Love for sale, Mexico-style

Chiapas experiments with legal, city-regulated brothels

Published July 17, 1996 11:58AM (EDT)


The men fall silent when they walk through the gates of Zona Galactica. Hundreds of them slink, tense and nervous, through the streets lined with squat pink, beige and yellow buildings. Eyes are averted. Everyone knows what's on everyone else's mind. After all, there's only one reason to come here.

Zona Galactica, just outside Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.
is a city-sponsored, city-built, city-monitored and city-protected bordello. Established in 1992, it was this city's response to out-of-control street prostitution and the violence, disease and exploitation that accompanied it. "The people demanded it," says Dr. Gabriel Esquinca, who runs the city's health clinic at Galactica. "People were marching against street prostitution and clandestine bordellos."

On any given day, 160 women and 1,000 men can be found here. Gates open at 9 a.m., though that's a bit early for most clients.
Above the gates is a large sign reading "Zona de Tolerancia," accompanied by an ad for Coca-Cola. Men pay two pesos to enter (used by the city to defray costs) and are given a condom, purchased in bulk through a city contract. They're searched by the city police, checked for inebriation and off they go.

Although the government built the Zone and regulates its conditions, inside the free market is king. Madams and ex-prostitutes rent out the rooms. Two privately owned nightclubs -- Gitano and King Kong, sell alcohol and present late-night striptease acts. The sexual favors of the women who work in the clubs are also available -- for a higher price. "We don't regulate the fees," says Dr. Samuel Hernandez, the city's health director. "The only thing we do is regulate the health of the women. If they're healthy, they can work."

The Zone has its own health clinic, run by city doctors and nurses. Each week, the women are checked for venereal diseases. No one has ever showed up with AIDS -- Chiapas has had fewer than 400 cases since the fatal epidemic started -- but the women are tested for it every two months anyway. Any woman with a sexual disease is suspended from working until city-supplied medication clears up the matter.

Few of the women match Hollywood's notion of what prostitutes look like. Some are well into their 40s, and bear a worn, leathery look. What they lack in looks, they make up for in price. Fifty pesos ($6.50) is at the high end of the Zona Galactica range. Many of the younger women are supporting infants and toddlers. Maria, 25, has been hooking for about a year to support herself and her baby. The baby's father lives in Tabasco. The 150 to 200 pesos she earns on a good day is seven to nine times Mexico's daily minimum wage. "I just do this because I have to," says Maria.

Zona Galactica is really just two streets, lined by 16 modules. Each module contains ten individual rooms with steel doors plastered with fluorescent colored bumper stickers reading: "Zona Galactica, the best way to protect your family. Only with a condom." Occasionally the women step into their doorways. Most spend the day lying on a twin mattress slotted on a concrete block built into one side of their eight-by-ten-foot room. Some read celebrity gossip magazines. Others polish their nails and watch soap operas.

Business picks up in the late afternoon, mostly teenagers in T-shirts, tennis shoes and baseball caps, a few campesinos in sandals and straw cowboy hats, and some, judging by their haircuts, soldiers from the local garrison. They're the ones most likely to give police trouble by arriving drunk, or by refusing to pay the women.
By 7 p.m., businessmen show up, carrying briefcases they're afraid to leave in their cars. Two women have been murdered since Zona Galactica opened and occasionally fights break out. But the crime rate here is far lower than on the streets of downtown Tuxtla, which is one of the poorest areas of the entire country.

For all its efforts, Zona Galactica has barely made a dent in the number of female prostitutes still on Tuxtla's streets. There are far too many desperate women in this crushingly poor region willing to sell sex for a few precious pesos. Meanwhile, the city is turning its attention to the problem of male transvestite prostitutes, who, as in other large Mexican cities, often look classier, charge higher prices and have more clients than women. In Tuxtla, not even a notorious unsolved serial murder case, in which a number of transvestites were shot to death with high-caliber weapons between 1991 and 1993, has dissuaded them from working.

"This is our problem, too: where to put the homosexual prostitutes," Hernandez says. "They don't want to come to Zona Galactica and the women don't want them here. A transvestite charges 250 to 300 pesos. The women here charge 25 to 50. Plus, the transvestites are usually quite aggressive." Building a separate zone for men is out of the question. "It wouldn't be fair, in an area where so many people have no running water, electricity or pavement, that we build all those things into a new zone for prostitutes," he says.

So the city is going to expand Zona Galactica later this year, using private money. "I prefer that we have them all here, under control, than to have them going around all over town," Hernandez says.

Quotes of the day

The trouble with women

"She's not a nut, she's not extreme, and she speaks in real language. She will paint a picture of the convention, of Republicans, of Bob Dole, that will be comforting to a lot of people, but particularly to suburban Republican women, professionals, mothers, moderates. Those are our troublesome groups."

-- Republican consultant Eddie Mahe on Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), chosen to give the keynote speech at the GOP convention. (From "Designated Keynoter Is Besieged, Happily," in Wednesday's
New York Times.

"They call me a feminist and a baby-killer. What an ugly image for our party to project. No wonder women are turned off."

-- Fran Berg, 38, former treasurer of the Jefferson County, KY., GOP, until she was thrown out of the local party, along with other Republicans who support abortion rights, by anti-abortion GOP militants. (From "GOP Faces Dissent of Women Who Are Moderate, Affluent," in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.)

By Sam Quinones

Sam Quinones is a reporter in Mexico City.

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