Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

MEXICO: Prostitution Rings Flourish at all Levels

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jul 23 2008 (IPS) - “Diamond VIP” class prostitutes, who are mainly from Eastern Europe, Argentina, Brazil or Cuba, can charge as much as 2,000 dollars in Mexico, while sex workers from southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras earn a mere 15 dollars. The price indicates which mafia is handling the women.

The high-class prostitutes are “administered” by Russians, Ukrainians or Cuban-Americans linked to global human trafficking rings, while the lower-priced are controlled by local pimps. Both organisations operate in a network of corruption in which authorities are involved.

A large proportion of the women in the VIP (very important person) class, which is subdivided into platinum, gold and diamond, come to Mexico after being drawn in by prostitution rings that promise them work as models or aides. The others form part of the waves of migration from Central America and the south of Mexico to the country’s main cities.

In both cases, the women are kept in small groups whose leaders answer to the mafias. Their documents are seized, they are not allowed to make phone calls, and they live in houses where they are watched constantly and are sometimes locked up.

“The mafias are very tough organisations, and they only work because of the collusion between the authorities and groups that have no compunction about killing,” Jaime Montejo, founder of Brigada Callejera, a non-governmental organisation that has been working with sex workers in Mexico since 1995, told IPS.

“This is slavery, which sometimes ends up with the sex worker being murdered if she rebels or tries to make a public complaint,” Montejo said.

In La Merced, a neighbourhood in the historic centre of the Mexican capital, where dozens of prostitutes from southern Mexico and Central American countries work, 14 women were murdered in 2007, and six have been killed so far this year.

Nearly all the murders go unpunished, but Montejo suspects that they were carried out by persons who do not want prostitution in La Merced, and by pimps who do not tolerate rebelliousness.

In this part of Mexico City, women in revealing clothing show off their wares all day long among street vendors, shops and hundreds of passers-by. They charge the equivalent of 15 dollars for sex, which takes place in hotels, rooms and houses in the district.

Each prostitute must hand over between 200 and 400 dollars a day to her pimp. To make this sum she has to service at least 13 clients a day. In exchange, the mafias give her a room, food and some spending money.

Brigada Callejera, which began working in La Merced but has now expanded to other neighbourhoods and cities, estimates that one-third of the sex workers in La Merced are under 18.

No one really knows how many sex trade rings are operating in La Merced, or in Mexico as a whole, but investigations by the Attorney General’s Office indicate that trafficking in persons is a flourishing activity that is linked to drug and arms smuggling.

Reports by the Attorney General’s Office, Interpol and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) show that prostitution is a multi-billion dollar business in Mexico.

Russian and Ukrainian mafias operate in this country, smuggling in women from Eastern European countries, as well as the Cuban-American mafia that brings in women from the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America.

Local prostitution rings pay traffickers around 30,000 dollars for women from Europe in the “diamond VIP” category, which means they are beautiful, young and well-educated.

These women are mainly taken to Mexico City and Cancún, a resort city on the Caribbean coast, which are hotspots of the sex trade in Mexico. There they work at agencies offering “high class escorts,” and in exclusive night clubs.

The deputy attorney general for international affairs, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said in 2003 that the mafias bringing in European women were made up of “well-trained and highly dangerous people,” several of whom had belonged to the KGB, the intelligence agency of the former Soviet Union.

There have only been a handful of arrests and legal actions against these groups in recent years.

“The geographical position of our country, bordering the United States which is the largest consumer in the sex trade, makes us a good place for prostitution at all levels,” said Montejo.

Brigada Callejera helps sex workers form cooperatives and gain access to medical care, while distributing condoms and working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Montejo says that police and immigration authorities and local and national government officials are involved with large and small prostitution rings alike, allowing the sex business to function and profiting from it as much as possible. “Everyone knows that,” he said.

He cited the city of Tijuana, on the U.S. border, as one example. The city government there collects over 150,000 dollars a year from payments made by sex workers.

Another example is La Merced in the capital, which has more than 30 hotels, rooms and other places where prostitution is practised. According to Montejo, in order to operate, these places pay some 450,000 dollars a year to the police and municipal authorities.

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