The dowry tradition became human trafficking in Guerrero

In 17 years, close to 300 women have been married against their will according to local NGO
Isolated house in Metlatonoc, Guerrero – Photo: Lucía Godínez/EL UNIVERSAL
Metlatónoc, Montain of Guerrero
David Espino
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Metlatónoc is the second municipality with the lowest human development index in America Latina, below even than the countries part of Sub-Saharan Africa. It's the fifteenth poorest municipality, at a national level, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL).

Metlatónoc is part of the Southwestern state of Guerrero, a place where “their men” pay up to MXN$180,000 (USD$9,369 approx) for a teenage girl to make her “their woman.” Or their parents do, so their male children can have a virgin wife of less than 15 – usually against the will of the girl and violating her right to decide whether or not she wants to share her life with someone, and with whom.

According to the Mountain's Human Rights Center, Tlachinollan, in the last 17 years close to 300 women have been married under these circumstances.

“If she's older [the men] say 'they don't want a whore',”says the sherif of Yuvi'nani, Melitón Hernández, a Tu'un Savi (Mixtec) town in Metlatónoc, located in the shores of a lake.

“It's an ancient practice we cannot eradicate, although the Law considers it a crime because it's technically human trafficking,” says nonchalantly the assistant of Metlatónoc's city manager, the lawyer Serafín Nava.

Violence, a hidden figure

There are no official figures on the number of cases of this kind taking place in the Mountain of Guerrero, where the costume of paying a dowry for a wife remains as valid as ever, above all, among the population of Mixtec origin, which are mostly concentrated in the municipalities of Cochoapa el Grance and Metlatónoc – where almost 99.6% speak their mother tongue, according to the INEGI.

The closest figure available is provided by Tlachinollan, whose main offices are found in Tlalpa, a town in the center of the region.

Lawyer Neil Arias, who works for this NGO, provides counsel to women who want to break off with this tradition, either because there are in arranged marriages and are victims of domestic violence, or because they don't want to get married but are unable to prevent it.

Neil has been collaborating with Tlachinollan for 17 years. “Throughout these years I have mediated in over 100 cases with the parents to make them change their mind. Since Tlachinollan was created, 23 years ago, we noticed this phenomenon.”

Just like Neil, there are two other female lawyers who have a similar record. They speak of cases of women who have refused to get married at an early age and who have turned to them to help them reach an agreement with their parents and make them change their mind.

On the surface, the problem is being tackled, yet, in reality, no one knows what happens when the women leave the offices. That is why Neil wonders: how many marriages end up taking place and how many cases are left off the record? No one knows. It's a hidden figure.

Attempt against their dignity and rights

In their annual report, Tlachinollan highlights that while this practice is a tradition of the indigenous peoples, in recent years it has lost its essence and has become a commercial arrangement, a business deal, which violates the dignity and rights of women. “Traditional dowry has disrupted the integrity and safety of these girls, these teenagers and indigenous women, because the essence of this ancient practice has morphed into a commercial exchange between two parties, and this is tantamount to human trafficking.

Tlachinollan documented testimonies of girls and women who tell their story, of how they've been victims of these economic arrangements between their father and their future father-in-law. The arrangements are against their will and involve high sums of money. They are treated as objects, as a property of the husband, who becomes the owner of their body without their consent.

About the sheriff and...where the men get the money from

At the house of the sheriff of Yuvi'nani, Melitón Hernández, you can hear a discussion taking place while chickens peck at the ground and a one-year-old kid plays on the floor of a hallway. Melitón's wife, a middle-aged woman, takes a peak from the door threshold once in a while, in silence.

The ones arguing are the sheriff's son and his son's wife, yet calling this an argument would be inaccurate; the son, a man of around 20 is yelling at the girl, 17, over something we cann't understand because they are speaking in Mixtec. Melitón doesn't seem to pay them much mind. Three years ago he paid MXN$110,000 for his daughter-in-law. She was 14 at the time.

“It's tradition,” he says, telling us how he paid MXN$130,000 for the woman of his eldest son, many years ago.

“Where do you get the money from?” we ask him.

“I 'jumped the fence'. I brought from there like MXN$300,000 [roughly USD$15,600] and that's where it came from,” he says. 

Outside the house, we can see two pickup trucks parked on the only paved street in town.

“I got that one back there too, from across the border,”

Not all inhabitants are that lucky, yet all must pay if they want to get a young wife.

“Where do the others get the money from?”

“They sell goats, pigs, land...whatever they can, if not, their sons will never marry.”

Many men also grow poppy fields, confesses the sheriff without lowering his voice, as if he were talking about corn or beans. During the Summer it rains so much crops rot. Poppy fields don't.

“Did you pay a dowry for your wife?” we ask him during the interview, after the wife fetches him a glass of water without him ever asking for one.

“Yeah, MXN$50 pesos [USD$2.6]. That was like 55 years ago,”

The scales of justice

It's after 17:00 and the town hall of Metlatónoc is empty. The city manager has left and doesn't seem to want to come back, according to what he says to his assistant over the radio.

Knowing this, Serafín Nava, 25, explains to us they, as the authority, consider this practice a crime – he says so as he takes a look at the Criminal Code of Guerrero he has next to his desk, where the statuette of a woman holding the scales of justice with her blindfolded eyes stands straight.

Serafín Nava is single but he says he doesn't want to pay for a wife. “We have to end this practice through dialogue, raising awareness,” he concludes.


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