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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Does Mexico City Need a Red-Light District?

Prostitute in the streets of
Prostitutes stand around in the La Merced area of Mexico City
Maya Goded / Magnum

As twilight falls over Mexico City's Buenavista neighborhood, the traditional night shift begins. A woman in suspenders and a pink dress takes up right outside the doors of an American-owned bank. Across the street, two girls in miniskirts entice clients at the entrance of a subway station. A block down, a group of transvestites and transsexuals bare their wares outside a convenience store. Quickly, the streets fill with hundreds of sex workers, while their clients lurk discreetly in dark corners, vigilant under the threat of a sudden police raid.

It's a competitive business on the streets of Buenavista, made tougher as the recession has pushed more and more women to make a living here. Mexico's economy is predicted to shrink 7.2% in 2009, its worst slump since the Great Depression. Grim by any measure, the fragile economy is evident in the swelling number of prostitutes working in Mexico City, estimated to have risen 10% in the past year. Residents of Buenavista have long complained of the worsening situation, but now the government has put forth a solution. (See pictures of fighting crime in Mexico City.)

Agustin Torres, the newly sworn-in president of Mexico City's central borough, has proposed taking prostitutes off the streets and into a new "tolerance zone," like Amsterdam's red-light district, where sex workers can operate without the risk of police harassment and with access to contraception and health checks. The suggested circuit road on a nearby avenue away from family homes would help protect the sex workers against pimps and assailants, Torres says. "We have a duty to defend these people, who are simply doing their job," he told TIME. "Most of the residents of the area are poor folks who support a more socially progressive attitude to this issue."

Torres' approach to the oldest trade fits in with the leftist politics of his Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which has run the Mexican capital for the past decade. PRD lawmakers have also legalized abortion, same-sex civil unions and a limited euthanasia in the city.

But the talk of sanctioned prostitution zones has set off alarm bells among Mexico's social conservatives, who fear their capital is turning into a den of sin. Leading the charge is the Roman Catholic Church, which argues that the government should be clamping down on the sex trade, not encouraging it. "It is funny how these groups want to allow women to have abortions and then won't defend them against the suffering of prostitution," says Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the archdioceses of Mexico City. "They should be looking at how much the authorities themselves are involved in the mafias controlling this vice." The church has a special congregation dedicated to freeing prostitutes from the trade and helping steer them toward other jobs, Valdemar said. (See the picture gallery "Tales of the Drug Lord's Son.")

It is also unclear whether the sex-worker circuit would even be legal. Prostitution is a civil offense in Mexico City, and recent efforts to legalize it have gotten snared in legislative gridlock. Torres argues, however, that the rules are ambiguous and that international labor laws recognize sex work as legitimate employment. Further, prostitution zones have long been tolerated along some parts of the Mexico-U.S. border, providing havens for gringo truck drivers and young Texans looking to lose their virginity.

But downtown Mexico City is a long way from the Rio Grande. There are few American clients spending dollars in Buenavista. Mostly the johns are working and middle-class Mexicans who stop here after work and pay as little as $10 for a service. In these conditions, it could be hard to convince many of the sex workers themselves that it would benefit them to relocate to a special zone. "I have been here for 10 years. I had to work hard to get my place, and now I have my regular clients," says Monica, 35, eyeing passing men to get their attention. "Why should I move from here now?"

The women also have a deep-seated distrust of the government. Prostitutes complain that they are routinely shaken down by police, who demand $50 payoffs and threaten to lock them up overnight if they don't pay. Several prostitutes were suspicious that the new circuit was part of a government plan to tax them. And none of the prostitutes interviewed said they had to pay hustlers on the streets. "I don't work for pimps. I don't work for madams. And I am not going to work for the government," says Jennifer, a heavily made-up 24-year-old pacing in place to keep warm in the evening chill. "This is my business to provide for my family. And I want it to stay that way."