No surprise how this story ends. 2:10pm. Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009. Today is Quito’s Independence Day but since it falls on a Sunday, the city celebrated last night. Everyone is walking around El Centro like zombies, wearing their hangovers on their faces, looking unsteady and bleary-eyed. After taking a walk around the plazas to take in the various concerts, I make my way down to Espejo and Montufar Streets, where I conduct my fieldwork. I wasn’t sure if many women would be around since it’s a holiday, but as I walk down Espejo, I see them in huddled groups at the base of the hill. I notice a police truck stopped on the south-east side of the intersection between Espejo and Montufar. I wonder who they are harassing now. Just as I arrive, the police truck pulls away to reveal S. and R. I call to them. When I walk over I realize that both women have been drinking. S. has her hands up to her face and she is crying. When I ask what happened, she explains that the police have just sprayed tear-gas in her eyes. We are standing in front of a bodega where a number of people witnessed the incident. S. told me to find some milk to put in her eyes. We walk around the corner to another bodega where they sell milk. The storekeeper pours the entire liter bag of milk onto S.’s eyes. As S. recounts the incident, the police drove up to her and asked her to move away from the corner, to which she responded “no” and “Viva Quito.” (“Long-live Quito). When she still wouldn’t move, the police sprayed the tear-gas into her eyes. The entire interaction lasted about five minutes.
More trouble: about a half hour later, as S. and I are now wiping the milk out of her eyes, the police return in their truck. S. does not see that the police have returned. Instead, she introduces me to her 8-year old daughter, who is with her ex-husband, hanging out on the same corner. S. then disappears for a bit. I wonder whether she found a client or went to buy more beer. Her friend R. tells me, “I only drink, not S. She does XXX.” I didn’t understand what she said, but obviously, it was some sort of drug. So I figured S. went to go get high. While S. went to get high, I went over to the police to chat for a bit (even though I know I shouldn't because I am so pissed off). I introduce myself as an American researcher, and as someone who documents human rights abuses against sex workers. They get very quiet. They ask why I care about these women. At that moment, S. comes running out of nowhere and starts screaming at the police. She calls them every swear I’ve ever heard in Spanish and one of the policemen starts filming her with his phone. I keep telling S. to forget about it, walk away, don’t provoke them, etc. I hold her back but she keeps yelling louder and louder. That’s when the police (four of them) get out of their truck. S. went walking away, still yelling and grabbed her daughter who was across the street, presumably watching the whole thing. S. took her daughter’s hand and marched off. The police were not about to let her go. Two of them approached S. and her daughter. S.’s daughter starts screaming at the top of her lungs, causing everyone to stop and stare. The police grab S. tightly and she tries, without success to shake them off. They drag her kicking and screaming to the police truck and throw her into the back. A group of sex workers run to help S.’s daughter who is still crying loudly on the street. Someone goes to find S.’s ex-husband. The crowds begin to disperse and I walk away with some other sex workers down Espejo Street. I ask my friend G. for how long S. would be in jail and how she would get out—G. just shook her said and said “I don’t know.” Under the eyes of the police, sex workers have no rights, and so S.’s prison stay will be determined according to how they feel tomorrow. I have heard frequent stories about how these women have to pay off the police, either with money or sexual favors to get out of prison. (They shouldn’t even be in prison since sex work is not illegal in Ecuador—more on that to come….).
This was a minor case of police abuse compared with other stories the women have told me. What confounds me is that El Centro, where these women work, is one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Quito, but yet the police spend most of their time harassing sex workers! Sex workers do not hurt anyone. Again, prostitution isn’t even illegal! They are out working as mothers supporting their children. I have yet to meet a sex worker in El Centro who is not a mother. It pisses me off that police feel like they can treat sex workers poorly. Unfortunately, for that reason, violent crimes against sex workers are alarmingly high—people think they can get away with anything since these women exist on the margins of society. People assume that no one cares about them when in fact they have children, partners, mothers, and friends, just like the rest of us. They deserve the same treatment and the same legal rights as any other Ecuadorian woman.