I began my project studying this topic: how is street prostitution regulated in the historic center of Quito? With the closure of Hotel Aztec I found my answer. It is unofficially regulated by the hotels that act as undercover brothels. I had always known that street prostitution fit into a gray area of jurisdiction within the Ecuadorian legal system. I knew that by law prostitution in regulated brothels is perfectly legal, as throughout all of Latin America. In contrast, there are no direct legal references about the existence of street prostitution. In the mind of lawmakers it simply does not exist, most likely because they would prefer that it didn’t exist. Indeed, I believe street prostitution does not legally exist because it is an unsavory issue that Ecuadorian society (and most Western societies) would prefer to ignore, with the idea that even though it exists on the fringes, perhaps it will just simply disappear. The law reflects the heavy denial around its existence. Perhaps it is a topic so frightening, so threatening (women’s sexuality presented publicly, for all to see), that lawmakers would prefer not to dirty their hands with all the moral and ethical complications that such work accompanies. On the one hand, the street sex workers use bits of the constitution that state that every citizen has the legal right to work. Since it does not say anywhere that street prostitution is illegal, the women stand by this constitutional act and claim their right to work, on the streets, as prostitutes.
I have found that street prostitution is regulated as a police issue, rather than a legal, big-time government issue. The residents of San Marcos call and complain to the police enough times for them to enact an “Operation” to clear the streets of the neighborhood for several days. These police operations are conducted with the understanding that prostitution brings delinquency so therefore, removing the prostitutes will temporary relieve the neighborhood of its crime problem (which in fact, does not work—they soon realize that removing the prostitutes does NOT stop the crime, but again and again they associate prostitution with delinquency). When I personally ask the police what they are doing, they sigh, roll their eyes, and tell me that the residents have complained again and that they must please them. (i.e. the police don’t seem to care either way about the presence of the prostitutes, but act under the social pressure of the residents). The women are told that they must clear the streets for a few days if the cops are friends of the sex workers, otherwise they are brought to prison for a 4 day stay.
The herding of these women to prison is completely, 100% illegal because like I already said, street prostitution is not officially illegal. The police say the women are loitering, which is illegal or they search the women for their identification papers—every Ecuadorian must carry his/her ID card on his/her person at all times by law. Many of the women have lost their ID cards and don’t have the money to get a new one. Often the women pay off the police to leave them alone and as one would expect, many of the police are regular clients of these women—so quite frankly, I’d say many of the police are on the sex workers’ “side” and would prefer to leave them in peace. Sometimes I hear them gently say, “Move on chicas, move on..” when they are standing outside the home of a particularly surly resident. The police say (and the women use this as well when confronted with unfriendly police), that as long as they are walking, circulating in space, they aren’t breaking any laws at all. They aren’t loitering, because they are walking. And in the constitution an article states that all citizens have the legal right to circulate in public space freely.
These are the small petty ways the police attempt to control street prostitution--generally to appease the complaints of San Marcos’s residents who find the sex workers unsightly, especially due to the large number of schools and churches in the area. And as I have already mentioned many times, they associate prostitution with delinquency. The police themselves don’t truly give a damn about street prostitution, they just get annoyed by the residents’ complaints they receive, as one policeman relayed to me. He said, “these women really don’t do anything offensive, they’re just in the street.” But because the women represent something fearful and threatening, they are viewed as a “dirty”, perhaps even a “corrupting” presence. Perhaps because prostitutes are the “most fallen” a woman could become in Western society (biblical reference), just the sight of them scares other women in the area who want to avoid contamination.
These small time cat-and-mouse games between the prostitutes and the police cannot compare to the Aztec hotel closure. Once the hotel closed, it was game over for the sex workers of San Marcos. It is the hotels, not the police who truly control street prostitution. The residents should have taken that strategy years ago, if they had realized it could be so easy. But perhaps they had no idea the hotel was unregulated, who knows. Indeed, if the municipal government simply closed all the hotels in the historic center, the street workers would be forced to move elsewhere, without a doubt. But at the same time, the historic center is the most important tourist destination in Quito so of course they won’t close down all the hotels. For now, they will have to close down the unregulated brothels—but judging by how long it took for them to close down the Aztec (5 years), it seems like other unofficial hotels have more time to keep paying off the police until the municipal government finally cracks down. But without hotels, the women can’t work. It is their access to the hotels that is by far the most important factor in their ability to work—something so obvious, but yet, I didn’t truly come to recognize their power until the Aztec closed (I took the women’s work spaces for granted). Now I’m thinking to myself, well DUH, Anna….The hotels are way more important than the pesky police who really don’t do much at all, at the end of the day.