LIMA, Peru — The oldest profession in the world is also the most vulnerable.
Prostitution has been around since money was invented, but the rights and guarantees of sex workers haven’t evolved much since then. For most sex workers in Latin America, the only true “labor protection” they have comes in a condom wrapper.
Uruguay —arguably the most progressive nation in South America — is the only country in the region with legalized and regulated prostitution; sex workers there have access to social security and retirement benefits. In the rest of Latin America, it’s a different story. The sex trade still occupies a strange gray area between legal and illegal — it isn’t exactly either, and that ambiguity forces tens of thousands of women to totter through the shadows of society, where they’re vulnerable to all sorts of mischief.
“The police often arrest us for no reason, and if we don’t have any money they ask us to perform sexual acts on them,” says Veronica Perez, a sex worker from Santa Cruz, Bolivia. “Women are regularly picked up off the street and taken to the police station, stripped of their clothes and money, then put back on the street randomly.”
Others women have it worse. In Bolivia, three sex workers have been killed since May. The violence is more endemic in Central America’s gang-plagued northern triangle, where dozens of sex workers have been killed, disfigured or disappeared in recent years, usually for failing to pay extortion fees to gangs.
“We can’t even talk about the extortion, because if we do we’ll end up dead tomorrow,” says Guatemalan sex worker Samantha Carillo.
Carillo says the sex workers who ply the train tracks in Zone 1 of Guatemala City are forced to pay $5-6 a day to gangs that control that territory. The price of noncompliance is death — a punishment doled out to at least seven of Carillo's co-workers in the past few years.
“This whole situation is due to the fact that the government doesn’t recognize our work as legitimate, and that means we are forced to work in undignified and dangerous conditions, without access to security or justice,” she said.
The occupational hazards of sex work vary from country to country. In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, sex workers fear for their lives. Twenty-seven Salvadoran sex workers and 14 Dominicans have been killed over the past three years, according to the Latin American and Caribbean Female Sex Workers’ Network (RedTraSex).
In Argentina and Panama, the cops are the problem; Argentine sex workers say they are regularly subjected to shakedowns by police, while more than 750 sex workers in Panama City report being arbitrarily arrested by police in the past two years, even though prostitution isn’t illegal there. Meanwhile, in Colombia, the absence of police is the problem; 99 percent of reported cases of violence against sex workers remain unsolved by Colombian cops, according to the sex workers’ network.
Overall, South American nations are generally more progressive and open to efforts to recognize and regulate the sex trade. Rights activists in Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador have found openings to introduce new bills or form commissions to analyze ways to recognize and regulate sex work in one form or another. Uruguay, meanwhile, is looking to reform its legislation.
In Central America, however, Guatemala is the only country working on a bill to regulate the sex trade.
“Central America is another story, and that’s where we have to put our greatest efforts right now,” said Elena Reynaga, head of RedTraSex, which represents more than 30,000 sex workers in 14 Latin American and Caribbean nations. She says sex workers in Central America face the triple-threat of “a misogynistic and murdering police force, a society that is much more conservative and hypocritical, and gangs.” And that makes efforts to organize or lobby for labor protections even more difficult.
Laws won’t fix everything, she says, but it will help to bring many working women out of the shadows and draw a sharper line between legitimate sex work and illegal sex-trafficking.
“A law is not going to radically change anyone’s life, but it will be a tool that will take us out of clandestinity and put us on equal footing with other workers in our countries,” Reynaga told Fusion. “And it’s a myth that legalizing the industry is going to lead to an increase in the number of sex workers. That’s like saying by allowing gay marriage we’re all going to become gay.”
For Guatemala’s Samantha Carillo, legislating sex work is also about recognizing a woman’s right to chose, work and contribute to society.
“I want to be free and I want to support the growth of my country’s economy,” says Carillo, a lesbian sex worker and rights activist. “I am a mother of four daughters, one of whom is 19. She is not a sex worker, but if she decided to become one I would be happy for her and I would fight even harder for sex workers’ rights because I would want her to have satisfactory conditions in which to work.”