Too Many Have Stories like Yolanda's
We've Become Immune to the Horrors, Says Macarena Hernández

Dallas Morning News
December 22, 2006

The Dallas Morning News series this week detailing 19-year-old Yolanda Méndez Torres' life of sexual abuse and silence is not an easy read. The issue of violence against women and children around the world is easier to swallow when you don't see an actual picture of the victim, when you don't read the details about the rape, when you don't have to follow her torment from an impoverished village in Oaxaca to a tiny closet in a Dallas apartment, where she was held as a sex slave.

Most of us would rather forget – especially in this time of celebration and holiday cheer – that violence against women and children is not only on the rise in Third World countries, but at our doorstep.

Even here, victims like Yolanda, who spent the first five years in America illegally before getting adopted and being granted a green card, are doubly invisible. It's tough enough for U.S. citizens to report sexual assaults, much less girls like Yolanda who don't think our laws protect them at all.

Along the Rio Grande, border patrol agents report more cases of coyotes sexually attacking the women and girls they're smuggling across. In Reynosa, across from McAllen, human rights workers say more and more Central American migrants, including boys, are reporting incidents of sexual assaults.

We've become immune to the reports of genocide in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso's sister city, where hundreds of families mourn the deaths of their daughters – many of them raped, mutilated and discarded – while their killers still roam free. One reason more than 300 young women have been murdered is that Mexico has shown little political will to capture and punish the killers. And the United States has also done little to stop the killings just a few miles south of the border.

Yolanda's account, which ends Sunday, puts a human face on the exploitation of society's most vulnerable: children in poverty. For every story like Yolanda's that is brought out of the shadows, there are countless more like hers, every single one with a name, a face, a story. The World Health Organization estimates that some 200 million children are sexually abused worldwide. That's the equivalent of two of every three Americans.

When I read about Yolanda, I couldn't help but think of another child, an 11-year-old girl that I'll call Sandra. I first wrote about her in 2005, after Camargo, Tamaulipas, police went on a hunt for a missing priest in the nearby town of Comales – just 20 miles south of the Rio Grande. As it turns out, the 66-year-old priest, had been raping the child since she was 7. When I met her, she was a tiny girl, malnourished and younger-looking than her age.

The priest bought her silence with a few pesos, bags of chips and cans of soda. Had Sandra not told a classmate about the abuse, her teacher may have never found out and reported it to Mexico's family welfare organization, who took the case to the police.

As I interviewed neighbors and church members in the small fishing town, I found that many had long suspected the assaults, but as in Yolanda's story, they blamed Sandra's parents, whom they believed profited from the sexual abuse. Fathers of both girls have denied it. Sandra's father explained to me at the time that "she never told us anything. If I had known what he was doing, I would have killed him, even if I had been sent to jail."

Mexican authorities lost track of the priest once he crossed the Rio Grade City international bridge, just days before police showed up at the church. Sandra was sent to an orphanage.

Authorities on both sides will tell you that the border makes it easier for lawbreakers to get away with their crimes. What real incentive do the U.S. authorities, especially in small towns already managing swollen case loads, have to apprehend a Mexican fugitive who has committed no crime in this country? I'd ask the same question of Mexico, which also has proven a haven for American criminals.

Sandra continues to live in an orphanage with 27 other children in the outskirts of Camargo.

Sadly, her rapist, unlike Yolanda's, is still on the loose.

Macarena Hernández is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. Her e-mail address is


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