Cartel Watch

Lap Dancing for the Cartels: Sex Work and Survival on Mexico’s Streets

A stunning look at life—and death—in the sex trade, from Mexico City’s defiant trans prostitutes to the lonely victims of trafficking and abuse in Tijuana.

Q. Sakamaki/Redux

MEXICO CITY — “I was there when the shots were fired, a few meters away,” Kenya said. “Paola called for help and I came running.”

Until that moment, Paola was full of life, said Kenya. But that life hadn’t been easy. She was born biologically male in the southern state of Campeche, near the Guatemalan border, just over 25 years ago. She and Kenya, both transgender sex workers, had chosen new names for themselves when they committed to their new identities, and they had shared the same busy street in Mexico City most nights for the past six years—working together while working alone.

That is, until last Thursday night, when Paola’s life was cut short by a john with a 9mm Beretta, and an unknown bone to pick.

“About 10 of us work that corner,” said Kenya, referring to the spot where busy Insurgentes Boulevard meets Puente de Alvarado, a few blocks from the bustling Revolución metro station. But shots rang out that night, and Kenya ran over to the car she’d seen Paola climb into minutes before, for the promise of 200 pesos—roughly, $10, cash—Paola lay in the passenger seat, barely clinging to life.

One bullet went through her neck, another through her chest and lung, and a hole showed where it had exited her body, penetrating the roof of the car driven by Arturo Felipe Delgadillo Olvera—the man who most everyone but a Mexico City judge believes killed her.

“He was holding the gun in his right hand, sitting in the driver’s seat, and Paola had collapsed in the passenger’s seat,” Kenya told The Daily Beast this Thursday. “He pointed it at me, and would have shot me, too, but the gun was jammed.”

Kenya flagged down a passing patrol car, as she was joined by a few other ladies who work the corner. “We told the police to get out with their pistols. They opened the car door and pulled [Delgadillo] out. He set the gun on the floor, and the cops knocked him down,” Kenya said. “That’s when I started filming.”

The videos Kenya recorded that night prove a series of frustrating points about Mexico. Here, you can be guilty of a crime beyond reasonable doubt, and get away with it. Or you can be an innocent victim, yet still be treated like a criminal. In this case, both hold true.

The videos show a frantic Kenya begging for doctors and screaming that Delgadillo is a murderer.

Kenya walks over to the patrol car, whose back windshield has just been smashed in. The police are calm and have the suspect surrounded and in handcuffs. “He’s the one,” Kenya insists—“Do you feel like a badass, puto?”

“I didn’t do it,” Delgadillo says casually, half-smiling in a blood-soaked blue button-down shirt.

About 10 minutes after the whole ordeal began an ambulance finally arrives. The first responders inspect Paola’s body inside the car. They take a step back, in no hurry to move her remains—“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Kenya asks. Her voice sounds defeated. “She’s dead.”

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And that is the end of the video. But as horrific as the whole scene was, at that moment the witnesses believed there would at least be justice. They had apprehended Paola’s killer—caught him, literally, with blood on his hands.

Three transgender sex workers and the first two cops on the scene all testified that Delgadillo was sitting in the car, holding the gun. Kenya testified that she saw everything but the exact moment when the trigger was pulled—in the seconds between the victim calling for help, and the moment when Kenya saw Delgadillo pull Paola’s limp body off him before the former military officer-turned-private security pointed his pistol at Kenya.

But this, let’s say, “smoking gun moment,” and the testimony of a half-dozen eyewitnesses, was “insufficient evidence” for the judge, who swiftly ordered Delgadillo’s release on Sunday.

“In court, they brought out a clean grey T-shirt, as evidence of his innocence,” Kenya told me. “But that wasn’t the shirt he was wearing—not the long-sleeve shirt in the video that was covered in her blood. Where’s his shirt? The prosecutor should have it, but it hasn’t made an appearance.”

That wasn’t the only irregularity reported during last Sunday’s pre-trial hearing, meant to determine if the suspect would be further investigated or fully absolved. “How could he have been holding the murder weapon when the police and me and the other girls saw him, but the city’s official experts now say that his hands were clean, and tested negative for gunpowder residue? It isn’t right.

“She didn’t shoot herself—twice,” Kenya said, incredulous. “And it wasn’t her gun. So, what is this? If not him, then who, and how?”

Kenya, who is now mourning the death of her friend and colleague, said the prosecutor tasked with defending Paola wasn’t prepared to argue the case, and that his bias led the tone of the hearing, further discriminating against the victim—the prosecutor referred to Paola as “him” and “he” throughout the brief hearing. The prosecutor also offered the deceased sex worker’s blood-alcohol levels into evidence, irrelevant as that may seem under the circumstances, and thus weakened the prosecutor’s argument against Delgadillo.

“If she had been drinking does that make her murder less criminal?” Kenya asked.

The pre-trial was quickly over, and so was the promise of justice.

“The police didn’t help us. They went and freed her killer,” Kenya recounted. “So I went and begged them, demanded that they give me my friend back, and release her body to me,” Kenya told us.

“I said that if her family wouldn’t help her then that’s too bad, but I would, I said, and told them: ‘Give me her body. Now.’”

The sex workers who shared the street with Paola had managed to track down her family online, and offered to pay to fly her mother out and back so she could claim the corpse, using money that dozens of local sex workers had managed to pool together since the murder.

But Paola’s mother, with whom she’d broken ties a decade earlier, did not come. No one who knew her then, as a boy, came.

“Her mother sounded distant, and said she would need money, which we promised to give her, but after that she started making excuses,” Kenya said. “There were no tears, no regrets, and in the end it seemed like she just didn’t care.”

A large percentage of Mexico’s transgender population ends up working the streets. There are no official statistics, but defense organizations have estimated as many as 80 to 90 percent in cities throughout Mexico take to sex work, and as much as 40 percent of Mexico’s homeless population is LGBTQI.

Rejected by their families, and ostracized by society, their bodies are often their only way to make enough money to survive. Expensive hormone therapy and plastic surgery are seen as necessary work investments for many, despite the cost, which further cements their role outside of conventional society in Mexico.

“Paola’s family never accepted her—like most of our families will never accept us—so in the end we just left them alone,” Kenya said. “When we first transition, we have to confront our own feelings, and then our families are angry and disappointed with us, and then society is, too. So, we end up becoming each other’s family, and are the only ones who can stand up for each other and ourselves.”

Kenya said the only way to retrieve Paola’s body was with threats. “I said that there were 500 girls waiting for her corpse, and that if I came back empty-handed we’d take over the streets and block traffic until they gave her back.”

That worked.

But a few dozen women, many of whom are not legally considered women in Mexico, were so upset by the situation that they went ahead and blocked the street anyway. They took Paola’s coffin down to Insurgentes on Tuesday, back near the spot where she was murdered, and set it down in the middle of the busy street, blocking traffic with her open casket, and screaming for justice.

“We were sad and furious, so we did the only thing we could think to do. In this case, I was the only family she had. No one was going to remember her the next day, or care, or make the authorities do their job,” Kenya said. So Paola’s colleagues made a pit stop on the way to the funeral home, and the guests all got together—a handful of drag queens, cis-gender and trans sex workers, a few human rights observers, and LGBTQI activists—and they made a scene out on the road, demanding justicia for Paola.

By the time the improvised protest ended, Paola’s corpse was late for her wake, which the girls all pitched in to cover, so they paid for an extra day at the funeral home. But Kenya and the other sex workers said this was the only thing they could think to do to make someone—anyone—notice that the authorities had not done their job.

Because of their outrage, Paola has a name, and now has a final resting place, unlike the hundreds of numbered Jane Does who have lain unclaimed at morgues across Mexico, before making their way into common, unmarked graves.

Mexico now falls just behind Brazil as the murder capital of transgender women, and across the country unchecked femicide has reached epidemic proportions. Seven women are murdered across Mexico every day. Thousands more are beaten or raped day after day, week after week, year after year. Many of these crimes are never reported—the so-called dark figure is staggering. But often there’s a reason to not report the incidents. In Mexico, 99 percent of crimes go unpunished, and gender-based violence is the epitome of this rule, not an exception.

Worse, there have been hundreds of cases of women going to police as victims, and leaving as criminals.

One example is the case of Yakiri Rubio, who was thrown in a Mexico City prison for three months at the age of 19, after inadvertently killing a man as he beat and raped her in 2013. She stabbed him more than a dozen times, before the man twice her size finally died. But when she went to the police for help—beaten, raped, and covered in his and her own blood—the authorities called her actions “excessive” and labeled her a murderer. Yakiri is a hero in my eyes, and has become a good friend of mine, and a role model for women across Mexico who understand that sometimes the only justice to be had is at their own hands. She took on her rapist, and then took on the city government, and beat them both.

Paola is just one face of a larger statistic in Mexico, but this number now at least has a name thanks to her colleagues’ fight for justice.

“There’s no security for us whatsoever,” Kenya said. “There are pros and cons to having the authorities around. On the one hand, police presence sometimes gives us the semblance of protection, but on the other hand, they treat us like criminals, and when we need them they really aren’t there to help.”

The group of sex workers have appealed the judge’s decision to free Delgadillo, and have demanded a new hearing and a meeting with Mexico City’s chief prosecutor Rodolfo Ríos. But if their demands aren’t addressed—they’ll know at some point after Monday—the women know that they have zero legal recourse.

“If they deny our appeal, we’re shutting down the airport,” says one of the ladies, to general agreement. “And then we’re going to call the trans community out across Mexico, to march in their cities and demand justice for Paola. This isn’t right, and it won’t stand.”

The local government does its best work when under the thumb of social pressure. It is unknown if they will win the appeal, and hopes aren’t very high, but their wish is that the government can be intimidated into doing its job.

If nothing else, then perhaps the authorities will do it for the satisfaction of patting themselves on the back, which often seems to be their motivation.

On Monday, for example, the day after freeing Paola’s presumed killer, the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office (PGJDF) announced that it “rescued 51 women, victims of sexual exploitation,” and brought seven men into custody, including the man who owned the two bars where the women worked, which were seized by Mexico City authorities, in the same Mexico City district where Paola was killed.

“The victims were lured in by the businessmen to work as erotic dancers, but were subsequently forced to remove all of their clothing, until ending up completely nude,” reads a statement from the attorney general’s office, which seems to be nothing but a reframing of a stripper’s job description.

The statement doesn’t mention exactly what egregious abuse the women were being “rescued” from—none of the details that usually follow cases of white slavery, sex trafficking, or mass violations of women’s human rights. They were seemingly not held against their will, not beaten, did not have their children held hostage, or any of the other sordid realities that women across Mexico face far too often in this line of work.

Last year, during the 18th national meeting of the Mexican Network of Sex Workers, exotic dancer “Rosalía” told a story that seems to follow the same pattern. Authorities raided the club where she worked in Mexico State, demanding that she and her fellow dancers sign declarations in which she accepts that she is a “victim of sex trafficking,” or face being accused herself of running a sex trafficking operation.

“We won’t sign—not as victims, nor victimizers,” she told reporters during the conference. The woman then complained that soldiers and narcos come into the clubs and bars at all hours, pick women out, and demand they have sex with them for free. “We want them to stop killing us, and stop raping us,” she said. “The authorities and narcos have us between a sword and a wall, and all we want is for them to let us do our jobs.”

The Mexican Network of Sex Workers, a national network of organizations and individuals defending sex workers’ rights, insists: “Sex work is not the same as human trafficking.”

One is a choice, the other an obligation. That’s it.

The Street Brigade in Support of Women, a nonprofit made up of cis and trans sex workers, and human trafficking victims and survivors in Mexico, insists that the two concepts are completely different: “Sex workers know that this isn’t a fine line, the difference is clear, but sometimes, authorities looking for a cut make it seem like this isn’t the case.”

Mexico has a long-standing legal history with prostitution. The oldest profession has floated in and out of various forms of regulation since first being formally accepted as a trade in the 16th century. For the last 20 years, the Street Brigade has fought for its members to be granted the right to do their job in peace and in safety, in a regulated and legal setting.

Two years ago, Mexico City’s sex workers won that right, when the city decriminalized prostitution, and began issuing credentials for the job, which allows them as independent contractors to unionize, and also provide a safer experience for themselves, and their customers, thanks to the implementation of health programs that include obligatory medical screenings and free condoms. In the past, sex workers had been unable to seek help from authorities for fear of being criminalized themselves for their line of work.

That still happens, of course, but legally it is not supposed to.

Other Mexican cities, however, have—for better or for worse—tried to embrace their sordid reputations for sex work, even going so far as to propose profiting off the sex trade—like a big, sleazy government pimp.

In the border city of Tijuana, the difference between sex trafficking and voluntary prostitution is often hard to untangle. It’s a city rife with human trafficking, underage prostitution, rampant gender-based violence and abuse, and held firmly in the clutches of organized crime.

Despite this, last year the head of the city’s tourism committee, COTUCO, spoke publicly about an ambitious campaign to rebrand the city’s prostitution zone, North America’s largest red-light district, as Tijuana Coqueta—Spanish for Coquettish Tijuana.

After an outpouring of rejection by residents soon after the plan was announced, government officials were forced to backtrack in a hurry, distancing themselves from the campaign which sought to flaunt the city as a sex tourism destination for men on “the opposite side of the border, initially, then across the rest of the country,” said Miguel Angel Badiola, the former head of COTUCO.

“We should start at home first,” he suggested with a creepy grin, after proposing the plan to increase foreign sex tourism to Tijuana.

Tijuana tolerates and locally embraces its sex trade, which has a history as dated as the city itself, but did not care to promote itself further for what it knows is one of its most problematic and least appealing traits.

On Thursday, I took a trip downtown, past an underground bar selling $1 pre-rolled joints, and a man frying chicken necks in stale grease, which he drains on a counter covered in rows of oysters of dubious quality and age. Even the smell of bad weed and liquid floor cleaner wafting up from the stairwell of the Zacazonapan bar cannot obscure the indescribable melee of odors that converge in the Zona Norte, which runs along the San Diego border fence.

A left turn past Kentucky Fried Buches takes you down Coahuila Street, the city’s official “tolerance zone” or red-light district. It’s all lights, and palm trees, and clashing music. A mariachi band plays traditional ballads for locals and lonely gringos eating tacos on the corner with their dates for the evening. The streets on Thursday night, as usual, reek of desperation.

This is Tijuana, or as Krusty the Clown calls it, “the happiest place on earth.”

But not everyone is happy to be here. Walking past the little Christian church that shares a wall with the eight-story-high Hong Kong—the city’s (and perhaps the country’s) most debauched strip-club-slash-brothel—I meet “Monica,” a 37-year-old mother of four.

She hasn’t seen her children in nearly a year, but, as often as she can, she still sends them money that she earns walking the streets.

Most girls and women in the tolerance zone are referred to as paraditas—or, women who stand. Sometimes they stand in the same spot for hours on one high-heeled leg, with the other raised against the wall, so people then call them “the flamingos.”

Monica, however, walks seven nights a week, up and down the same street, but she never dares stand. She is one of the few around here who can’t stand.

Todas pagan piso,” she tells me—everyone pays a fee for the space they stand on, usually about 700 pesos a night, or roughly $35.

The ficheras at the bars and clubs make a cut from every overpriced beer they can convince the customers to buy them until they hit their nightly quota, which is about 10 beers, Monica explains, adding that this is one of the reasons she prefers to go it alone.

But frankly, she’s the worse for wear without the protection offered by bar owners. A bulging black eye is covered poorly with concealer, and her skin is covered in sores that at first glance seem to be infected track marks, but I soon learn are not.

“My boyfriend locked me in my room for 11 hours, beating me in and out of consciousness,” she explained, adding that he works the area as a male prostitute, but is not her pimp. It’s hard to see the difference though, because she gives him half her money anyway. She insists it’s because he’s her best friend, whom she’d be alone and lost without.

“He was burning me with cigarettes all night, but that may have been a good thing, because it would shock me back awake. But now I’ve been picking at the scabs when I get stressed out or desperate,” she said. “He’s beaten me like that more times than I can count, but he’s the sweetest man I’ve ever known when he wants to be.”

She’s been on the street for almost three years, since she lost her waitressing job at a local salsa bar, and then her husband left her, taking her kids with him. Looking at the pictures she showed me from the weeks before she lost her job, it’s hard to tell I’m looking at the same person. In the pictures from 2013, she is smiling, and has full cheeks, and a clear complexion.

Now, she’s covered in scabs, bruises, cuts, and has dry blood along the bottom of her hairline.

She hates her job, and doesn’t find it the least bit empowering. She stopped seeing her children because she is embarrassed about the scabs, and what has happened to her face.

“What if they see me like this, and then reject me forever?” she wonders. “My kids don’t go to school anymore. I want a better life for them, but all I can do is work, and give the money to my sister, who I’m forever grateful to, and ask her to take it to them.”

On a good day she can make at much as 7000 pesos, or $350, but on a bad day she makes nothing. She doesn’t like her clients, and hates the way pimps trick young girls into falling in love with them or with the seemingly fun parts of the lifestyle—the drugs, the dancing. She hates how the pimps then turn on the girls, once they have them hooked, and beat them, use them, have kids with them, and then use the children as bait, Monica explained.

She tells me horrible stories, about underage prostitutes—“14- or 15-year-old girls and boys”—sex workers murdered in their hotel rooms, and a shootout she saw in recent days near the Hong Kong brothel, in which several people, including two police officers, were shot with what she said was an automatic rifle. Hong Kong is itself its own beast, and no stranger to violence, both cartel-related and psycho-sexual. It’s a multi-tiered microcosm, where well-protected strippers perform unholy acts on each other, and lap dancers make visitors feel extra special for the right price. When I first walked in, years ago, the performance that unfolded was something that cannot ever be unseen—think Jennifer Connelly’s final scene in Requiem For a Dream, but with copious of whipped cream. It’s like Disneyland on crack, yet way more repulsive. But don’t take my word for it… one visitor from California posted his five-star review online last week: “Yo this place is fucking lit, turn up till the sun comes up and mess around with the girls till my heart’s about to stop from smashing so hard.”

But that, of course, is not really Monica’s scene.

Business hasn’t been great these past weeks, she explained, pointing to the bruises on her face.

She said two prostitutes who do pay their dues tried to kill her three weeks ago, after following her into her room. They strangled her with the chain she wears around her neck, where she usually keeps the key to whatever room she’s staying in to avoid losing it. She normally finds a place to sleep for about $10 a night, but on Thursday evening the chain had no key on it.

She said the two women beat her with their fists, and kicked the back of her head open with a stiletto heel, at the behest of their employer.

“Are we done?” the two women asked before leaving her room. “We’re done,” she answered.

“I was brave about it though,” she said. “I even walked past them the other day, with one eye swollen shut. I thought, I hope they don’t hit me in the other eye, for trying to act tough.”

She used to live in an apartment, but her boyfriend sold everything and spent the rent money on meth. “He even sold my underwear and heels, and that was very disrespectful, because I needed them to work, to pay for us, and food, and send money to my children.”

After that, the woman who rented the small room to her kicked her out, “because she said she didn’t want any trouble.”

So Monica has seen better times in recent years, but barely.

“I usually find the drunkest man I can find, and then take him out dancing to wear him out. And then he buys me drinks, and I go somewhere with him,” she said. “But I always take my time. I get to his room, and go into the bathroom. I lock the door, and take a shower, and usually by the time I come out they have passed out.

“It doesn’t always work out that way,” she said. “But when it does, I have a good night. Because I invite myself to whatever is in their wallet, or every once in awhile, if they take me to their house, and fall asleep, then I take whatever they have lying around.

“Once I went to a man’s house with nothing in my purse, and left with three of his suitcases packed with stuff—the Playstation, phones, a computer, money, perfumes, sneakers, whatever I could carry,” she said.

As I applauded her for her entrepreneurial spirit, an older woman in chunky heels sat nearby on the ground, surrounded by cops who pulled a small balloon filled with crystal meth out of the back pocket of her mini-skirt. Here, globitos, as they are known, cost 50 pesos, or about $2.50. They can be bought on any street corner in the zona, and each corner is repping for its drug gang—the same goes for many of the local establishments. Whether it’s the authorities or the cartels, everyone gets a cut of the cash that flows in as freely as the cheap beer everyone’s drinking.

A few paces away, a young man removes the wedge shoe of a woman twice his age, and injects something (heroin, if she’s lucky) into her left foot, lit by the oblivious police officers’ red and blue patrol car lights.

Monica and I sit outside a local bar—I have a beer, she has a hamburger—and a completely demolished, filthy American man walked up to us, mumbling something about french fries. Monica rips a piece of her burger off with her hands and gives it to the man on a napkin, as he twitches with excitement.

These are desperate, depressing streets.

“You’ve got to be nice to everyone,” Monica said, wisely. “I make friends with local vendors, the shoe-shine men, the parking lot operators, because they are the ones who send me customers when they see drunk men walking by. They also seem to get me out of trouble, so you never know who can count on. A shoe-shine man that I give finder’s fees to let me share his room the last time my boyfriend beat me up. I bought him a globito of crystal as payment, but he didn’t ask me to, I just felt like helping.”

She said the shoe-shine man has become “like a father” to her.

“There are good people everywhere, if you are good to them,” she said. “Except for the pigs—never trust anyone with a badge. The police have taken me at least 15 times this year, and locked me in a cell for the day, and it’s awful because everyone around you is coming down from something. You see them beating their heads against the wall until they bleed, because they can’t stand the malilla.” In other words, everyone’s looking for a fix, but in jail there’s no fix to be had.

“I treat myself to an AIDS test every four months,” she said. “They are free, and so are the condoms, but usually I just try not to have sex if I can help it.”

Along the Zona Norte there are hundreds of girls and women working with the bars and brothels. Very few women dare to try their hand at going solo, and speaking to Monica it’s clear why. Those standing in front of brothels, under the protection of the bosses, don’t have visible wounds, they are laughing and drinking, and flirting with passersby in clean but revealing clothing.

Monica has nowhere to sleep, or take a shower, or heal her scabs. Sure, a pimp isn’t taking a cut of her income, but she isn’t really making one these days either. She is completely alone, and avoids the other prostitutes, walking up and down the street. She has no union, and her friends won’t be there to demand justice for her the way Kenya and company have for Paola. Her kids won’t find her when she’s gone. Her boyfriend will find someone else to leech off.

The only way to make it as a sex worker in this city is to pay your dues, and stand in someone’s doorway.

Meanwhile in Mexico City, Paola’s body was put to rest this week, surrounded by transgender women who have no shame in their work, and take pride in being their own bosses, yet continue to fight for respect, and the right to live free from violence.

“I love you, beautiful baby,” Kenya told Paola at the wake. The women sang around her casket, dancing as they recite lyrics to a classic song by Antonio Aguilar, backed by a small mariachi band.

The day that I die, I’ll take nothing with me—nothing more than a fistful of dirt,” they sing.

Life ends quickly. What happened in this world is just a memory.”