One Woman’s Crusade Against Human Trafficking on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast

Local Journalist Determined to Take on Traffickers in her Community

Jessilett Henriquez is a well-known figure in the town of Bluefields. As a local radio and TV personality, she is often seen around town interviewing people and covering local events. As an independent journalist, Jessillett works on a shoestring. She doesn’t have a camera crew or even a camera. She covers her stories just using her cell phone and since she can’t afford a car, she gets around on a motor bike.

Jessilett has been working as journalist in Bluefields for more than 15 years. As an independent reporter she works on a shoe-string getting around a motorbike and using a handheld camera or her cell phone to capture the news.

Jessilett started working as a journalist more than 15 years ago in Bluefields, which is the largest city on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. Despite its commercial and administrative importance in the region, it is geographically and politically isolated from the rest of the country. Until recently, there was no direct road from the capital to Bluefields. Until the paved highway was completed last April, most travelers arrived by boat — a journey that took half a day. Generations of isolation has resulted in wariness of the central government. Weak judicial and law enforcement institutions, combined with the city’s coastal location, has made it a popular trafficking route for drugs as well as people.

Human Trafficking along Nicaragua’s Coast

According to the US State Department, Nicaraguan girls are victims of sex trafficking in locations along the country’s Caribbean Coast. While the Nicaraguan government has made strides to address the issue, including passing its first law which specifically criminalizes human trafficking in 2015, overall prevention and protection efforts are weak. High poverty and crime rates, the lack of strong law enforcement and presence of drug trafficking increases the vulnerability of the local population.

Bluefields location on the Caribbean coast, combined with high crime rates and weak law enforcement, has made it a popular route for human trafficking.

Many residents of Bluefields say that everyone knows that trafficking of girls occurs, but there is no official reporting on it. The government does not keep statistics on trafficking and even when traffickers are caught, families are reluctant to prosecute because of the stigma attached to sexual exploitation. Like most people in Bluefields, Jessilett had heard stories about girls disappearing. She had heard them anecdotally but also directly from residents who have been victims. She explains how girls would go missing and their families would never see or hear from them again. Sometimes the girls would return after being held captive on one of the many fishing vessels that troll in Bluefields Bay. These girls after being sexually exploited for days and sometimes weeks would return home with no counseling or support to deal with trauma they had faced.

Global Communities with funding from the US State Department is working to raise awareness and prevent trafficking on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. Since 2015, the Trafficking in Persons Awareness, Prevention and Protection (TIP) has been working to protect young women forced into sex trafficking by identifying victims and preventing their victimization. At the same time, the program is building the capacity of local organizations to provide immediate and long-term medical and psychosocial support to victims who suffer trauma long after exploitation has ended. As part of this initiative, Global Communities conducted training for local reporters from Bluefields, Bilwi and Waspam in 2016 and 2017. These workshops provided guidance on best practices for covering trafficking stories. The reporters also learned about the critical role they can play in preventing human trafficking and how to avoid further traumatizing survivors and their families.

Gone Missing

As a local radio and TV personality, Jessilett is well known in Bluefields and as independent journalist, people trust her. So when a 13-year-old girl didn’t return home from school one day last November, the girl’s mother didn’t call the police first — she called Jessilett.

Residents in Bluefields are aware that trafficking of young girls occurs, but don’t openly discuss the issue because of the stigma surrounding sexual exploitation.

After speaking with the girl’s classmates and learning that the girl had not even made it to school that day, the mother implored Jessilett to broadcast a photo of her missing daughter on the nightly local show she hosts. The mother of the missing girl, being Creole (Afro-descendant), felt intimidated to go to the police on her own because of her limited Spanish, so Jessilett accompanied her to the police station to file an official report. There is general mistrust of law enforcement among the indigenous and afrodescendant community, so despite filing an official report, Jessilett, the mother and another local journalist took it upon themselves to start searching for the girl on their own. After several hours of fruitless searching, they finally returned home around midnight.

The next morning as the women were about to resume their search, Jessilett received an urgent call from a friend who had seen Jessilett’s story about the missing girl. She told them to go to the neighborhood where the missing girl lives. There they found a nine-year-old girl selling tortillas on the street who quietly asked them if they were still looking for the missing girl. She then told them, “Don’t say anything, but she spent the night at my house last night.” She began to lead them to her house through an older neighborhood in Bluefields of narrow alleyways and small houses, but she got nervous and ran away from them. With no other option, they begin going door-to-door, knocking on each home. They eventually found the house, but the young man who spent the night with the missing girl was not there.

The man’s mother answered the door and angrily screamed at them, claiming that neither she nor her son had any knowledge of the girl. Jessilett immediately called the police and as her journalist’s instincts kicked in she began filming the entire encounter on her phone. The irate woman continued to yell at them, and at the officers when they finally arrived to take her to the police station for further questioning.

At the same time, Jessilett received another tip that the man was seen at a fishing factory on the other side of town. Not waiting for the police, Jessilett and the girl’s mother rushed to the factory and confronted the employees who tried unsuccessfully to block their entrance. The girl’s mother forced her way past the employees by swinging Jessilett’s motorcycle helmet at anyone who got in her way. She soon spotted the man and recognized him immediately because he lives in their neighborhood. At just 19 years old, there were rumors that he had already been involved in the disappearance of yet another girl in the neighborhood. Despite these suspicions, he was never charged because there was no proof. Seeing him left the girl’s mother stunned. She knew of the rumors and stories of trafficking, but never thought it could happen to her daughter. She spotted the man trying to get away in a small boat, and she grabbed him by the hair and with Jessilett, managed to detain him until the police arrived.

Media’s Role in Combating Trafficking

Despite the pervasiveness of missing girls in Bluefields, this was the first time local media had been utilized to report the issue to the public. Jessilett’s coverage of the missing girl resulted an outpouring of public sympathy and support for the family. Equally importantly, it brought new focus on the issue of trafficking in Bluefields. Jessilett was to able capture the events of the story as it unfolded on her cell phone, but out of respect for the girl and her privacy, she chose not to broadcast it on her show.

Despite his initial protestations, the young man eventually confessed to kidnapping the girl. She was found unharmed and reunited with her mother. As frequently happens in these cases, the young man was never charged with a crime. The local prosecutor urged the family to drop the charges, and the girl’s mother, fearing the stigma her daughter would face, agreed. As a result, the young man remains free and the girl still sees him around the neighborhood.

Residents in Waspam march to protest human trafficking in their community. Jessilett’s reporting on the missing girl helped bring the issue of human trafficking out into the open creating greater awareness and public outrage.

While Jessilett is outraged by the lack of justice in this case, it helped her realize the power and responsibility of media to report on trafficking. “Our best ally in these cases is the general population. People now trust the local media to report on these issues and are seeking their help when girls disappear,” explains Jessilett.

Jessilett loves being a journalist and is in the process of completing a master’s degree in her field. Her experience reporting on trafficking cases, combined with the training she received from Global Communities, motivated her to write her Master’s thesis on media coverage of human trafficking in Nicaragua. Despite her love of journalism, she has decided to leave that career behind. At 46 years old, she has enrolled in her first year in law school. She will be 51 when she finally graduates, when she will begin at long last to prosecute human traffickers.