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COVER STORY: A race for a better life
It all happened so fast that Norma Bastidas didn’t realize she was being abducted until she was already in the car, being driven off to the outskirts of Mexico City.
The Ladner mother-of-two was 17 at the time, and returning to her brother’s home after a dance course in the Mexican capital.
Having grown up in the coastal resort town of Mazatlan, she unfamiliar with the big city.
“I was at the bus stop when they approached me,” she recalls.
A car pulled up with three men in it. Two of them stepped out and began to talk to Bastidas, telling her they were there to pick her up and drive her home. Before she could resist, they grabbed her and her belongings and ushered her into the back seat of the car.
“They were good looking, and they acted very familiar, so the bystanders thought they knew me,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was in trouble until I was in the car.”
Bastidas had been raped before, when she was 12 years old. Trapped in the back seat of the car, surrounded on all sides, and driving through unfamiliar neighbourhoods, she feared the worst.
“I was terrified,” she recalls.
After a few hours on the road, the men drove Bastidas to a gated home in the rich, leafy suburbs of the capital. There they slapped her and punched her. They told her to behave, or else. They dragged her inside the mansion, and locked her in a room to await her fate.
After a few hours alone, a boy her own age came into the room.
“My brother has caused a lot of trouble, I’m sorry,” he said.
The boy took her to a hotel that night, and the next day, gave her money and put her on a bus back to Mexico City.
Bastidas was one of the lucky ones.
“I managed to escape,” she says. “Many other girls are not so lucky. It is very easy to make someone disappear.”
Bastidas didn’t go to the police. She says her captors were likely the rich sons of powerful men. By reporting the crime, they would know who she was and where she lived.
“I went home [to Mazatlan] and it became something we never really discussed,” she says. “I was so afraid to even leave my house.”
That was almost 30 years ago, and Bastidas says she now regrets not speaking out.
“I feel responsible, because I never talked about it,” she says. “You are never safe unless you speak up. The people who do this, they will keep doing it until they are stopped.”
Bastidas says she is hoping to make up for her previous silence by helping to raise awareness about the global problem of human trafficking.
Next month, Bastidas will be embarking on an epic journey that will take her from Cancun, Mexico, to Washington, DC: A Guinness World Record attempt for the longest triathlon ever completed. Bastidas will swim more than 150km, cycle more than 4,300 km, and run close to 1,200 km.
“Back then I couldn’t do anything because I was overwhelmed and scared,” she says. “But I’m doing something now.”
Bastidas escaped the violence of her homeland at the age of 19 when she accepted a modelling and acting contract with a talent agency in Japan, before settling in Canada.
She was young and naive and looking for a better life, but also fortunate that the opportunity she was offered her was legitimate.
“I was very lucky,” she says. “For many girls, they have their passports taken from them, they are forced to work for nothing, often as prostitutes.
“They are trapped.”
Bastidas says she was inspired to speak out about her own experiences after her eldest son Karl was diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy at age 11, and began to go blind.
As an immigrant single mother with a child with a disability, she says it was up to her to make sure he got the best care possible.
“I started to realize how important it was to speak up and do everything I could to help him,” she says.
Bastidas began running to cope with stress, and found her solace on the roads and trails.
“I didn’t want my boys to see me cry,” she says. “I had anxiety and shame. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
But when Bastidas started running, she says the weight she was carrying became lighter, more bearable.
“It’s impossible to feel depressed when you are out in nature,” she says. “It’s like meditation. We’re meant to be outdoors.”
When she runs, Bastidas’ thoughts often drift to her two teenage sons, Karl and Hans, and that inspires her to push on.
“They need to see the perseverance,” she says. “I have to show my kids these things.”
She was soon able to channel her newfound love to help raise money for Karl and others like him.
In 2009, she became just the second person to run an ultramarathon on all seven continents, and the first to do so in less than seven months. The seven races totalled more than 1,400 km, and included the 100-km Antarctic Ice Marathon.
“It was -23C, and it took me 28 hours, but I completed it,” she says.
Bastidas’ 777 Run for Sight helped to raise close to $200,000 for Foundation Fighting Blindness, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and Operation Eyesight Universal. Her efforts were featured on the documentary Extraordinary Moms on Oprah Winfery’s OWN network.
“When you run for two days straight without sleep, it’s hard, it hurts everything,” she says. “But your body is capable of a lot more than you think.”
Bastidas says the positive impact she was able to have through her 777 Run for Sight made her reflect on her own life, and in 2012, she decided she wanted to speak out about her own experiences as a rape survivor and raise awareness about human trafficking.
In April of 2012, Bastidas embarked on another epic journey, this time running 4,200 km from her home in Ladner all the way to her birthplace of Mazatlan. Running Home: The Journey To End Violence took her three months to complete.
“I wanted to face my biggest fear,” she says. “Standing tall, and saying, I’m a rape survivor.”
With her latest challenge, Bastidas says she hopes to empower survivors everywhere and demonstrate that one’s past does not dictate one’s future.
“I’ve learned the lesson that a problem doesn’t go away if you remain silent,” she says. “So I’m doing everything I can.”
Bastidas’ world record triathlon attempt might be her most audacious challenge yet. While she says she is comfortable with the running and cycling sections of the journey, the swimming section is what most concerns her. That’s because Bastidas only learned to swim last year.
“I’ve been training at Winskill, and they’ve been wonderful, and incredibly supportive,” she says. “I’m not going to win any races, but I’m going to finish.
Bastidas has partnered with the international organization, iEmpathize, which works to eradicate child exploitation, human trafficking, and slavery. Her journey from Cancun to Washington will take her along one of the most popular corridors for human traffickers, and will be filmed by a documentary crew for the upcoming film, Be Relentless.
Along the way they will be interviewing women who have escaped lives of sexual exploitation, putting a human face on human trafficking.
But the issue of human trafficking isn’t limited to Mexico, she says.
“It’s happening here, with unpaid labourers, with sex workers,” says Bastidas. “Canada and the US are often the destination for human traffickers. We need to do a better job of protecting the vulnerable.”
A US State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that, “only around 40,000 victims have been identified in the last year... a mere fraction [.15%] of the more than 26 million men, women, and children who are estimated to suffer in modern slavery.”
The United Nations estimates human trafficking generates upwards of $30 billion annually in illegal proceeds.
Bastidas says she hopes that through her efforts, she can change how people think about prostitution and human trafficking. In poor countries all over the world, young girls are being sold off by their families, or taken from the streets, and forced into lives as sex slaves.
“It’s not the oldest profession in the world, it’s the oldest crime against women,” she says.
And for those that do manage to escape, there is little support available.
“Their families reject them, they can’t find work, they have no support, so they end up exactly where they were before,” she says. “Women don’t choose to become prostitutes. How bad do your options have to be to choose that life?”
While the road to Washington will be long and painful, Bastidas says the only motivation she needs is to think about who she’s running for.
“My discomfort is nothing compared to knowing there are kids locked in hotel rooms somewhere,” she says. “It’s absolutely nothing compared to the physical and emotional pain they feel.”