Crime & Justice

Sex workers in Peru killed for refusing to pay protection

By Carla Samon Ros

Lima, Mar 11 (EFE).- A 36-year-old Venezuelan sex worker here has spent weeks seeing only trusted clients out of fear of reprisals from a gang demanding that prostitutes pay for the privilege of plying their trade on the streets of the Peruvian capital.

Last month, Carolina – not her real name – and other sex workers received WhatsApp messages reading: “You have to pay a fee of 200 (soles, $54).”

Days after those messages went out, two Ecuadorian sex workers were fatally shot in a downtown neighborhood.

Then came another double-homicide of prostitutes in the El Agustino district, where a Colombian woman who refused to pay protection money had been slain a week earlier.

Leida Portal, 55, knows all too well the dangers facing sex workers after more than three decades in the trade.

Now a kind of mother figure for the more than 150 women in the association she leads, was forced into prostitution after she found herself widowed at 20 with a daughter suffering from a potentially fatal heart problem.

“The doctors told me my daughter was going to die … and that she needed a valve, and I, who didn’t have money for food, much less to buy a valve,” Leida recounted to Efe.

Later, one of her regular customers at the market stall in the northern city of Chiclayo where she sold ceviche offered to finance move to Lima and an operation for her daughter.

With few options, Leida accepted, only to learn that she was expected to repay her benefactor by working as a prostitute, and it didn’t take long for her to encounter the criminal organizations that rule the streets.

The gangsters require sex workers to pay anywhere from 200 soles to 1,500 soles ($405) a week, depending on factors such as location.

But the women also must contend with corrupt police.

“The police came and picked out the prettiest ones and took us to Chorrillos (a seaside neighborhood), to a house, and they put us there with more police and we had to service them all night. Free sex,” Leida said.

“For them it was fun and they woke us and dumped us on the beach,” she continued. “They told us if we didn’t want that treatment, we had to pay.”

For Leida, the nadir was a night in 2011 when three cops abducted and tortured her after she stopped paying.

“I knew that they killed us and I thought that my time had come,” she said.

Dr. Susana Chavez, an obstetrician who runs the Center for Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Rights (Promsex), the sex workers are hostages of the criminal organizations.

She said that Peruvian public policy lacks “coherence,” as the law allows sex work but denies labor rights to sex workers.

Authorities need to crack down on pimps and “dismantle sex-trafficking gangs,” Chavez said, while also pointing to the necessity for a change in social attitudes to eliminate the stigma from sex work. EFE csr/dr

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