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"Basically the situation is the laws are there on the books but are not enforced," Lederer says. "If the political will at the top is unwilling, or doesn't have the resources, or if a country is unstable politically or economically, or if they have organized crime cartels that are stronger than the government--these combinations of complex things keep the government from doing anything."
Most of those conditions Lederer speaks of apply to northern Mexico. New presidents routinely promise reform, but such power shifts have been "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" experiences. The PRI may be out of office in Mexico City, but the new government has bigger fish to fry than an unpopular prostitution crackdown. And unpopular it would be. The bread and butter of prostitution zones are not international visitors. Bartenders in La Zona say that low-wage Mexican workers are the real mainstays of red light districts, especially during the week.
"Many gringos on Friday and Saturday," says one bartender, cleaning a glass with a soiled rag and speaking in broken English. He tries again, this time in Spanish. "The workers love it here. The women treat them nice, but they like gringos better. Do you want a woman?"
Local workers' unions took out newspaper ads to protest a 1982 crackdown on prostitutes working the red light district of Matamoros. The crackdown was prompted by a dramatic drug-related shootout in the red light district involving local police, five of whom were arrested for protecting criminal elements within the Zona. The governor backed the mayor with support from military personnel, parking army jeeps behind the cops to spur them into action. Thirty years earlier, in 1951, Matamoros Mayor Ernesto Elizondo tried to close the town's red light district, but he was shot to death three weeks later over the effort.
The federal and state authorities stay away and leave oversight, such as it is, to local cops and business owners with vested interests in keeping peace. Women charge for sex and ask for more "for the room." Bar owners get their cut from these room rental fees and from their take at the bar. It's impossible to know what transactions exist beneath the table.
It's a rough system with plenty of flaws, but it's better than a total free-for-all. And it's worked long enough to make Nuevo Laredo's district an international institution.
"The last thing they want over there is to have someone wreak havoc with the clientele," says the Laredo newsman. "It's a self-controlled, self-contained part of town...It's a true free-trade zone."
Enter the mind of a thrill-seeking john. Like Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, things may not make much sense in here.
"There are reasons guys go down there every weekend," says Scott, a single sales manager from Seguin recently returned from a night in Boys Town. Scott isn't a total loser who needs to pay for sex; he just wants to. He estimates an average of three legitimate trysts a year, but a cycle of heated relationships and bitter breakups have left a mile-wide cynical streak through his psyche. A self-confessed fear of deep commitment drives him to date compulsively, but aside from "some pretty depressing dry spells" he has little problem finding mates.
Yet his "weakness for the ladies" has driven him to seek thrills from prostitutes. He's sampled human wares in Las Vegas and Virginia, but his first Mexican experience struck him differently. "It's fundamentally different than getting a blowjob from some crackhead you see from your car. These girls are a lot more sincere."
His $160 romp included a room outside Boys Town, avoiding the pool of "fetid water" on the floor and ill-used bed that was featured in her allotted room. Women will leave Boys Town and check into a Nuevo Laredo room of their choosing, if the client's willing to pay for it. After Scott was finished for the night he was met with a tide of guilt and concern for the woman. "I felt bad. I wanted her to get out of there," he says now from his home in Seguin. "Those poor women."
Ironically, many clients have soft spots for the women they employ. Tales from the online World Sex Guide, a consumer review-driven Web site on the sex industry, are rife with more tales of sex goddesses with gentle demeanors than of hookers with wild animal lust. It's an odd dynamic, but many Nuevo Laredo clients are filling voids that go beyond simple sex. Those reviews unerringly steer clients to the brothels that feature women who are not only better looking and seemingly cleaner but women whose accommodating temperaments appeal to the johns.
Take this excerpt from a testimonial posted on the World Sex Guide Web site in November 2000:
"While I was still at Papagyos [sic] I found a nice, petite little Mexican lady. She was about 5'2, 110 lbs. A perfect 9. I don't like fucking in those trashy rooms that they have, so I spent a little more cash and took her back to my hotel room. We stayed in a hotel on the Mexican side to save some money. I spent $70 and got her for the whole night. This woman was nice. She had a great attitude, but the language barrier hurt our communication."
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