One of my friends, L. is the absolute worst robber ever. She just can’t get it together. L. gets caught every time she tries to rob a cell phone. We’ve discussed this many times. I tell her, “L. perhaps you should try a new technique, can’t any of your friends, or even your boyfriend give you tips.” She always complains to me saying, “Anita, it’s not that—it’s the police—they’re out for me.” At the moment, L. is back in prison for another failed robbery attempt. She’s usually in prison once a month or at least once every three months. For a cell phone robbery she gets up to 30 days and is then released. Usually when she’s in prison I try to visit and bring her the usual coveted items—a fresh lunch, toiletries, junk food, and clothes, like socks and underwear. I do not smuggle in drugs, like many of her friends do. But anyway, L. is onto something. I notice that it’s the same people who get caught, again and again. It’s as if the police have already decided who the “bad” women are and decide to stop and check them for stolen goods. With L., it’s more than likely that they will have success and find something she has robbed to support her drug habit. As such, the police know that L. is a main target. She must be stopped every time they see her because, given her past record, she’s likely to be up to no good.
I’m sure this is the way “cops and robbers” works all over the world. Obviously the police already know which people are criminals, given their past record. It seems logical, albeit unfair and unethical, to profile the same people when they go out to make arrests. They’ll stop to search people with notorious pasts, rather than search complete unknowns. Such profiling in Ecuador is illegal, as it is in my own country. The police cannot stop you without a legitimate reason—and that reason cannot be that you have a past criminal record and that you’re likely to be up to no good. But that’s how the law works on the streets. It’s incredible to realize just how big the discrepancies are between what’s written in the books and how things play out on the ground.
The problem comes when a previous trouble maker wants to change. For example, my other friend, S. who also used to serve a lot of jail time for petty robberies she committed to support her base habit, recently quit smoking and therefore, no longer robs but the police don’t know this and keep harassing her. They don’t realize or accept that she is now “reformed” and although her searches now come up clean, her 10 years as a drug consumer and robber outweigh her present 6 months of sobriety and legal living. She gets frustrated by the constant, continual searches. She says to me, “Anita, I have to be patient, I know….but when are they going to realize that I’ve changed.” I’m not sure they’ll ever leave S. alone due to her particularly rough demeanor with the police. They hate her because she used to scream insults at them at every opportunity. She always aggravated the situation with her bad mouth; the other sex workers used to encourage her because it was hilarious to watch the police’s faces grow redder as she insulted their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters and themselves. But as one might imagine, such a reputation would be hard to shake. According to the police, S. is still on their “black list.” She will never be “reformed” in their eyes, despite her growing time of living a straight life.
Likewise, some women are immune to arrests on the streets. Technically, no one should be arrested for street prostitution because it is not mentioned as being illegal anywhere on the books. But, the police bring sex workers to jail for all sorts of minor refractions like loitering, or at times they say it is illegal, even though technically, it’s not. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most difficult parts of living in a country where the laws change every month is that no one knows the current legal status—not even the police (in fact, they seem to be the last to know!) Anyway, some women’s “profiles” work in their favor. Another one of the women, in her mid-50s is never, ever stopped by the police and as such, gets away with “murder.” I recently found out that she is a reformed drug addict who still smokes base once a week so she often carries drugs with her and participates in small time dealing. But due to her clean record (she was a drug addict in another city, 30 years ago), the police have no reason to even suspect that she might be doing anything illegal. Obviously it helps that she’s in her 50s, reminding everyone of his/her mother or grandmother. She is indeed a grandmother and works in prostitution to help support her grandchildren. She does nothing to dispel such an image and is savvy enough to know that if she remains a “grandmother” in the eyes of the police, they will never touch her. As such, she gets away with anything and everything.
I would say that in general the police split the sex workers into two groups—those who consume drugs and those who don’t. They don’t bother the non-addicts, even though at times, these women also rob their clients. Instead, they stick to the addicts who they view as morally bankrupt. They know addicts are more likely to commit robberies and therefore, will always stop them in the street without reason. It is illegal and at times they give the most absurd reasons for arresting these women. They can claim these women are “disturbing the peace” or “loitering” to justify their cleansing of the streets of people they view as “impure” and “dangerous.” The medical model of addiction has yet to arrive to the Ecuadorian police force, and to most of Ecuadorian society. Addiction is still not viewed as an illness, but simply something that weak, immoral and “bad” people develop. (Despite the astounding rates of alcoholism here).