Things That Matter

Despite The Pandemic, The Sex Trade Is Still Booming Along The U.S.-Mexico Border

As the Coronavirus pandemic ravaged communities, workers were faced with an impossible choice. Stay at home, be safe, but risk going hungry or broke. Go out, earn a living, but risk your life and of those you care about. For so many in Mexico, this was the choice they were given.

It’s already a difficult choice to make – even if you work as an Uber driver or a restaurant worker. But imagine having to make that choice if you’re a sex worker.

The pandemic has slowed the sex trade along the U.S.-Mexico border by some degree, but in many parts it remains business as usual. So many sex workers are having to make that nearly impossible choice to work and make money or stay at home to stay safe.

And although the border is technically closed to nonessential travel, thousands of Americans are still crossing into Mexico to pay for sex, looking for a kind of fun that can’t be found legally in most of the U.S.

Mexico’s sex tourism industry is still going strong despite a global pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to close the border to nonessential travel. However, tourists have still traveled south to cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez in search of nightlife, drugs, and sex.

In Tijuana famed red-light district, called Zona Norte, which is walking distance from the border, the area’s main strip is usually teeming with a frenetic action bathed in neon light. Women in short dresses and the highest of high heels stand along the sidewalks. Massive strip clubs, some with hotels attached, act as de facto brothels.

And now, although the city’s strip clubs and brothels may officially be closed due to the health crisis, many are welcoming customers through back doors. Last month a team from Baja California’s Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risks (COEPRIS) carried out inspections in Zona Norte after receiving several complaints that it was pretty much business as usual in the area. 

They reported that many places are open as usual. “We sent COEPRIS and they shut them down. Yes, they were disguising it, the front door was closed, but they were entering from behind and all the same activities were being held there with the doors closed,” Governor Jaime Bonilla Valdez said.

The newspaper El Universal reported seeing a drunk American stumbling down the street to hire a young prostitute, and witnessed a trio of tourists being offered marijuana and methamphetamine in full view of COEPRIS inspectors and police officers as they inspected businesses on Coahuila Alley.

Some sex workers are doing the best they can to protect themselves…

Credit: Luis Acosta / Getty Images

Although so many sex workers are forced to make the difficult decision to stay at home or keep working, those who decide to work have other choices to make.

“I’m so scared for my health,” said Alejandra, a sex worker in Tijuana, who spoke to CNN. “I don’t know if the person I’m with has the disease or not.”

Some sex workers, such as single mother Alejandra, say they are taking precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, such as making their clients wash their hands and shower prior to the act, and requiring the frequent use of antibacterial gel. But social distancing is impossible when you’re a sex worker.

Meanwhile, a former tourism official is urging cities to promote the sex trade to boost the economy.

Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A former tourism director for Tijuana is urging the city to “remove the taboo” of prostitution and brothels and promote them as tourist attractions instead. Pepe Avelar made those comments after being asked about night club and bar closures due to COVID-19.

“We should let them operate and exploit their appeal as much as possible, allowing for more regulation,” he said. “We should approve a promotional campaign for an activity that is historically synonymous with the city of Tijuana.”

“Let’s talk openly about this. I’m a firm believer that we need these open 24/7 in areas dedicated to bars and houses of prostitution because, in the end, these are also tourism products,” he said

As an example, Avelar used the city of Las Vegas, Nev., where tourism is promoted as “an adventure, as romantic and as a sexual destination.”

Cities on the U.S. side of the border have far higher numbers of cases putting Mexican border communities on alert.

Although Mexico’s border communities have been hit hard by the virus, it’s nothing like what’s happening on the U.S. side. For example, across the border from Tijuana in San Diego, there are 33,220 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, whereas 4,349 people have become infected in Tijuana according to official data.

This is largely why the land crossing between the U.S. and Mexico remains closed to nonessential travel. It was all done with the intent of slowing the virus’ spread.

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