A friend recently told me a story of how one of his family members became involved with prostitution. I solely study street prostitution in Quito’s historic center, but obviously dozens of other types exist. Although the kidnapping and trafficking of young teenage girls receives more press in Colombia, it is also a common occurrence in Ecuador—unfortunately, it seems to be a booming industry. I’m not tuned in to all the details because it’s beyond the scope of my investigation and none of the women I work with (who are older and have been working the streets for at least a decade, some of them for 20 years) are victims of trafficking. But I listened with interest as my friend recounted the personal tragedy within his family.
His family is part of Quito’s elite class, and Shelia, I will call her, studied at one of Quito’s expensive, incredibly exclusive private high schools. It was no secret to me that a lot of kids in these private schools become immersed in dark worlds of heavy drugs. Part of the problem in Ecuador is that cocaine is readily available for members of any strata of society because it is so prolific and dirt cheap. Ecuador has never produced or processed cocaine but has always been a place of transit and above all, consumption. Ironically, supposedly Ecuadorians consume more than their neighbors in Colombia, even though Colombia, as we all know, are the world’s greatest producers. I’ve talked with many of my Colombian students who say doing coke is frowned upon because it is interpreted as supporting the internal conflicts of the country—a means of giving more power to corrupt politicians and guerrillas. My students claim that people who do coke are stigmatized and therefore many of them had never even tried it (these are unverified, off-the-cuff comments, I’m sure there are many sectors of Colombian society who consume drugs without the least bit of inner turmoil).
This is not the case in Ecuador. Without the social guilt of supporting an internal civil war, cocaine is an ever present party favor at whatever social gathering here, from the lower to upper classes. I’m often astonished at how often people offer me coke here, as if I were in a party in the States being offered weed. I would say that the upper classes tend to consume more coke than its unrefined form, called “base” here—which produces a similar effect to crack. “Shelia” became heavily involved with cocaine, which as I say, is incredibly prolific in the rich, private high schools of Quito’s elite.
What happened next is typical of how women slip into the sex industry all over the world. This young girl fell into an older crowd, all of whom were addicts. As her consumption increased she spent more and more time with this crowd who frequented some of Quito’s darkest corners (the neighborhood where I work, for example). She “fell in love” with one of the older men in this crowd who provided her with a steady stream of (free) drugs, augmenting her habit. One day he suggested that she might sleep with a friend of a friend for money. He convinced her that they could work as a team to consume more drugs and to form a life together. As she was desperately in love with this man, and the idea didn’t seem like “such a big deal” she agreed and therefore turned her first trick. Soon she was sleeping with, not “friends” of “friends” but with random strangers that her boyfriend handpicked. He convinced her that he would always be by her side and that they were in love. She was so in love with him that she slipped into prostitution without much resistance or care. Obviously this woman had a terrible addict and as such, had lost much of her sound judgment and/or simply didn’t care.
Her family became concerned when she disappeared one day. She lived with her boyfriend in Quito’s drug zone (again, where I work), consuming and turning tricks. Since she is from a wealthy family they immediately hired detectives to search for her. They consciously did NOT turn to the police, who they knew would do nothing, but to the highest generals in the country, with whom they had connections. After several days the detective found her and she was swiftly placed in an exclusive rehab center (just like in the United States, long lasting rehabilitation programs, which are key to one’s future sobriety, are only available to the very rich. Here things are worse because insurance doesn’t cover these costs). Anyway, luckily, this woman was able to enter rehab but her family was just beginning to discover the trauma of her recent decline.
It turns out that she had become entrapped (even though she didn’t see it that way) in one of Quito’s most infamous mafias, known for running prostitution rings. Violent men, heavily armed-- if “Shelia” had tried to escape, she could have been killed, despite her “boyfriend’s” insistence that everything she did was an act of love. I don’t know the details of whether Shelia was aware that she was actually enslaved because she never called her family for help. Perhaps they had threatened her life if she tried to contact them. But on the other hand, perhaps she was perfectly content and had no consciousness that she was “enslaved” because she never wanted to leave. She was in love after all. But the generals ordered an extensive investigation of this case, in which they discovered the extent of this prostitution ring, and much to their horror, found dozens of police involved (no surprise there). Only by going to the very top could this family get to the bottom of what had happened to their daughter. And as a side-effect they were able to help many other families whose daughters had disappeared as well. This mafia is so dangerous that as soon as “Shelia” left rehab she was taken directly to the airport and put on the next flight to Spain where her aunt and uncle live. It is too dangerous for her to live in Quito, apparently existing members of the mafia would hunt her down and try to kill her. Still not back in the country, Shelia wishes to remain in her self-imposed exile for several years. I have no idea whether she is still clean, but I hope she is thriving in her new life.