom. By working with government leaders, the world’s leading technology corporations, and local partners, Polaris equips communities to identify, report, and prevent human trafficking. Our comprehensive model puts victims at the center of what we do – helping survivors restore their freedom, preventing more victims, and leveraging data and technology to pursue traffickers wherever they operate. Learn more at


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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.