By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in Mexico have arrested a woman suspected of running a sex trafficking operation along the U.S. border that may be linked to the disappearance of several nursing students earlier this year, authorities say.
Claudia Palmira is accused of coercing a teenage girl and a young woman into performing sexual acts in exchange for money and trafficking them across state lines, according to the Attorney General's office in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
The case highlights the prevalence of trafficking in Mexico, where an estimated 341,000 people live in modern slavery, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation.
Figures from the Attorney General's office show more than four out of five human trafficking cases in Mexico involve sexual exploitation.
"It's an increasingly serious problem," said Alfredo Limas Hernández, co-director of the Observatory of Social and Gender Violence at Chihuahua's Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez.
"The region has become a space where trafficking, sexual exploitation and disappearances are a growing reality," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to Hernández, many women who become victims of sex trafficking are first reported as missing and later turn up dead.
Government figures show that as of April, more than 9,000 women are reported missing across Mexico. More than 2,000 men and women are missing from the border state of Chihuahua.
Jessica Rentería, spokeswoman for the prosecutor investigating the Palmira case, said authorities discovered the suspected trafficking operation after looking into the disappearance of three nurses who lived together in the town of Parral.
Mayra Mendoza Adame, 21, disappeared on May 27, while Sigrid Diaz Huerta, 21, and Oswaldo Galvan Rodríguez, 22, were kidnapped by a group of armed men who broke into their home the following day.
A friend, Merari Lozano Muñoz, 18, also disappeared around the same time.
The investigation led authorities to suspect human trafficking and a link to Palmira, according to state Attorney General César Augusto Peniche.
"It exposed a trafficking network which the detained person is part of and is surely the coordinator of trafficking activities in that region," he told reporters last week.
Palmira faces charges of human trafficking in the form of sexual exploitation and prostitution. She was arrested in late September in Parral and appeared in court last week.
Mexican media has reported that Palmira allegedly used online social networks to promote a "catalog" of women for potential clients.
The prosecutor's office said the authenticity of the cataloguer has not been verified but said social networks have been used in human trafficking in Chihuahua.
"It's a factor that makes women and girls vulnerable," she said. "It makes us an easy target."
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)
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