MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – A 45-year-old sex worker in Mexico City, the nation’s capital, says she will never forget the first time one of her clients attacked her.
The man pulled her hair and tried to force her to smoke marihuana, she says. She refused, so he beat her until he busted her lip.
“In those years, the assaults were more frequent,” she says.
She first became a sex worker as a teenager in La Merced, one of the main areas for the trade in Mexico City. Clients were routinely violent.
“When they didn’t take out an ice pick on me, they took out a gun on me,” she says. “When they didn’t take out a gun on me, they tried to squeeze my neck.”
One client threatened her with an ice pick, forced her to get naked and then assaulted her in a motel room.
Another client tried to strangle her.
“He mounted me and squeezed me,” she says as she brings her hands to her neck to demonstrate how the man choked her until she fainted.
Fainting saved her life, though, as her client thought she had died and then stopped choking her.
Her cries for help when he had hit her before had alerted her fellow sex workers, who detained her aggressor when he tried to escape.
Although she had to go the hospital to treat her injuries, she says the civil servant who completed the preliminary investigation at the Ministerio Público allowed her aggressor to go free. The department handles complaints under the Procuraduría de Justicia, Mexico City’s attorney general’s office.
She says the civil servant told her that the man had not committed a crime because he had not killed her, she says.
Sex workers in Mexico say they suffer frequent attacks from clients, leading to injuries and violent deaths nationwide. But human rights defenders say the abuse against them remains invisible because of a lack of data and access to justice based on their profession and gender. Sex workers also report abuse by authorities, a charge officials deny. Meanwhile, the workers fear that extortion by organized criminals will soon seep into Mexico City.
The Ley de Cultura Cívica made practicing or seeking prostitution a misdemeanor in the federal district of Mexico City last year. At the federal level, the sexual exploitation of women for prostitution and the prostitution of minors are both felonies. But federal law neither prohibits nor allows prostitution by adults, which keeps sex workers in a legal limbo.
This uncertainty lingers when it comes to statistics.
Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer “Elisa Martínez,” a civil association that defends sex workers’ rights, estimates that there are more than 862,000 women engaged in sex work in the country. It based its estimations on data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, a federal government agency.
But there are no official figures on how many sex workers work in the country or the socio-economic conditions in which they live. Even less information exists about how many incidents and what types of violence they face.
Sex workers say they suffer abuse from clients, organized criminals and even authorities.
Susy, a transgender sex worker in Mexico City, says that sex workers have long faced attacks by clients in the streets, hotels and even cars.
“They always have stigmatized you, pointed,” she says, “or with these acts like homicides, that they stone you, they throw things at you, they verbally insult you.”
Carmen, who grew up on the streets and entered sex work as an adolescent, says that when she was 17 or 18, a client tricked her to accompany him to his house, where he attacked her.
“He did what he wanted,” she says. “He gave me a hell of a beating.”
He wrestled her on the floor, kicked her and left her with her one eye swollen shut, stranded in the middle of the road.
She says that about 20 years later, she suffered a similar attack – this time by three men.
Jaime Montejo, spokesman for Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer “Elisa Martínez,” says the organization has documented many cases of violence against sex workers during its 17 years of existence, including beatings, sexual assault and killings.
Violence against sex workers spans the country, Montejo says. An organization report confirms this, documenting cases of assault in the states of Chihuahua in the north, Chiapas in the southeast, Quintana Roo on the Caribbean and Puebla in the center of the country.
The report documented 18 homicides of sex workers and one disappearance from June 2011 to July 2012 in the country. The majority of homicides were violent: one sex worker strangled in a hotel, another raped and stabbed, another decapitated and another stoned to death. In various other cases, the bodies were dismembered.
But Montejo explains that these figures are incomplete, including only the cases the organization has been able to document from periodical and newspaper reviews. Because it is often difficult for sex workers to present their cases legally for fear of abuse or being tried themselves, news clips are a form of verifying a case’s accuracy.
"The issue is that after the girls tell us about it and if there is no report in the news that supports it, we take it only as a possible case," Montejo says.
As a result, many cases remain invisible, he says. Others say this invisibility is no accident.
Ricardo Antonio Bucio Mújica, president of Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación, a federal organization responsible for creating public policies to promote social inclusion and equality, says that two factors drive these crimes: discrimination and hatred.
Sex workers suffer a “multiple discrimination” because of their gender, their jobs, their social status and even ethnicity if they are indigenous, Bucio says. Citing the agency’s 2010 national discrimination survey, he says women suffer in three areas because of their gender: employment, public and domestic safety, and a combination of abuse, humiliation and violence. In the case of sex workers, these three problems are always present.
“When there is a belittling and stigmatization of the status of the person,” he says, whether for their gender, profession or social status, “hatred becomes an additional component.”
Abuse against sex workers stays invisible because access to justice in the judicial system differs for citizens depending on their economic, social and educational levels, Bucio says. Since laws are egalitarian, they do not take into account the specific vulnerabilities of certain groups. The most vulnerable groups, such as sex workers, tend to fare the worst.
Susy says that the clients they report to authorities usually turn the complaint onto them.
“Many times, if you want to accuse a client who mistreated you, who wanted to hit you,” she says, “you arrive at the Ministerio Público, and they turn things around, and later, you are the defendant.”
Because of that, Carmen says sex workers are hesitant to report abuse.
“Complaints cause problems, even death,” she says.
Instead, she says it is better “to see, to hear and to keep quiet.”
Bucio says that because the discrimination that sex workers face usually remains invisible, they have fewer government mechanisms to protect them. There are no governmental agencies or public programs specifically designed to serve this population.
The agencies that receive and handle complaints are instead the human rights commissions. But in Mexico City, the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Distrito Federal has issued just one recommendation to authorities – in 1994 on a case involving attacks on sex workers by authorities – to refrain from attacks in the future.
Various sex workers, with the support of Brigada Callejera, have asked the human rights commission to issue a legal pamphlet of their rights, as it has done for other vulnerable groups.
The pamphlet will be ready this year, says Bucio, whose organization has served as a consultant on the project. The human rights commission did not return requests for comment.
Bucio attributes the lack of mechanisms protecting sex workers more to their "fragility" in the face of authorities than to their lack of legal recognition.
"It is a sector that complains little, hardly demands their rights,” he says, “and so for which exist few mechanisms of protection, both public and private."
But Susy says she has little faith in receiving support from authorities.
“We know that sex work is not a common and ordinary job,” she says. “It is a job that has its risks. But even so, we know that when we ask for the support of the police, they never give it to us.”
She says that when they have presented their demands at the Ministerio Público, the officials laugh at them rather than fulfill their duties as public servants.
“When you go to a Ministerio Público, they do not pay attention to you,” she says. “You are an object of mockery, of criticism, and they do nothing afterward.”
The 45-year-old sex worker in La Merced agrees.
“They are always looking for a way to bother us,” she says. “When I am on the corner, the police pass and call me ‘filthy, loose, stinky, whore.’ They are public servants. They do not have to be offending us like that.”
Blanca Suárez, of the social communication office of Mexico City’s Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, the ministry that oversees the police, referred all questions to the attorney general’s office.
Óscar Montes de Oca Rosales, deputy attorney of decentralized preliminary investigations in the attorney general's office, says that during the last decade, there have been no formal complaints by sex workers against any officer “for mistreatment, omission of service or any other action.”
He did not rule out the possibility that cases referring to sex workers might exist. But he says the office can only operate off formal complaints.
“In order to know what is happening, we need to have something formal, real,” he says.
In all Ministerio Público offices, there are surveillance cameras to record any misconduct, Montes de Oca says. There is also a special phone to report abuse. These mechanisms are open to all citizens.
Montejo says that in recent years, with the enactment of laws against human trafficking, police operations have also begun raiding bars, hotels and brothels. But instead of improving the situation, it has worsened it for sex workers.
“This governmental fight against human trafficking has been utilized to carry out social cleansing operations,” he says.
Police arbitrarily arrest sex workers using national laws that regulate sexual exploitation, he says. Under the Código Penal Federal and the Ley General para Prevenir, Sancionar y Erradicar los Delitos, which outlaw benefiting from the sexual exploitation of women, authorities may arrest women for earning money through sex work.
Montes de Oca denies that there has been any kind of discrimination against sex workers.
Montejo says sex workers are also victims of organized crime. In several states, especially in the north, gangs extort sex workers. They kill those who refuse to pay dues to operate in the area.
Susy says that in the suburbs of Mexico City, criminals are already starting to charge sex workers fees. Although she and her colleagues downtown are not willing to pay, they have little bargaining power.
"We are going to experience that at any time if things continue like this,” she says.
The 45-year-old sex worker in La Merced implores authorities to protect them from violence.
“I wanted to ask you all to follow your laws for the first time and take into account the deaths of sex workers, because you never take us into account,” she says. “Crime is supposed to be punished, and you do not do anything. When it is about a sex worker, you are silent.”
Sex workers declined to publish their full names for fear of physical danger or retribution. Interviews were translated from Spanish.