I have just returned from a month long visit to the United States. When I left, conditions on the streets were dire. (FYI, the women seem to have forgiven me for the interview published about me and my work with them). Anyway, when I left for the states, the municipal government and the police shut down the hotel in San Marcos where the women work (Hotel Aztec—not its real name). This provoked a crisis among the women because it was the only hotel in San Marcos that allowed women to service clients. It was shut down because it never obtained legal permission to be a brothel. Regulated brothels are legal in Ecuador, but the process to obtain “brothel status” is very expensive and bureaucratic. Therefore, many brothels in the historic center are not legal and operate undercover for as long as they can without getting caught. This particular hotel, the Aztec, had been fined numerous times before its permanent closing by the police, with help from the municipal government. In the past, only the police were involved and they would shut it down for a few days and fine the owner (or better said, the owner would pay off the police with copious amounts of cash), and then everything was back to normal.
We all hoped that this would be the case last month but upon my return from the States the Aztec was still closed and it’s clear that it won’t open again. Part of the problem is that the owner owns many hotels throughout the historic center and throughout the country. Even though he was making a small fortune off this particular hotel in San Marcos because it functioned as a brothel (for every woman who entered with a client he charged a $3 bed fee. With the 50 women working in the area, if each one only serviced one client, he would still be making $150 daily, which is a lot by Ecuadorian standards. Furthermore, many of the junkies in the area lived in the hotel and had to pay $10 nightly. Although, I know that paying off the police is extremely expensive--unfortunately, I don’t know how much he had to pay, so in reality I’m not sure what his typical income amounted to). For the Aztec’s owner, it was no great loss to lose this hotel since he has dozens of others and doing the paperwork to obtain legal status would be a hugely expensive and lengthy ordeal. Even though the women depend on this particular hotel for their livelihood, the owner has little reason to fight the closure—for him the stakes are too small.
For the women who work in the neighborhood of San Marcos, it’s an entirely different matter. They are in crisis for several reasons. The main issue is that they can’t simply move to a different neighborhood in the historic center due to territorial issues. The women in other neighborhoods have already established their territory there, making it impossible for the San Marcos sex workers to move into a new sector. Established territorial lines are always respected among the sex workers of the historic center to avoid violent fights that would inevitably erupt. More and more “hotels” in the historic center no long allow prostitution because likewise, they aren’t legal and want to avoid problems with the police. The closest hotel/undercover brothel for the women of San Marcos is a 15 minute walk away, which is a big deterrent to clients. The clients simply go to the neighborhood where the other hotel exists and find women there. Of course many of the women of San Marcos have faithful clients who are willing to walk further to receive services, but now with the Aztec’s closure, these women’s business has dropped dramatically.
The other problem is that the women of San Marcos have now dispersed more widely within the sector—they must still solicit clients in San Marcos due to the aforementioned territorial issues but they’ve been pushed to the outskirts of the neighborhood and no longer have a central location where all of them can gather. I’m sure many of the residents of San Marcos are thrilled that they no longer solicit on the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood but for the women, again, it provides problems because without being able to group together they are exposed to more danger; for example, when they stand alone, they are more likely to experience abuse from police. Also, it is obviously more difficult for their faithful clients to find them, now that they stand randomly throughout San Marcos. Most stand on the very outskirts of the neighborhood, the closest they can be to the other hotel that allows them entry, without stepping into anyone else’s territory.
The women are desperate. They are not making the money they need to support their families. They want the Aztec to reopen in San Marcos. They had established their territory in that neighborhood and without another place willing them to service clients in the area they are basically “screwed” as they tell me. What can they do? For them, it is a great injustice because many of them have been working in San Marcos for 20 years and even though they are “invisible members” of the community, they feel like their work should have some recognition when the municipal government stepped in to close the Aztec. They keep telling me that the closure of the Aztec is cruel and unjust to them because they depend on this singular place to work in San Marcos. It is hard enough to establish a solid territory--how on earth will they just move to a different sector of the historic center when all the other sectors that have undercover hotels are already established by the sex workers in that area (some of whom have armed pimps)?
The women are livid and feel like the municipal government has abandoned them without giving them any options. But it’s true, the municipal government couldn’t care less about the street prostitutes of San Marcos, in fact, just like many of the residents, they are elated to see them pushed out of the main thoroughfare of the barrio. The women have been planning a march to protest the closure and claim that they will set up tents and service clients there as another act of protest. I hope they find ways to fight for their rights as working mothers, as prostitution is not illegal in Ecuador. Unfortunately, their biggest obstacle is their own fragmentation as a group; the sex workers of San Marcos are not a unified front, despite the fact that the closure of the Aztec affects them all equally. Only when they unite as one and become their own collective, with one voice, will they have the chance to stake their claim in San Marcos. If not, I think it will be an impossible venture.