Sixty people, mostly children, were freed at the weekend from a home in Oaxaca
By Oscar Lopez
MEXICO CITY, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexican authorities are hunting for the leader of a human trafficking ring following the rescue of dozens of indigenous children made to beg on city streets as forced labor, officials said on Tuesday.
Sixty people, nearly all of them children, were discovered and freed early on Saturday morning at a single home, said the Attorney General's office of Oaxaca state.
The victims, who included several women and six children under age 2, were of indigenous Tzotzil origin from neighboring Chiapas state, officials said. They had been forced to beg for money at traffic intersections in Oaxaca City, they said.
Eleven people were arrested in connection with the trafficking ring, but the suspected leader remained at large, they said.
Poverty and a lack of jobs leave indigenous people vulnerable in Mexico, where as many as a half-million people are estimated to be victims of human trafficking, according to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
Some 21,000 children, nearly half of them indigenous girls, fall victim to sex trafficking each year, according to the government.
Indigenous families are often forced to leave their homes in poor states such as Chiapas and Oaxaca to seek work. According to the United Nations, while only about 12 percent of the Mexican population is indigenous, eight out of ten indigenous people live in extreme poverty.
The 60 women and children rescued in Oaxaca were found living in hand-built shanties of sheet metal and cardboard crammed into a building courtyard, according to local media.
"People leave their communities looking for more opportunities, and some say that even under these conditions, they were better off than in their towns," said Josué Melchor, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's office.
"Some leave because of a scam, in other cases they leave on their own free will or with relatives to find a better opportunity," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The rescue operation in Oaxaca followed a months-long investigation and is one of the most significant cases in the state's history, the Attorney General's office said.
The rescued children are being held in government shelters while authorities try to return them home to Chiapas, according to the Attorney General's office.
The case comes shortly after Mexico signed an agreement with the U.N. Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the Canadian embassy to combat human trafficking in indigenous communities.
"Sexual exploitation, forced labor, domestic servitude and sale of minors are just some of the ways in which indigenous children, women and men are exploited," said Antonino De Leo, representative of UNODC in Mexico, at the agreement's launch on Oct. 4.
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)
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