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Prostitution a booming industry along border
SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Son. - The neon lights illuminating this growing border city's main artery, Obregon Avenue, represent a thriving business: sex.
It used to be that prostitution took place on the outskirts of this border town.
Now more of the cantinas, hotels and strip clubs where sex workers ply their trade are closer to the port of entry where Americans enter the city, on and around this bustling street that runs east-west one block south of the border.
"The business does well right at the border," said Jose Palafox, who recently stepped down from his seat as mayor to run for a seat in the Mexican Congress.
Palafox said the "strong growth" in new strip clubs along the border is being driven by a clientele that consists largely of American tourists.
That, combined with poverty and a treacherous job market for women, may be why nearly 3,000 people, mostly women, have registered with the city over the last eight years to become legally-certified prostitutes.
And those are just the ones who are registering.
According to Ramon Ortiz, one of the city's prostitution inspectors who makes sure all prostitution here is legitimate, there are 50 percent more prostitutes working today than there were two years ago, when he began his job.
The city health department reports that there are about 300 active, registered prostitutes working in San Luis Rio Colorado right now, though Ortiz said there are many more working illegally.
Almost all of those prostitutes are working in new cantinas and strip clubs that have popped up along the border, on Obregon, in the last few years, he said.
The strip clubs are a new phenomenon here. Five years ago, there were none in this city. Now there are five of them, with names like Booby Trap and Tatas.
Palafox admitted that the growth in strip clubs and cantinas along the border, in what is called the city's central sector, have made the "most ancient profession" a more visible part of this city.
"But, at least the (prostitutes) are not in the streets, like they are in Hermosillo, Altar, Caborca and other cities (in the border state Sonora). We control (prostitution), and keep it inside of certain establishments," he said.
This sector is one of two areas where people are legally permitted to solicit prostitutes inside designated establishments. The other, older zone of tolerance, is about 20 blocks inside the city at 6th Street and Carranza Avenue.
There are nearly 50 bars and cantinas, five strip clubs, three massage parlors and 15 hotels here that are permitted by the city to harbor working prostitutes.
Prostitutes here, as well as the city's prostitution inspectors, say about one in three sex solicitors here are American. Hernandez added that many of the American clients are U.S. military personnel.
The larger and more visible prostitution industries in Mexico overshadow the more "discreet," illegal industry in Yuma itself.
"It does occur in (Yuma), but I don't think it is as open as it is somewhere else," said Yuma Police Department spokesman Clint Norred, adding that only one police report pertaining to prostitution has been filed in the last two years in Yuma. "Hey, (American clientele) can drive 20 minutes and be in Mexico," he said.
In Mexican border towns, where prostitution has been going on for decades, it wasn't until about a decade ago that the cities began to regulate it scrupulously.
The first AIDS case was reported in Mexico in 1983. By the late '80s, prostitutes in Mexico began appearing at the National AIDS council (CONASIDA) health centers to request HIV testing and risk reduction information.
Since then, most Mexican cities have adopted a system that permits prostitution as long as it is regulated. In San Luis Rio Colorado, that means prostitutes have to register with the city health department, have biweekly STD screenings, and carry cards showing that they've been doing the screenings.
For decades, those have been the rules for prostitutes in parts of Mexico.
But Palafox said news of HIV and AIDS and other STDs caused the commercial sex industry to catch the public eye.
"We were all afraid that we were going to get infected," Palafox said.
The result was that San Luis Rio Colorado, like nearby Algodones, began surveying and monitoring sex workers, and hiring inspectors to enforce the regulations.
But illegal prostitution still exists. An at-risk, outcast population of transvestites are known for inhabiting the abandoned "old zone," which was recently shut down due to rampant illegal prostitution and other crime, according to the city's sub-police chief, Jesus Zamora.
Bonifacio Gonzalez Castro, public health director for San Luis Rio Colorado, said prostitution in Mexico is, and always has been, a "big" public health problem.
But he said the nature of the act of prostitution makes it a difficult activity for authorities to regulate.
"How can we know for sure that a person is prostituting themselves?" he asked.
Blake Schmidt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6852.