The Cantera (translated to “Rock Quarry”), no longer used as a quarry, is a gritty area on top of slated stone backed again the mountains. The municipal government turned it into Quito’s official red-light district (circa 2006), constructing five brothels there. It is perched on top of the neighborhood of San Roque, known to be one of Quito’s most dangerous neighborhoods, just above the historical center. It is home to the maximum security prison and has Quito’s largest market with vendors selling absolutely everything—from vegetables and countless types of meat, endless mounds of fish and seafood, to live animals (you can actually buy a pig, chickens, dogs, cats, or pigeons—for pets or for consumption), furniture, electronics, clothes, drugs, etc. etc. I’ve been to San Roque Market dozens of times, accompanied by one of the sex workers, V. who tells me I should never, ever go there alone because it’s too dangerous. But I love soaking in all the sensory stimulation—people calling out prices and their wares, a mix of all sorts of music playing, the smell of raw meat and fish, the smell of chickens stuffed in their coops, all the colors, the masses of people pushing their way through different stalls and outside stands—it’s incredibly exciting and overwhelming.
Although San Roque has always been dismissed as a dangerous neighborhood, it is also a family neighborhood, home to many generations of families. These families did not have much say when the municipal government decided to turn the abandoned quarry into a strip of brothels. The neighbors complained and protested the new location but as a disenfranchised and destitute community, they didn’t have much power to resist government officials. These five brothels are a sad replacement for the official red light district that used to exist on the main strip of the historic center, May 24 Street. May 24 had over 50 brothels, bars and night clubs—literally hundreds of women worked on that strip. When 24 de May closed down and they attempted to move the red-light district out of the historic center to the Cantera, most women (or clients) didn’t follow the move. Instead, they flooded the streets (like the women I work with), because even though the municipalities wanted the red-light district to no longer outside the historic center, market forces dictated that neither the sex workers nor the clients wanted to relocate so far away, in such a dangerous area. The red light has always existed in the historic center, for at least a century—no one was making any quick moves to the Cantera, a pathetic replacement of May 24, with its five brothels (instead of the over 50 that existed on May 24 Street).
Therefore, the attempt to move the red-light district to the Cantera has failed miserably over the years. The women moved to the streets in the historic district and began working out of hotels (like my women do). The Cantera is way too far away—it’s at least a $2 taxi ride from the center, which is prohibitively expensive for many clients. The whole point of attempting to move the red-light district from El Centro to the Cantera was to make the historic center more appealing to tourists. The municipality made things worse because now the women are on the streets instead of working inside the brothels that used to line Mary 24, making them more visible than before. The women make better money on the streets and all their clients stick to the historic center, so there is no incentive for the sex workers to go to the Cantera.
Indeed, the Cantera has been plagued by problems ever since it opened. The residents of San Roque claim that the newly-located red light district has made the neighborhood much more dangerous because the brothels are open late and when they close, drunken men wander the streets. There have been increased numbers of robbing and assaults in the area surrounding the Cantera. Most of the women on my corner wouldn’t dream of going to the Cantera at night, claiming it’s the most dangerous place to work, ever. It’s hard to understand what the women gain at the Cantera if business is best of the streets. They must also follow the strict regiments of the owners of the brothels and their work involves lots of drinking and dealing with drunk/drugged men, which the women on the streets are not as exposed to (they work during the day which means fewer drunk men. Furthermore, on the street they obviously don’t have to earn a drink for the club, before servicing their clients—they are free agents). Women at the brothels tell me they feel safer working inside a locale and appreciate that the police never bother them because the brothels in the Cantera are legally registered.
But it seems as if things have become more dangerous in the Cantera. The manager of the brothel, Club Aruba, was killed in cold-blood on January 10, 2011. Four shots were fired and the man was dead within moments. It is unclear why he was murdered and although there are suspects, no one has been charged with the murder as of yet. The police closed down the Cantera for a few days to conduct an investigation but no one will talk. It seems as if mafias are involved with the running of their brothels at the Cantera. But again, no one knows what motivated the crime or who is involved. No sex workers have come forward with knowledge of the murder and indeed, all have kept quiet about the event. Police and government officials realize that most likely drug dealing and other illegal activities are taking place under the auspices of these legal brothels, but still the details are murky. This assassination marks one more reason for both clients and sex workers to avoid the Cantera. It was terrible publicity for the red-light district and officials will have to face the fact that their transition to the Cantera has been an utter failure. The other fallout of the murder is that the residents of San Roque once again have come out to protest the Cantera in their neighborhood. People no longer leave their homes at night and are terrified of what’s actually happening in these brothels.