Health and Trafficking Policies Fail to Protect Migrant Sex Workers From Violence in Southeastern Mexico

An estimated 68.5 percent of sex workers in southern Mexico are foreigners, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Foreign-born sex workers are more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

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Health and Trafficking Policies Fail to Protect Migrant Sex Workers From Violence in Southeastern Mexico

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Los Invisibles: Nuances of Migration Along Mexico’s Southern Border
Part 6 in a Series


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.”

But abuse can also come at the hands of sex workers’ employers, Canseco says. He has heard of cases in which cantina owners locked their workers in for the night or made them pay 100 pesos ($7.60) in order to leave the cantina on their day off.

Until a year ago, it was also common for police to extort sex workers by demanding sex or money and threatening to imprison them if they did not comply, Canseco says. This no longer happens under the new municipal government.


The municipal government could not be reached for comment.

Despite the vulnerability of sex workers in Chiapas, the government focuses narrowly on their health and only in terms of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, Leyva says. It does not have programs to address other ways in which they may be at risk.

The 40 sex workers in Villa Mazatán, all of whom are women, undergo weekly gynecological exams, Canseco says. Every three months, they take HIV and syphilis tests.

If a worker misses her weekly exam, she is not allowed to work, Canseco says. If she does work, she risks arrest, jail time and a 500-peso ($40) fine.

These sanctions aim to protect the community’s health, he says.

But Leyva considers this sort of health treatment punitive and controlling. It treats sex workers as the potential source of sexually transmitted diseases while ignoring the risks their clients may pose, he says.

The treatment sex workers receive also focuses only on preventing sexually transmitted diseases, he says. It does not treat the women in a comprehensive way to address other problems they might face, such as those related to poor eating habits and alcohol consumption.

“They are treating them like vaginas,” he says. “They are women. They have feet, a head, chest, legs.”

The medical attention that sex workers receive aims solely to prevent and to control sexually transmitted disease, Canseco acknowledges. The government only ensures that they abide by sanitary rules.

The local and federal governments have passed legislation on human trafficking in recent years, and authorities are enforcing it, representatives say.

In 2009, the government of Chiapas passed a law to fight, to prevent and to punish human trafficking in the state.

Since then, authorities have sentenced 39 traffickers and have rescued 373 women from trafficking rings, all whom were minors and most whom were migrants, says Alejandro Vila, a prosecutor specializing in crimes against immigrants who works for the state attorney general. There are more than 100 other cases in progress.

The federal government passed a similar law in 2007. Updates to the law in 2012 include punishment for anyone who benefits from the sexual exploitation of another person, even if that person consents to the work.

There is a link between migration, sex work and human trafficking, according to the State Institute of Women of Chiapas’ report. Women in the border zone are converted into “merchandise” that can be bought, sold and exploited. Some women are sold to bars and cantinas, and others are tricked into sex work.

But police and judges have erroneously interpreted the laws to equate sex work with human trafficking because they implicitly consider sex workers to have been subjected to sexual exploitation, Levya says.

“Not all sex workers are in a trafficking situation,” he says. “Nor are all women who are trafficked sex workers.”

Some people who are trafficked also do not consider themselves to be exploited, Vila says. The prosecutors in his charge investigate bars, nightclubs and hotels when someone reports human trafficking.

If investigators believe minors of age are at risk, they investigate without waiting for a complaint to be filed, he says. When authorities bust a suspected trafficking ring, sex workers undergo psychological evaluations to determine whether they were trafficked

But if sex workers deny being trafficked, it is because they have built up a defense mechanism in order to protect themselves emotionally from their experiences, says Ulloa, who has worked for nearly 20 years with human trafficking cases. Under Mexican law, a person’s consent does not mean the person benefiting from a trafficked person cannot incur punishment.

Although the 25-year-old Guatemalan says she felt tricked into sex work, the Salvadoran sex worker says she decided on her own to enter into sex work in Mexico. But it is not a job she is proud of. Her mother and 13-year-old daughter, who live in El Salvador, think that she works in a store.

“I cannot tell them that I work in a bar because I am ashamed, I am embarrassed for them to find out,” she says.



Although the struggles of migration have frequented the media, coverage has been shallow about the diverse issues that Central American migrants who enter Mexico illegally face as they try to settle in the country or travel north. Mayela Sánchez, senior reporter for GPJ’s Mexico News Desk, spent one month along Mexico’s southern border delving into the nuances of employment, health, violence, gender justice and various human rights issues that push people to migrate and confront them along their journeys. GPJ will feature this series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.



GPJ translated this article from Spanish.