By Alasdair Baverstock
NEW YORK, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After more than two decades of working as a prostitute in Mexico City, Esperanza Escobar found salvation in a most unexpected place.
She regularly visited a hair salon in the heart of La Merced, the city's tough red light district, where she would take a break from days when she might have as many as 60 clients wanting sex.
The hair salon, which treated women like Escobar kindly and keeps them coming back with rock-bottom prices, is in fact a front for a charitable operation aimed at rescuing sex workers and giving them the chance at new lives.
"In visiting the salon I had gone to for three months, I thought I was going in for a cut and dry," Escobar, 53, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I ended up escaping a life in which everyone treated me like a dog, thanks to the help of the undercover activists," she said.
The group, the Well of Life Foundation, gave her shelter in a safehouse, she said.
"I escaped that same day and haven't looked back," she said.
The foundation, which has links to a Christian non-profit group called Youth With A Mission, has rescued more than 30 women since setting up its decoy beauty parlor last year, organizers say.
Human trafficking is believed to be the fastest-growing criminal industry in Mexico, and three-quarters of its victims are women and girls subjected to sexual exploitation, according to Women United Against Trafficking, a Mexican activist group.
Anti-trafficking advocates estimate that cartels control some 14,000 women forced into modern-day slavery in Mexico, with another 6,000 Mexican victims forced to work in the United States and Canada.
One of the women rescued by the salon said she had been sent to work for four years in Atlanta, as well as working for several years in Mexico.
"These women are forced into believing that they are worthless, good for nothing more than to sell their bodies," said Betsy Alfaro, one of the project's founders.
"Our aim is to show them a way out by first treating them as friends, rather than judging them as criminals," she said.
La Merced lies to the east of Mexico City's main Zócalo plaza, with a commercial stretch of busy roadway where hundreds of sex workers are readily found.
"We hand out flyers advertising free haircuts," said Alfaro. "If their pimp gets aggressive, we have the perfect excuse for talking to them."
As many as 10 customers a day at the salon are sex workers, Alfaro said.
"It's a job that breaks my heart on a daily basis," said Sarah McKenzie, a Canadian volunteer at the salon and its only trained stylist.
Besides offering shelter, the group has established a workshop where women can earn money producing necklaces for its jewelry brand Nunayu.
The word Nunayu means "freedom" in the indigenous Mixteca language of southern Mexico, where many sex trafficking victims come from, Alfaro said.
"I feel useful for the first time in my life," said Claudia Martinez, 32, who escaped an aggressive pimp nine months ago and now prides herself on her output of four necklaces a day.
"Working alongside women who have shared my pain has given me a happiness I haven't known in over a decade," she said.
The former sex workers share common stories of malicious and abusive pimps who threatened their families and would use the women's babies as leverage to keep them captive.
"I have only recently been given access to my two boys", said Martinez. Her pimp kept her two children for three years, threatening to hurt them if she did not comply with his demands.
The nation's justice system has a conviction rate of less than 25 percent for cases of sex trafficking, which rarely even get to court. Only 136 individual pimps were prosecuted in 2014.
"Prostitution is seen as part of everyday life in Mexico. In many cases we have seen that the police in this area are working alongside the pimps," Alfaro said.
"All we can hope at the moment is to improve the lives of those we come into contact with," she said.
(Reporting by Alisdair Baverstock, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)