At eight years old, when many boys dream of being superheroes or famous pro athletes, “Gustavo” had a very different profession in mind.
Growing up in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala, he had already witnessed abject poverty. In fact, he had lived it. That’s why it was hard not to notice some of the men from his town who seemed to have it all.
These men were human traffickers and Gustavo, then only a second-grader, says he already knew what that meant.
“I would hang out with them,” he says. “They were all pimps. I would play soccer with them. I would see their late model cars, houses, money and women, lots of women.”
The pimps, Gustavo says, were all from Tlaxcala, just east of Mexico City. It’s the world where Gustavo grew up.
Now, serving time in a Mexican maximum-security prison, Gustavo, 35, agreed to talk to CNN if we didn’t use his real name. He still has many enemies and sharing details about the underworld of human trafficking can put the former pimp’s life in danger.
His father was a school teacher. His mother was a housewife. He was not abused, he was not abandoned nor did he come from a dysfunctional home.
He says: “What they were able to give me was never enough. They wanted me to go to school and study, but my ambition went far beyond their dreams.”
Noticing he was not going to succeed in academics, his father helped him open a small clothes factory. Gustavo says he didn’t do too badly, but he wanted more.
He migrated illegally to the United States and worked for about three months. He would make as much as $700 a week, a fortune for anybody from his town. Still, Gustavo says, it was not enough.
Traffickers teach traffickers ‘rules of business’
By then he began developing a plan: he would return to Mexico and go back to school. He was not interested in academics, but in girls. And his interest in girls was very different from other boys in their late teens. His intentions were far more sinister.
“I had already met some pimps and they taught me the ins and outs of the business. They taught me how to talk to a girl, how to get her excited, how to make her fall in love and how to approach her parents so that there wouldn’t be a problem,” Gustavo said.
It was just a matter of time. And soon after he met a girl at a county fair who would become his first victim.
Gustavo, 18 at the time, says he told her almost immediately he had fallen deeply in love with her and wanted to marry her and have a family. He showered her with gifts and made promises of eternal love. She agreed to elope with him only four days after meeting him, and move with him to Tenancingo in his home state. Within a month the girl was forced into prostitution.
She would be followed by many more. His modus operandi was always the same: make them fall in love with false promises, have them leave with him and force them into prostitution by threats, coercion and/or physical and verbal abuse.
Gustavo says other pimps – men from Tenancingo, flagged by the U.S. as a place where “traffickers predominate” – taught him the business had rules. For starters, he was not to fall in love with any of the girls. And the sooner you take control of a girl’s will, by any means necessary, the faster you generate an income.
“The faster they fall in love and leave with you, the faster the business starts making money and the less cash you have to spend showering them with gifts and going out. To me, the girls meant a source of income, merchandise you can buy, trade or sell,” Gustavo says.
When he was “courting” a girl, he would learn as much information as possible about the family. If a girl had, say, a little brother going to elementary school, the pimp could later threaten to kill the child if the girl didn’t comply with the pimp’s wishes.
How the ‘empire’ collapses
Gustavo says that, at one point, he had 10 girls working for him. Each had to make at least 3,500 Mexican pesos a day ($213 at the current exchange rate). He would take the most beautiful ones to a brothel where johns paid in U.S. dollars. Gustavo says his girls would make up to $4,000 a night.
Asked whether he ever felt bad about the harm he was doing to the girls, he says that it was no more than an occasional thought: “I would feel bad about it sometimes, but my ambition and my thirst for power went further and blinded me.”
He operated between the years 2000 and 2009. Tlaxcala state was his home base, but he trafficked women in Mexico City and Tijuana.
Six years ago, on March 13 2009, a Friday, the violent empire he built finally collapsed. He was captured by Mexican federal police during a raid at a hotel used as a brothel in Mexico City.
He was eventually found guilty of human trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He appealed and the sentence was reduced to nine years. He will walk free in 2018 if he continues to behave behind bars.
He lost everything he had. His family – parents and siblings – now live in hiding, afraid of being targeted by human trafficking rings from which Gustavo took women and profits.
Now Gustavo assures us he’s a changed man, a born-again Christian.
He recently met one of his former victims; the girl he was with when he was caught in a raid. It was the same girl who testified against him in his trial.
He asks victim for forgiveness
CNN witnessed the encounter inside the prison. Gustavo was taken to a front office, wearing the customary khaki pants and white hooded sweatshirt provided to inmates. His former victim was already waiting for him. It was a tense moment.
There was no greeting. The initial silence was broken with a question: “Why did you do it?” his victim asked. The answer: “I was blinded by my ambition because I wanted to have power, no matter the means or how, no matter the harm I was causing you or other people.”
He asked for forgiveness, which she gave: “I forgive you but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten everything you did. It allows me to be at peace with myself.”
Gustavo told her: “I’m aware of all the harm I caused you but I know that I can remedy that or try to remedy that somehow… not erase it, but I can prevent that many other girls don’t fall into the same trap or fall into the hands of a trafficker that will exploit them like it happened to you with me.”
In the end, there’s no handshake. He goes back to his cell. She breaks down in tears after he’s gone. When she’s able to talk again, she says the meeting was one of the most difficult things in her life.
“I think that this is a very important part of the process to say that I have overcome the harm he caused. I don’t see myself as a victim anymore. I have overcome that,” she said.
By speaking to CNN, Gustavo told us, he hopes his message will reach many people around the world, people who need to know that there are still many men doing what he used to do: preying upon young, innocent girls and luring them into prostitution.
He says girls from dysfunctional homes are especially vulnerable; those who have little or no communication with their parents are easy to convince.
“They don’t know that behind Prince Charming there’s a monster wearing a mask. A monster that is going to lead them into a world of prostitution and exploitation.”