VILLA MAZATÁN, MEXICO – Ten years ago, a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl got what she thought was a waitressing job at a bar in Villa Mazatán, a municipality in Chiapas state not far from Mexico’s border with Guatemala. It has led to almost a decade in the sex trade.
An older woman had gotten her the job at the bar. But when the girl asked for her pay after a period of waiting tables, the woman told her she would not pay her until she worked. Work was not waiting on tables, the woman told her. Her real job was to sleep with the male customers.
The girl refused. The woman told her she could leave – but not until she reimbursed her for the 500 pesos ($40) she had spent on her bus tickets and food.
“Since I did not want to agree to that, what she did was to get me drunk,” the young woman says. “The next day, I awoke naked.”
A man had had sex with her, she says. She learned the woman had sold her for the night and had kept the money as reimbursement.
Today, the Guatemalan girl is a 25-year-old woman with two daughters.
After the woman tricked her, she felt as if she had been ruined and that no man would love her or want to marry her, she says. She also did not report the incident because she now felt sex work was her only option.
She has since spent most of the last decade in the business. She declined to publish her name because her family does not know what she does for a living.
Although her face and dark skin still look young, the woman says she feels old already. She has been working for half her life. At age 12, she got a job as a domestic worker – a job common among migrant women – in Tapachula, a city a 30-minute drive from Villa Mazatán.
At 15, she started waiting on tables at a bar, she says. There, she met the woman who brought her to Villa Mazatán and assured her that she would work as a waitress there, too.
“They brought me misled,” she says.
The Guatemalan woman now works at a cantina every day without breaks, she says. She has to be there from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., even if she does not have clients.
“Sometimes there is work,” she says. “Sometimes it is not so good.”
On some days, she sees two clients. On others, she receives just one or none at all.
“The days in which one [really] works are on Saturday and Sunday, the days when all of the workers come down to spend the few pesos they have,” she says.
She charges 120 pesos ($9) to be “occupied” – that is, to have sex with clients, she says. Sometimes she accepts less if the client says he does not have enough money.
In addition to what she earns for sex, she earns 10 pesos (75 cents) for each beer a client buys for her, she says. She winds up drunk every weekend.
For each client, the woman pays 20 pesos ($1.50) to the cantina manager, she says. The money covers two meals daily and a small room off the cantina’s main room where she lives and has sex with clients.
It is common for sex workers to live in rooms attached to the cantinas where they work, though many sex workers do not pay for their food or lodging.
The oldest of her two daughters lives with her father – the woman’s ex-husband and a former client, she says. He decided to take the girl so she would not follow her mother’s “bad example.”
Her younger daughter is just 4 months old and was fathered by a different man, she says. The baby lives with her in her small room. She pays a woman outside the cantina to watch her while she is working.
The Guatemalan woman hopes that she will not always be a sex worker, she says. But she does not know how much longer she will continue doing it. She hopes she will find a client who will take her away from the profession, as her ex-husband temporarily did.
When they married, she was 17 and thought she had left sex work behind. But the couple divorced three years later, and she returned to the cantina, considering it her only work option.
“Maybe a man will take me away – but one who helps me,” she says.
Various Central American women who migrate to Mexico end up in sex work because it pays best among their limited job prospects or because people trick or traffic them. Sex workers are vulnerable to violence and exploitation at the hands of clients, their employers and authorities because of the nature of their work and irregular migration status. Despite their vulnerability, most of the support the government gives to this population centers narrowly on giving them medical attention that will prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Authorities also enforce anti-trafficking laws, but debates about being trafficked versus choosing sex work complicate the development of policies and measurements of their success.
In 17 of Mexico’s 32 federal entities, sex work is legal in certain areas outside urban areas called “tolerance zones.” State health laws typically regulate these zones, where sex workers must carry cards certifying that they are disease-free and submit to regular medical and gynecological exams.
It is not legal for people who enter the country illegally to practice sex work. But the municipal government does not verify the workers’ migratory status, says Juan Canseco, a state-employed doctor who is in charge of medical exams for the sex workers in Villa Mazatán, which has a tolerance zone.
In the Soconusco region, located in the southwestern corner of the state of Chiapas on the border with Guatemala, sex work has long correlated with the high mobility of people in the region, according to a 2011 report by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health and other bodies.
There is no official count of how many sex workers are in the Soconusco region. But in the region’s largest city, Tapachula, an estimated 21,000 women were working in 1,552 bars and brothels in 2007, according to a report by the organization End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.
Dr. René Leyva, a medical doctor and sociologist, was one of the authors of the National Institute of Public Health report. He estimates that nearly 70 percent of Soconusco’s sex workers are foreigners, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
More than 70 percent of the migrant sex workers are between 20 and 34 years old, and nearly 70 percent have children, according to the report he helped to author. Most have only a basic education.
Many migrant women opt for sex work because they have few employment options in Mexico because of their immigration status and a lack of support systems, Leyva says. Their only other options are generally domestic work or agricultural labor, and sex work pays much better.
A Salvadoran sex worker, who declined to publish her name because her family does not know about her work, used to sell seafood in a market in El Salvador, she says. When she arrived in Mexico, she asked a man to take her to a bar where she would earn money. She did not seek other alternatives because she did not know anyone in the country.
“It is different here,” she says. “I do not know anyone. If I did know people, maybe I would do humbler jobs. But right know, I do not really know the people.”
A 32-year-old Guatemalan sex worker, who also declined to publish her name because her family does not know about her job, worked for 14 years as a domestic worker in Mexico, she says. Now, she works in a cantina where she drinks and dances with clients and sometimes has sex with them. She earns in a single week the 2,000 pesos ($150) she used to earn for a month of domestic work.
Still, although many women are sex workers by choice, there are also cases of girls and young women who were kidnapped or sold by their families and ended up as sex workers, according to a 2008 report by the State Institute of Women of Chiapas, a government body that aims to promote and guarantee women’s rights. Other women were lied to about the type of work they would do or were lured by swindlers with promises of more money and a better quality of life.
Teresa Ulloa Ziáurriz, regional director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women for Latin America and the Caribbean, a nongovernmental organization, rejects the idea that a woman can choose sex work of her free will. Behind every woman who sells her body, there is a chain of exploitation comprising people who benefit from her work, including her employers, Ulloa says.
Determining whether a sex worker is doing her job by her own volition is difficult because traffickers sometimes threaten women into silence, says Neverilda Cardona, a health promoter with Médecins du Monde, an international humanitarian aid organization. Cardona gives health presentations to sex workers in a municipality near Villa Mazatán.
Sex workers are a highly vulnerable group, says Leyva, who specializes in the health of migrants. On a daily basis, sex workers suffer violence, stigma, and a triple discrimination for being women, migrants and sex workers.
They also lack social security and work in environments where drug and alcohol use is high, he says. Violence is an everyday occurrence for sex workers since their clients are often drunk or high on drugs and try to abuse or harass them.
Although all sex workers – migrants or Mexican – are vulnerable to violent aggression, these incidents are more common for foreign-born sex workers, according to the report Leyva helped to author.
For migrant sex workers, more than 65 percent of them have been beaten and suffered bruises, fractures and wounds as a result, compared to less than 35 percent of Mexican sex workers, according to the report. Meanwhile, more than 62 percent of migrant sex workers reported having been forced to have sexual relations, compared to less than 38 percent of Mexican sex workers.
The men at the bar where the Salvadoran sex worker works sometimes push to go further than a woman wants to, she says.
“Sometimes they are terrible, the men already drunk,” she says. “That is why sometimes we distance ourselves from them. We better look for another person who is in better conditions.”
Her bosses also protect her, she says.
“I cannot talk about my bosses because they are good people,” she says. “And they support us: If someone wants to hit us, wants to do something to us, she [the boss] is there, responding for us.”