Monday, April 28, 2003

Cecil Brown
Friday Review

Mexico tries to restrict prostitution to specified areas in Sonora

NOGALES, SONORA — A new city code bans streetwalking and confines prostitution to specific brothels and bars, the latest effort to control the thriving sex trade in areas frequented by families and tourists.

Before, prostitution was banned only in residential zones.

The plan includes routine patrols by well-armed police squads that sweep the streets, bars and brothels searching for underage prostitutes, drugs and the government-issued health cards prostitutes and bar employees working in nightclubs known for prostitution are required to carry.

But until the city confronts prostitution rather than pushing it to the side, prostitution will only grow, with more minors, more drug abuse and more violence against women, said a Nogales sociologist.

The health cards have failed to live up to their billing as a way for the city to track and monitor the health of prostitutes. When the program started, 300 prostitutes and bar employees were carrying the cards, said city Sanitation Department Director Dr. Alejandro Gutierrez Moreno. Now, fewer than 100 women bother to do so.

None of the enforcement effort is designed to try to stamp out the sex-for-hire business so prevalent that dozens of Internet sites provide pricing advice and precise directions to Nogales prostitution locales.

And none of it matters to teen-age prostitutes such as Laura Gabriela, who uses the street name Shantalna.

Shantalna came to Nogales at 15 and found work as a lap dancer. A year later, addicted to rock cocaine, she started working as a prostitute. "It was the easiest choice," she said late one night, sitting on a mattress in the tiny room that is her home. She lives less than two blocks from the border.

The walls of her room are covered in pornography, and a plastic bag with a residue of white powder sits on the only shelf in the room. Loud pop music pours in from the clubs through the window covered in cardboard. The floorboards creak outside in the unlighted narrow hall as men talk in low voices. Her life is a contradiction in feeling and thought. She feels shame for being a prostitute but says she enjoys her work. "I do like it. Why should I lie?" she said. The men who pick her up usually are Americans.

"They don't abuse me, but sometimes they want to do things to my body that I don't like," she said.

Her mother has tried to reconcile with her, but Shantalna doesn't feel now is the time to go back. "I don't want her to see me like this." One of five children, she never knew her father.

Shantalna is now old enough to apply for the health card she was unaware existed.

She won't apply. And even women who work in the bars where prostitution is legal are less likely to bother getting a health card.

"It's almost impossible to measure the number of prostitutes working in this city," said Assistant Nogales Police Chief Rodrigo Ortiz, who pushed for the new enforcement codes.

In a city of more than 350,000 people, only about 100 prostitutes are being tracked. And only workers in 12 bars, along Calle Obregon and across the railroad tracks just south of the border, are subject to inspection by Police and Sanitation department officials.

To enforce compliance, small teams of police drop in on bars and clubs unannounced Wednesdays through Saturdays, and like prostitution itself, workers and customers seem to take the police effort lightly. On a night sweep Wednesday, a shoeshine boy kept his gaze fixed on his work, never raising his head to look at the six officers searching four women.

Though every woman searched Wednesday night had her current health card, even officials enforcing the new code concede that revoking a fake or outdated health card does nothing to prevent prostitutes from continuing their trade at another bar or from a hotel, like Shantalna. If found without her card, a prostitute faces a light sentence — a 36-hour stint in jail and a maximum fine of $800.

With 60 police officers, Ortiz said he lacks the manpower to spend much time dealing with prostitution.

Patricia Barrn, a sociologist and social services investigator in Nogales, says the city is concerned only with the welfare of the customers — usually Americans — leaving girls like Shantalna to succumb to drug abuse, disease and violence.

As a city, "we're not worried about them," she said. "We're just looking to see they have their card, like it's a rite of employment."

The city needs to be proactive if it is to control prostitution, she said.

"We have to find a way for the girls to know we care about their health," she said. "If the city can build empathy with the girls, the girls will take better care of themselves.

"That will drop the infections of the clientele."

It's not clear how many Tucsonans go to Nogales to solicit sex, said Miguel Rojas, a senior communicable diseases investigator with the Pima County Health Department.

Among 36 cases of syphilis this year in Pima County, two carriers acknowledged visiting a prostitute in Mexico, Rojas said. In 2002, from 95 cases, four acknowledged having sex with a prostitute in Mexico.

Rojas said the fallacy of the newest Nogales attempt to deal with prostitution is its focus on 12 clubs, rather than addressing the broader problem of prostitution. "The problem is you have 10 times more girls off of the clubs," he said.

For those who start young, "by the time she's 24, 26, she's definitely a reservoir for a lot of diseases," he said.

[Source: Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, April 30, 2003.]

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Created: May 9, 2003
Last modified: May 9, 2003
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