At the southern corner of Mexico’s Pacific coast lies Tapachula, Chiapas, a bustling city of over 300,000 and one of Mexico’s major prostitution hubs. A stone’s throw from Guatemala, Tapachula is often the first border crossing for migrants en route to the United States from Central America and beyond. For some, it is a quick stop to refuel before continuing northward, often by boarding Mexico’s infamous North-South cargo train, known as La Bestia. For others, Tapachula is more than a thoroughfare. Migrants spend months to years in the city, existing in a state of limbo as they evaluate their options. They face a difficult, expensive, and long path forward, and many need to stop to earn money.
Without legal status in Mexico, migrants are forced into the underground economy, where they are vulnerable to abusive business practices and corrupt police officers. For many women and some men, the only option is prostitution, which is a booming business in border areas. This is exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has caused a notable increase in prostitution in Tapachula despite the risks. Just as Tapachula itself exists in the nebulous space between thoroughfare and destination, the city’s migrant sex workers are often unclearly positioned. Their situation requires a reimagination of the binaries between voluntary and trafficked, victims and traffickers. To combat trafficking, authorities need to understand the vulnerable position of migrant women in relation to sexual assault, prostitution, consent, and the law.
To understand sex work in Tapachula, one must understand that is neither the beginning nor the end of sexual exploitation faced by migrant women. Violence is often touted as a major driver of migration from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras but the role of sexual violence is lesser-known. The link between violence against women and conflict has long been established, but it needs to be applied in smaller-scale conflicts, like those between Central America’s rising maras. A 2016 report by The Guardian found numerous young women fleeing gang-related sexual exploitation. Nearly a third of migrant women apprehended in Mexico at the time were under 18, and many victims of sexual violence were as young as 12. Moreover, studies have found that the majority of survivors of sexual assault are revictimized in often-separate incidents.
However, while anecdotal evidence shows that gang-related sexual violence certainly drives some women to migrate, there is not enough evidence available to extrapolate this to migrant sex workers as a whole. In particular, as argued by José Miguel Cruz, the clear correlation between gang activity, violence and migration should not be mistaken for causation. The same social conditions that contribute to gangs also lead to other forms of violence and migration while most violence is not gang-related. Furthermore, migration and ensuing deportation gives rise to violent, American-style gangs. Thus, while it is important to consider gang violence as trauma migrant women may experience prior to the journeys, it is also important to keep in mind that the presence of gang violence indicates that they likely experience many other forms of violence.
More well-documented is the violence migrants face later in their journeys, often by exploitative smugglers, Mexican officials, or US border patrol and immigration authorities. A 2019 study by the Mexican National Institute of Public Health found that 14% of migrant women were raped while in transit through Mexico to the U.S. while 4% exchanged sex for food or money. 24% suffered from some form of violence. Many also experienced rape and forced prostitution near the end of their journeys along the border in the U.S. Though not majorities, these rates are sufficiently high to indicate that migrant women are likely intimately familiar with the threat of sexual violence. The level of violence that migrant women experience thus contextualizes their experiences in Tapachula. It brings into question the agency of even sex workers who are less overtly trafficked, as the perceived inescapability of violence may influence a person’s perceptions of their own treatment.
Furthering the complexity of their situation, sex workers in Tapachula exist in an ambiguous legal context. Sex workers, especially undocumented migrants, frequently work outside of regulated brothels. Sources vary, citing as many as 30,000 sex workers in the city. A local activist in June 2020 estimated that Tapachula has 500-600 formal sex workers, but this estimate does not include the estimated 2,700 bartenders performing sex work on the side. Reflecting the nuance of the overall position of migrant sex workers, it is difficult to assess if these bartenders enter sex work consensually or were forced to do so after securing what they believed to be a hospitality job. Estimates for nationality also vary, but all place the majority as Central Americans. Mirroring the ambiguous role of the city itself, the migrant population in Tapachula is fluid, subject to a myriad of factors dictating migration patterns. This makes it difficult to accurately assess the migrant population, much less the migrant sex worker population. This, along with the general nebulousness of sex worker definitions, explains the range in estimates.
While prostitution is technically legal in Mexico, anti-trafficking legislation and municipal policies complicate the lines between consensual sex worker, victim, and trafficker. 13 states, including Chiapas, choose to directly regulate prostitution, enforcing the national anti-trafficking laws along with local restrictions. Authorities in Chiapas are known for zealously enforcing the 2012 anti-trafficking law, which defines the crime of trafficking broadly to include those who economically benefit from or collaborate with another prostitute. Critically, this legal definition does not take into account consent. The 2012 law solely requires that an act be performed for the purpose of exploitation to be considered trafficking, markedly stricter than the 2007 law that required all three of the “act, means, and purpose” of an activity to be indicative of trafficking.
This leaves leeway for police enforcement, effectively criminalizing any form of mutual aid and discouraging migrants from more equitable forms of sex work like cooperatives. As explained in this article on Tuxtla Gutiérrrez, the capital of Chiapas, police divide sex workers into victims and traffickers during raids, denying the possibility of consensual sex work. This forces sex workers to name traffickers in order to avoid their own arrest or deportation. In moments of panic, they may name a sex worker given management responsibilities.
Researchers studying women accused of trafficking in Tapachula corroborated this, finding that bar owners were often tipped off prior to raids, would appoint an employee as a manager, and would leave prior to the raid. This allows any actual traffickers to get off scotch-free while forcing the migrant sex workers into the trafficker-victim dichotomy, preventing any real analysis of who is being trafficked and thus any fight against human trafficking. Unlike the male bar owners, those incarcerated for trafficking were found to be mostly poor, illiterate Guatemalan women. They tended to be young or elderly and victims of exploitation themselves.
The conflation of victims and traffickers thus intentionally halts authorities from ending sexual exploitation. Both authorities and brothel owners are complicit. Instead of fighting trafficking, trafficking and immigration legislation pushes migrant sex workers further underground, preventing them from securing safer and more consensual forms of (sex) work.