“It’s not like a one time drug sale. You can sell a kid over and over.”
Sometimes the things we need to know about are things we don’t want to read about. With regard to the horror of child trafficking, Martha Everhart Braniff has written a novel, Step Over Rio, that confronts the issue boldly through sympathetic characters and a plot that advances with breathtaking speed.
The story begins with the heroic escape from Guatemala City of Alex Sifuentes, a teenage boy who would otherwise be hunted down by a death squad that has murdered his brother. He is helped in his escape by a Catholic priest who risks his life daily to protect homeless children who would otherwise be exploited in ways too horrifying to imagine. Alex believes that he will work in a cantina when he arrives in Houston, but he soon realizes that the “coyote” who transports him will turn him over to a gang that traffics drugs and prostitutes kids. A female reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a special agent for the Diplomatic Security Service are the main characters, and even as they become allies in saving Alex and capturing the gang leaders, the competitive and sexual tension between them makes the sparks fly.
Martha (whom I came to know as Marty in Houston) did not embrace the background of child trafficking as a “high concept.” It is a subject about which she feels passionately, and her perspective is grounded in decades of professional experience as an advocate for children on many different fronts. In fact, she was the founder in Houston of Child Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children’s rights in the judicial system. She remembers one particular case as the inspiration for her book. A boy, whose wealthy father had been murdered in El Salvador due to his support for land reform, had escaped to Houston in 1979. He was put in juvenile detention with no rights and was going to be deported. Marty repeatedly disrupted his hearing until the judge agreed to let the boy stay if she could find him a foster home, which she subsequently did.
Step Over Rio makes it clear that there is no such thing as a moral border with Mexico, and many “upstanding citizens” in the United States are users not only of the children but of the drugs from Latin America that fuel the practice of trafficking here. Marty says that if any girl between the ages of 12 and 14 who runs away from home is not found within 48 hours, she will probably be forced into the sex trade. This means turning 15 tricks a day. She quotes the director of the mayor’s Anti Gang Office in Houston in explaining how difficult it is to combat a practice that is enormously profitable. “It’s not like a one time drug sale,” he said. “You can sell a kid over and over.”
At one dramatic point in the book, violence invades a Catholic mass. I asked Marty if the scene was calculated to send a particular message, and she said it wasn’t. However, my own mind immediately traveled to the religious issues that have erupted recently over healthcare benefits for women. Most specifically, I thought about the Church’s relentless and impassioned denunciation of abortion in contrast to its hesitant and ambiguous response to the sexual abuse of children.
Never mind. If there is confusion about the nature of real evil afoot among the most defenseless, Step Over Rio will bring clarity. This may not have been her intention, but in Martha Braniff’s own courageous work and the writing of this gripping novel, she serves notice that, if the powers that be won’t exercise moral leadership where it is most needed, others will.