Editorials | Issues | April 2007
|Prostitution in Mexico|
At present, only 18 of the 32 states of Mexico regulate prostitution.
|An estimated 5,000 children are currently involved in prostitution, pornography and sex-tourism in Mexico.|
Each big city has a red zone (zona roja) where prostitution is allowed.
Prostitution cannot take place in public places - such as public buses, subways, or in public property. It is allowed on private property only with the approval of the owner.
Prostitutes have to be registered and have to pay for and receive weekly health checks and have to carry a health card to prove it.
There is a more complete account of the legal situation available.
The age of consent is 18, however, most things in Mexico do not go by the law.
Percentage of estimated prostitutes working:
• On the streets: 48%
• At bars: 38%
• At bordellos: 14%
Underage Sex Workers in Mexico
Mexico has no laws defining or sanctioning child prostitution as criminal activity.
An estimated 5,000 children are currently involved in prostitution, pornography and sex-tourism in Mexico. Nearly 100 children and teenagers a month fall into the hands of the child prostitution networks which are mafias or organized crime syndicates.
More than 2,000 girls and young women have been sold to Japanese brothels. Traffickers belong to criminal syndicates operating along the US border and associated with Japanese "yakuza" gangs.
The US-Mexican border is one of the main centers for child sex tourism. Thousands of Americans cross into Mexico daily looking for cheap sex with underage prostitutes. Mexican authorities, who admit that about 18,000 minors were used to produce child pornography, have taken little action.
Organized Mexican cartels smuggle girls as young as 14 into the US. The Cadena network has smuggled many young Mexican girls to south Florida. Despite the arrest of a number of key players by US authorities, the head of the Cadena hydra remains at large. US investigators have also apprehended several employees of the California-based Chamblee Agency for trafficking laborers into the US, some of whom were forced into prostitution and debt-bondage.
The most degrading and often dangerous work of women and children can be found in prostitution. Tens of thousands of Mexican women and girls (as well as men and boys) work as prostitutes in all of the major cities of the country. A recent study by the Mexico City government Youth Commission headed by Angeles Correa found that Mexico City had 50,000 prostitutes of whom 2,500 were minors. Elena Azaola of the Center of Higher Research and Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) found that there were 5,000 child prostitutes in all of Mexico (90 percent female).
But Rosa Marta Cortina de Brown of the Female Association of Tourist Enterprise Executive estimates that 250,000 children between 10 and 16 have been the victims of "sexual tourism" in cities like Guadalajara, Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Tijuana. Recently there have also been reports on child prostitution in Veracruz, Queretaro, and Ciudad Juarez. Girls in prostitution face constant problems of possible pregnancy, immature childbirth, violence, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual transmitted diseases including HIV-AIDS.
Retired Sex Workers Find Refuge
Carmen Muñoz ticks off the basic facts of her life in a quiet, neutral voice that belies the horrors she has known:
Married at 12 to a man 10 years her senior. First-time mother at 14. Worked as a housecleaner while her husband spent his days idling, confiscating the few pesos she´d earned and burning her with cigarettes to keep her in line.
"What he liked was money and beating me up," she says of her former spouse. "He enjoyed making me bleed."
Then someone told Muñoz about a man who was willing to pay 1,000 pesos if she´d go to a certain hotel and do what she was told. Uncertain but desperate, she took the offer and began her new life as a sex worker.
"It was very difficult, but as soon as I began to see money, as soon as I saw that I had enabled my children to eat, the situation definitely changed for me," Muñoz says of the long-ago days.
Perhaps the only thing tougher than being a prostitute in this churning capital is being a prostitute in what Mexicans call the "tercera edad," literally the "third age," or "third stage of life."
Though technically illegal, prostitution is widespread in many parts of Mexico, often poorly regulated and still a taboo subject in this roughly 80 percent Roman Catholic country.
In the past, sex workers who survived to their golden years could expect to be broke and living on the streets.
But for some of them, that may not be the case.
Since November, a number of elderly, retired sex workers here have found refuge in the Casa Xochiquetzal, a group home that is believed to be the first such facility in Latin America.
Opened in a renovated historic building that once housed a boxing museum, the Casa was donated by the Mexico City government, which is paying for the women´s food, medicine and utilities.
To be admitted to the free facility, an applicant must be at least 65, no longer active in sex work and be receiving no other aid.
For the 20 women who call it home, including two 85-year- olds, the Casa has been a godsend.
"Previously, my preferred saying was, ´In the end, we all end up in jail,´ " says Muñoz, the home´s director. "Today I say, ´In the end, we all end up in peace,´ because for us this house is a place of peace, because it is ours."
On a recent weekday, Casa Xochiquetzal went about its low-key routine.
Residents sat chatting in groups of two or three. Some bustled around in the kitchen, preparing lunch.
One woman sang along to an old musical that was playing on a black-and-white television.
Accommodations are comfortable, if spartan. All rooms are shared. The women help raise some money for themselves by making costume jewelry, and there are plans to have them make and sell baked goods as well.
A few items are constantly in short supply - bedsheets, kitchen equipment, shoes in size 4 and 5. But these women are used to making do with little.
Named for the Náhuatl word for a type of flower, Casa Xochiquetzal is the fruit of an unusual collaboration involving sex workers, feminists, a prominent theater director and the city government. Muñoz says the idea for the residence first took shape when she began noticing numbers of poor, elderly prostitutes around the city´s Historic Center.
"I felt this in my own flesh, and I said, ´Today it´s them, tomorrow it could be me who could be in this situation in the street.´ "
Eventually, a friend put her in touch with Jesusa Rodríguez, a theater artist whose El Hábito space is known for its feminist-inspired cabaret-style perfor mances.
In Mexico, Rodríguez says, many sex workers enter the trade at a young age and are easily exploited by the organized pimps and madams who run prostitution networks. They also may be prey for police officers, some of whom threaten the women, demanding money or sexual favors, prostitutes say.
"There are many very sad life stories," Muñoz says, "and they all are of hunger and necessity, of threat, of kidnapping, of being told that someone was going to kill their children, of fathers, of brothers who brought them to doing sex work and obligated them to do it."
Poor and indigenous women are especially vulnerable to falling into the hands of predators, Rodríguez says. Yet "in many ways," she believes, "these are very creative women. Even with all the difficulties of their lives they still have a very strong sense of life."
In the summer of 2003, Rodríguez met with a group of about 70 prostitutes. The younger women were interested in forming a large, national movement to advocate for sex workers´ rights, but the senior women had a more modest goal.
"The older ones, above everything, wanted a place where they could live their life with dignity," Rodríguez recalls.
Two other influential figures joined in: Marta Lamas, one of Mexico´s leading feminists and women´s rights advocates; and Elena Poniatowska, a prominent journalist and novelist.
They helped to arrange a meeting with then-Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was shocked there were grandmothers working as prostitutes a stone´s throw from his office.
The mayor offered to help both the older women and their younger, more radicalized colleagues, who eventually split off to pursue their own agenda.
Fundraisers were held for both groups, including two benefit concerts by singer Eugenia León.
The mayor´s office also put out fliers around the city reiterating that sex workers have the same rights as other citizens - a sign of how attitudes toward prostitution are changing, albeit slowly.
"It´s very important to stop this moralistic approach," says Lamas, who estimates that there are "hundreds of thousands" of prostitutes in the metropolitan area (population 22 million).
Before long, the city had found a building to donate to the women of the tercera edad: a block-long, abandoned structure on a plaza at the edge of the Historic Center.
At the time, the building was in "horrible" condition, Muñoz says, but its thick stone walls and high, wooden cross-beamed ceilings remained solid.
Though some neighbors were wary at first, they became friendly once they saw that the house had been greatly improved and that the women kept to themselves.
Many more women are hoping to find a home at the Casa in coming months. Its sponsors hope that this pilot project can inspire other such refuges across Mexico.
"If the people want to give us help, it´s magnificent," Muñoz says. "Above all, to know that ... we sex workers matter to anyone, this is fabulous."
Retirement Home for Mexican Prostitutes
The city government has given a new shelter for aging prostitutes in a 1,500-square-meter mansion in the heart of the Merced neighborhood, Mexico City, one of Mexico City's main red-light zones.
Distressed to find aging homeless women still working as prostitutes in downtown Mexico City, womens' groups are preparing a roomy retirement home to take 65 of them off the streets.
Rejected by their families and stripped of much of their earnings by policemen and pimps, the elderly sex workers say they have no choice but to keep working, sometimes for less than $2 a day or just a plate of food.
"I may have two or three clients a day but I can't charge what the young ones do. Sometimes I just ask for food or a hotel room," said Gloria Maria, a kindly faced woman of 74 who mostly sleeps outdoors in a grimy downtown food market.
Funds raised this week will go toward fixing the roof of a an elegant but crumbling 18th century building donated by the Mexico City government to serve as a retirement home for Gloria Maria and others.
Like many of her co-workers, Gloria Maria was raped as a teenager and fell into prostitution soon afterward.
Prostitution is not legal in Mexico but sex workers are tolerated, along with the shoe shiners, orange juice vendors and tamale sellers who clog the streets of big cities, creating a gray economy that absorbs millions of unemployed.
While some of these workers can put savings under the mattress for old age, or hope their children will support them, prostitutes often have nothing after a life of exploitation by pimps and paying bribes to avoid arrest.
Few are in touch with their families or children.
"Other people pay taxes and can retire with a pension. We are exploited by society then thrown away when we get old," said one lithe young prostitute, with long blond hair and funky platform shoes.
"We should have the same rights as anyone else," she said at a fund-raising concert for the retirement home on Tuesday.
Organizers are collecting funds from private donors and hoping local companies will provide beds and help with improvements to the retirement home like painting, plumbing and rewiring.
The women will be expected to cook and clean for themselves and earn money through handicrafts to help with running costs.
The home is seen as a pilot project and the organizers realize it needs to be part of a longer-term solution for sex workers.
"Sex workers are doubly marginalized," said Emilienne de Leon, head of a local womens' rights group called Semillas.
"They are rejected by society and by their families. When they get old, either they sell themselves very cheaply or they don't have enough to eat. It's a very difficult world."
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