TAPACHULA, Mexico — Locals call them "merchandise" and that is how criminal gangs treat the Central American youths they force into prostitution near Mexico's southern border with Guatemala.

Victims recount being tricked into making the dangerous journey across Central America in the hope of a better life before being stopped en route in southern Mexico and forced to work for nothing.

The Honduran consul in Mexico's southern Chiapas state, Patricia Villamil, alerted local authorities to several cases when she took on her job last November. When they failed to respond, she spoke out.

"They bring women from Honduras, preferably under 18," said Villamil, who has already recorded a dozen cases of minors between 14 and 17 years old being forced into prostitution.

"They steal their innocence. They hit them, mistreat them, humiliate and rape them," she said.

Witness accounts map out a route starting in the poor communities of Honduras, passing through Guatemala before crossing the border into Mexico.

The girls are then distributed among several dozen bars and brothels in Chiapas, which are each thought to employ between eight and 14 foreigners.

A 17-year-old Honduran who gave her name as Valeria ended up in Mexico after following that well-worn route, on the promise of a free journey and a job in a restaurant in Mexico from a woman in her village.

The single mother travelled with a friend and four other minors -- those who are most in demand by pimps at the border.

Valeria eventually arrived at a sordid bar in Mexico where she forced herself to drink 17 beers to give her courage to face clients on her first night as a prostitute.

"I had to 'deal with it' every time a client wanted it. It was six or seven times almost every day. Once it was 12 times," she told AFP.

The owner of the bar demanded 5,000 pesos (430 dollars) for the journey.

Another bar owner eventually paid the debt, but forced her to work for him in return.

After four months' of work, with up to 16-hour days, she has not yet received any money.

"Generally they don't pay minors. They give them food and clothes and build up new debts for them," said Enrique Mendez, the prosecutor in charge of crimes against immigrants in Chiapas state.

Mendez denied that organized criminal groups were operating in the area, and said most girls arrived independently in Chiapas, on a route taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants hoping to reach the United States each year.

But the consul and victims said bar owners sought new supplies of young girls, who arrived in groups of five or six.

"Yes, there's people trafficking but not in an alarming manner," Mendez admitted in his office in the border town of Tapachula.

"There is a lot of prostitution, particularly of minors," he added.

The consul and activists for immigrants' rights blame authorities for minimizing the problem, which occurs alongside a spike in attacks on migrants in Mexico and an explosion of gang violence in recent years.

"Here in Chiapas, everyone knows what's happening," the Honduran consul said. "I don't care if the government is bothered that I say it. I'm not going to shut up until they do their job."