Starved. Chained. Humiliated. Abused.
This was the nightmarish routine that Alejandra had to endure for five years.
In today’s society, where almost everyone is granted basic human rights of shelter, food, water and freedom, it is hard to believe that there are people who are deprived of those essentials- all the more shocking when this occurs in wealthier regions of the world. In a world where slavery is supposedly ‘abolished’, this is the story of a woman who was herself once enslaved.
Now, Alejandra is determined to put the past behind her and enter a new chapter of life. Today, her name is no longer Alejandra. She is Zunduri.
The Fateful 17
Now 23, Zunduri recalls the beginning of it all. At the age of 17, she ran away from Tamaulipas, Mexico to Mexico City with her then boyfriend. However, she found herself stranded and homeless there when the relationship fizzled. Desperate for a home, she sought refuge in Mrs. Leticia Molina Ochoa, owner of a dry cleaning store in the capital’s south side. Zunduri was offered food, a place to stay and a job.
Initially, the owner of the store treated her nicely, giving her a room and paying her for her work. At one point, they developed such a close relationship that Zunduri called her “mom”. However, everything changed when she was accused of stealing things in the house. The paychecks stopped, the chores increased and the food decreased.
Then, the situation worsened. A few hours of ironing stretch to become 16 hours, sometimes even 20 hours each day. She was not given food and was forbidden to take restroom breaks. Once, Zunduri was left without food for five days, and had to resort to chewing on the plastic bags used for laundered shirts. She survived with the meagre leftover water from the iron. By then, she was already sleeping on the floor.
“Mothers discipline their children”
Ironically, the captor regarded herself as a mother to Zunduri despite her inhumane treatment towards the domestic helper. She used her supposed status as ‘mother’ to abuse Zunduri, claiming that “mothers discipline their children” when she beat Zunduri for the first time. However, she did not stop there. More beatings followed. Depending on the tormentors’ moods, Zunduri was beaten with items ranging from a tie to a wrench. Her body is covered with scars from iron burns and scabs that were never allowed to heal and her neck was badly scratched with fingernails.
Besides the physical abuse, Zunduri’s captors also mentally abused her, belittling her existence. The owner would repeatedly claim that she was “worthless”. “She always tried to put things in my head like, ‘Your mom doesn’t love you. If she loved you…she would’ve taken you back.” Zunduri mentioned in an interview with CNN. Shortly after the beatings started, her captors also tied her up in chains and treated her like an animal. The chains were positioned on her waist so she could still iron. “She told me, ‘This is how animals like you should be treated’.” Zunduri’s pleas for mercy were unheard as her captors grabbed her and fastened the chains around her neck and waist. She estimates that she has spent around six months in chains.
In April 2015, Zunduri’s tormentors left the chains slightly loosened. Seizing the opportunity, Zunduri fled her former home, now nothing but a horrific prison. Covered in scars, wounds, scratches and bruises, Zunduri was emaciated and had a severe case of anaemia. Doctors judged her physical conditions to be similar to an 80 year-old. Blood stains in various corners of the dry cleaners’ were found to contain Zunduri’s DNA, verifying her testimony.
“There was not a single part of her body without a scar or wound” said Human Rights attorney Maria Teresa Paredes upon seeing her injuries.
However, Zunduri is beginning to recover, both physically and mentally.
After multiple surgeries and therapy sessions, Zunduri is determined to start a new life. “I want to be a pastry chef”, she said in the months following her escape. Today, Zunduri is working with the Together Against Human Trafficking Commission to raise awareness about slavery. Her speeches about her experiences have taken her to Argentina and the Vatican, where she had a chance to meet with the Pope. Currently, a Mexican bakery has offered to train Zunduri and help her start a new business. The State of Mexico has also given her clothes, an apartment and a new identity. Zunduri’s new life is just beginning.
“God is with them”
As of April 2015, 5 people from the Molina Ochoa family have been arrested and detained for holding Zunduri against her will. These include the owner Leticia Molina Ochoa, her husband Jose de Jesus Sanchez Vega, her sister Fany Molina Ochoa; Jannet Hernandez Molina and Ivette Hernandez Molina.
One of the neighbours, 65 year-old Gertrudis, expressed her shock towards their arrest. “It seems impossible to me that they are accusing them of those things; it just can’t be.” Other neighbours were also surprised by the incident, claiming that the family were friendly people who regularly hosted parties at their home.
The five captors could face up to 40 years of prison for their brutal treatment of Zunduri.
“I still fear seeing those people again. I have passed by the dry cleaners’, but the fear goes away when I understand that God is with them.” Said Zunduri when interviewed by Mexico News Daily. When asked about the choice of her new name, she replies that she has adopted it as it means “beautiful girl” in Japanese. No longer haunted by her past, Zunduri is determined to start a new life and pursue her dreams of opening a bakery.
Unfortunately, Zunduri’s story is one of many stories of slavery; a representation of many unheard, suppressed voices from those who have yet to escape the control of their so-called ‘masters’. Despite popular belief that slavery has been largely abolished, this is not the case for some regions. According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 26,900 people in Mexico who work as if they are owned by a master. Zunduri’s story is only the tip of the iceberg.