In Mexico City, prostitution is not considered to be a crime. At most, it constitutes a civic fault which, in general, is no more dangerous than jaywalking. Legal or not, many women are driven to this industry by necessity or coercion. There are at least 10 prostitution districts in Mexico City. Below are descriptions and comparisons of the two that are most interesting. Those places are the districts of Buena Vista and La Merced.
Both districts belong to a broader neighborhood named Cuauhtémoc in which there exists an abnormally high number of divorces. In 2010, the overall divorce average by broader neighborhood in Mexico City – excluding Cuauhtémoc – was 171, while in Cuauhtémoc alone, the number of divorces was 8,860; this number exceeds by about 51 times the rest of the city’s average. Moreover, it is the neighborhood with the highest rate of households headed by a woman; about 40 percent of the households lie in this category. It is clear that there are many single mothers there who will do what’s necessary to further the growth of their children. It is important to note, also, that this same broader neighborhood has the highest crime rate in the city.
To begin with, there is part of Buena Vista to the east comprising only five blocks. This sector has a surprisingly high number of women without much education. The research we completed, which was based on walking around, found many homeless kids, many of whom could visibly be seen publicly inhaling drugs.
The zone is a somewhat poorer residential district in what is one of the poorer areas of the city. Most of the kids living there are suffering from their economic conditions. As we spent more time in this five block area, we found small gangs staring at us disapprovingly. We kept on walking and a few steps away, within sight of anyone, we found teenage girls performing acts of prostitution. A number of them looked as young as fifteen. Although, as was mentioned above, prostitution is not a crime, sexual intercourse with an under-aged individual, with or without her permission, is severely punished.
In this particular zone there were around 50 sex workers who were clearly visible. At the beginning, we tried to talk with them. But, several were so drugged that they were incoherent. These kids looked unclean, tired, down, and depressed; although not all of them were homeless. We kept on walking until we found a girl who very kindly agreed to talk to us. Her name has been changed to protect her identity, we’ll call her Alyson.
Alyson gave us insight into the place and the industry. As she explained, the regular price of a service is around USD $20, including hotel room. In her case, she claims to use a condom every time she has sexual intercourse, and most of the interviewed girls said the same. At the same time, most would agree to have unprotected sex for an additional fee. In general, negotiations between a prostitute and her John are driven by age, and how attractive the girl appears. The younger and more attractive, the better their possibilities to deny unsafe sex.
Alyson told us that in this five block region there are no pimps; no one forces girls to be sex workers except in some cases where either a boyfriend or a family member coerces them into prostitution. Nevertheless, just a few blocks away there were reports of ruthless pimps who have forced woman to work for them.
The clientele is diverse. They range from very young to very old, from very humble to wealthy. Taxi drivers are the prime customers but we noticed many other types of Johns. Alyson even claimed that it is not rare to find politicians as clients. Whether this is true or not, it would seem that the very unique thing clients have in common is that most of them look for very young girls at a very low price.
She confirmed that most of the kids consume drugs on a daily basis. She also said that it is fairly easy to get any kind and amount of drug. There are so-called vice stores which are like grocery stores. People make a line and wait their turn to be served. The most common stimulant sold is cocaine, though its preferred presentation is as crack. All in all, the general impression that we got from this district is hopelessness. The cycle many young women are stuck in is one of prostitution to pay for drugs. The drugs help, over the very short term, to deaden the pain of poverty and social exclusion.
It is very hard to foresee any kind of future for these kids; there are no social programs to help them. The most many of them feel they can hope for is to make enough money to pay for the next drugs or alcohol.
From this zone, we moved two miles to the east to one named La Merced. It is one of the oldest and one of the biggest markets in Mexico. In contrast to Buena Vista, this zone is mainly commercial although many people live there. They sell food, clothes, electronics, entertainment devices, hardware, and pretty much everything one could need. Additionally, a large percentage of the space in the streets surrounding the main market has become an extension of the market. The affluence of people in this district is high. This place has been catalogued as the biggest prostitution site in Latin America.
La Merced seems to be more regulated than Buenavista. The number of sex workers is very hard to estimate, though it is probably around 500. In contrast to Buena Vista, when we walked through La Merced, no one looked strangely at us. Sex workers don’t consume as many drugs, at least in public. It also seems that they have a different economic status: they don’t look so down and out as in Buena Vista. Although, as our interviews revealed, the price of a service is around $20 dollars, which is similar to that of Buena Vista.
All of the sex workers we spoke with see prostitution as a job which, in general, pays more than a regular one. All the interviewed girls acknowledged that no one forces them to do their job. They said they are free to leave whenever they want. What is more, we weren’t able to find any underage sex-workers in this district. This may be because, in the past, several scandals led to law enforcement having to “clean” the district.
The use of condoms in La Merced is widespread. Some young women said that, in order to get a little extra money, they had accepted unprotected sex. It is easy to see how prostitutes contract HIV. Nevertheless, data tells exactly the opposite story. Two HIV institutes run by the government, CENSIDA and Clinica Condesa, reported that of the 2,100 new HIV cases, only one percent inflicted female sex workers. This number is in line with what we have found in our research worldwide. When condoms are used properly, HIV prevalence tends to be low even in high-risk populations.
Many sex workers in La Merced come from the countryside or other provinces, whereas in Buenavista, a considerable percentage of the women grew up in the district.
Presently, in Mexico, it is necessary to earn at least a bachelor’s degree to have a decent job. From a wage perspective, Mexico’s standards for a decent job mean that one earns around USD $1000/month. Therefore, many families, even poor families, try to invest as much as they can to educate their children. What is more, there are large numbers of educational institutions trying to increase the supply of qualified labor.
The future for those uneducated is not very bright. In addition, the minimum wage in Mexico is around USD$5.50 per day. Consequently, given the described conditions, someone without education can only hope to have a wage tending to be close to the minimum. This is why many decent people turn to the informal sector, and some to the illicit sector.
Prostitution takes very different looks across one single part of the city. On one hand, at Buenavista, prostitution is treated as something forbidden, yet tolerated. But like many things that are forbidden, they tend to fall in the shadows of a community. On the other hand, at La Merced, prostitution seems to be very common and above board. Most of the sex workers look well and their stories are not as extreme as those of the prostitutes in Buenavista. In both districts, sex workers are not there because they have found the ideal job. Instead, it’s because of necessity and the lack of better job opportunities in the formal sector.