Gloria, a vivacious young woman in a tight top and short skirt, tells Maria and me that she would love to go for a day-trip to San Cristobal with us, but her “man” will not let her go. She laughs: “ He’s thinks I won’t come back – he is crazy – I’ve been here for seven years and have no documents – I’m not going anywhere.”
Gloria is a sex worker in a Mexican bar near the Guatemala border. She left Honduras hoping to get work in the USA to support her children back home. “My son had his 12th birthday last week – I wish I could have been there.” She regularly sends money to her family, however they have no idea what kind of work she does.
I am spending the afternoon with Maria (not her real name) who owns and operates a small restaurant at a busy intersection near the Mexico-Guatemala border. While I eat a delicious mushroom quesadilla and drink horchata (a traditional rice drink), she tells me about how she became involved with the migrant women caught in the sex trade in her community.
“Women working in the bars along the highway, often come for a meal, and I just started talking with them. Many of the local people are very judgemental and look down on these women. But I began to see their reality, and offer them friendship.” says Maria.
Many Central American women attempting to get to the USA end up in the sex trade. “Often they are paid to come with the promise of a job, but they cannot leave until they repay their expenses to the bar owner. Others end up working at the bars because they have no money left and can’t continue travelling north, and this is the only work they can get.”
They work in the small, cheap bars along the highway. In order to sell more alcohol, the bars have women available to drink beer with the customers. For each beer sold, the woman gets a portion of the profits. “Sometimes the women have to drink 20-30 beers a night. They can become alcoholic. Sometimes the bar owner offers them drugs, small bags of cocaine, to overcome the affects of the alcohol,” says Maria.
If the customer decides he wants sexual services as well, the woman takes him into a small cement room at the back of the bar. The customer pays about 200 pesos (about $20) to the woman, and 100 pesos ($10) to the bar owner for the use of the woman and the space. “They are offered more money if the man doesn’t have to use a condom.”
“The customers are local men as well as truck drivers, police men, miners, and construction workers in the area. The bars are illegal, but the owners pay bribes to the officials so there are no health, labour or immigration inspections.”
The women are often trapped here for years because they are sending money back to their families, they are in debt to the bar owners, they have no options, and/or they are addicted to alcohol and drugs.
If a woman becomes pregnant, the baby is her responsibility. Often the women continue drinking while they are pregnant because they need money to live; frequently the babies are born with with birth defects. Maria knows of several little children growing up in the bars – one hidden under the bed while his mother services clients.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 Central American women are working as prostitutes in south and south-east Mexico (ECPAT, 2009).
Maria is a member of a local evangelical church, and wanted the church to do something for these women. “But our churches are asleep, they don’t want to talk about this. They are completely focused on sin. As Christians, I think we need to love everyone, so I try to offer hospitality and help in whatever way I can. I slowly gain their confidence.”
Maria offers them meals, takes them to the clinic if they are pregnant, invites them to her house when they have a day off work. She explains their rights to them. A couple women have even managed to break-free of the bar owners, and are working at Maria’s restaurant.
Since last month, Maria began participating in a series of training workshops for people working with migrants, offered by INESIN, an MCC Mexico partner organization. She is learning about migration, human rights, strategies for helping, and networking with others working in their communities to accompany migrants.
Maria has dreams of offering literacy, vocational training, and gardening opportunities to the women who want alternatives to the sex trade. She would like to get the whole community, particularly the numerous local churches, involved in supporting these women.
“One woman asked me: ‘Where is God?’ Another told me that she used to be a Christian, but now God doesn’t want her anymore. As Christians, we are called to befriend those around us; to include, rather than exclude. These women have helped me to see life differently. I could just as easily have the same fate as them. These are my sisters.”
Sometimes, Maria asks the women what they would like to be doing five years from now. “They tell me that they can only think about surviving tomorrow. They can’t imagine any kind of future.”
Later in the afternoon, as the bus I am travelling on passes the bars along the highway that suck up the lives of so many women, I think about the glimmer of hope that Maria offers in this darkness through simple, open friendship.
The artwork is from the following source:
More information on human trafficking and sex trade in Mexico, see ECPAT – End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes