SIKASSO, Mali -- Businessmen called "locateurs" wait in the little bus station in this large border town, where crammed mini-buses leave for Ivory Coast every 30 minutes. They search the crowds for children traveling alone, looking lost or begging for food.
"Would you like a great job in Cote d'Ivoire?" they ask, using the official name of the former French colony. "I can find you one."
The dusty alley behind the bus station is brimming with vendors selling everything from food to cigarettes. There are cobblers and shanty kiosks selling bootleg tapes of West African pop music. Chickens and goats abound, and dust mingles with the scent of raw meat.
There also is a dark warehouse with blackened walls and a thick wooden door covered with tin sheeting that locks from the outside. Malian officials say slave traders sometimes keep their young victims here overnight so they can't escape. Kadi Samaka, a sidewalk vendor, sits in front of the warehouse and sells the peanuts she roasts in a black kettle. She has watched adults bring children carrying bags to sleep in the warehouse.
"Sometimes, the men buy the children some food," said Samaka, 19. "The next morning, they take the children and go."
Samaka said she doesn't intervene. "The children looked happy," she explained, shrugging.
Nearly half of the world's cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast farms, some of which use boys who were sold or tricked into slavery to do the harvesting.
"Slavery is so much a part of the structure of society that it becomes invisible," said Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International, a nonprofit group in London that formed in 1839 and provided moral and material support to the American abolitionist movement.
This is a part of Africa where children, out of respect, will do anything to help their parents. Many men have two or three wives and dozens of children, and it's common to see boys and girls as young as 6 selling coconut milk in shells on the streets.
Virtually all the boys who wind up working on cocoa farms come from poor farming families and seldom get any schooling. Boys of their background generally start working in their parents' fields between the ages of 12 and 15.
When times weren't so bad, Malian parents who were too poor to afford proper schooling placed their children with better-off families to learn skills such as farming. The apprenticed children were treated properly and almost always returned home.
And for decades, the more prosperous Ivory Coast has offered children from Mali and other African countries not only a living but also a chance to see the world outside their villages, to learn new skills and to bring home some money after a year or two.
But hard times "have enhanced the greed of people," said Ndolamb Ngokwey, the deputy regional director for West Africa for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Slave trading "is a kind of perversion of a traditional practice, which is now becoming a very visible problem."
"In the Malian mentality, when your child leaves your family, we think he's going to be safe with other adults," said Malian child welfare official Sibiry Dembele. "We cannot consider an old man doing harm to the kid. Even today, it's difficult to convince some Malians that their children were being trafficked."
No questions asked
Once they are across the border, the traffickers usually hand over the children to other traders, who deal them to Ivorian and Malian immigrant farmers in cocoa- and coffee-producing regions such as Daloa, where signs advertising Nestle Quik dot the streets.
Traffickers bring as many as 10 boys a month to Siaka Cisse's small, ramshackle house in Daloa, which doubles as his son's furniture shop. From there the 60-year-old former bus driver distributes smuggled children to local farmers.
Disoriented and scared, the boys trust Cisse because like many of them he speaks Bamara, a Malian tribal language.
Neither Cisse nor the farmers ask where or how the traffickers got the children.
Virtually all the boys are illiterate, but Cisse gets them to sign -- more like a scratchy squiggle -- a "contract" scrawled in French on notebook paper. It says they agree to work for about $180 a year. But they eventually discover they may not be paid that year and that many will never be paid at all.
Cisse, who has 20 children of his own, said he receives only a small "gift" from each farmer -- $1 or $2 per child. But a boy named Mombi Bakayoko said his master paid Cisse about $13 for him, and another $20 "transport fee" to the trafficker who brought him to Ivory Coast. Other boys said Cisse gets an average of about $12 per child.
If any children he places gets paid, Cisse makes sure it's in front of him. Three children he placed said they had to give him a cut of what they had earned.
"I have no deal with the kids," responded Cisse, a stout man in a lime green robe and a purple Muslim skull cap. "The farmers pay me."
Does he see anything wrong with dealing in children?
"I don't know their ages," he said. "I only pick sturdy kids."
Cisse said it's not his fault if farmers abuse the children. He said he had gone to farms four times in the past three years to retrieve children after they sent messages to him through people traveling to Daloa.
"Lack of food, for example."
What did he do with those children?
"Found them work with other farmers." He said he did that at the boys' request.
Cisse said he hadn't trafficked in young teens for the past year because local Malian elders expressed concern.
"Ever since the Malian committee told me not to deal in kids, I've stopped bringing 15-year-olds," he said, smiling.
When a reporter told Cisse that one of his clients had produced two contracts, one for a 15-year-old and one for a 16-year-old, both prepared and signed last year by him, he appeared startled.
He paused, then casually responded: "That could be. Unless I see them, I don't know."
Then he flashed a warm smile and asked politely: "Where are they?"
The two teen-agers were 30 miles away on cocoa farmer Sekongo Nagalouro's small, sun-dappled plantation.
"I need labor, and since there's this offer from the fixers, we get these kids to work here," Nagalouro explained. "I treat them well."
Nagalouro said he plans to pay the boys at the end of the year, but only if he makes enough money for his family and for expenses for the next season's crop.
He now sells his cocoa beans for a little more than 30 cents a pound. Last year, he got about 45 cents; the year before, 50 cents. If there's a problem with him being able to pay the boys, he said, he'll discuss it with Cisse, not with them.
"Maybe there are some people who think this is modern-day slavery, but I don't think so," Nagalouro said. "What agreements the kids have with those who brought them here (to Ivory Coast), I don't know about. All I know is when they are available, I go and get them."