Trick Town

Boys will be boys, especially in Nuevo Laredo, Where legal prostitution draws generations of Texas men across the border for cheap, sleazy and anonymous sex

In Texas, the proximity to legal brothels is considered as much a natural resource as oil. Clayton Williams summed up this blasé attitude during his gubernatorial campaign with a casual and costly admission of frequenting Mexican prostitutes in his youth. "It's part of growing up in West Texas," he told wide-eyed reporters. "It was a lot different then. The houses were the only place you got serviced. It was kind of what the boys did at A&M."

Truckers of two nationalities, a large population of factory workers, close proximity to the U.S. border, a risk-free illicit pharmaceutical business--these factors combine to keep Nuevo Laredo's red light district well-stocked with customers.

At night, that is. Boys Town during the day is not much to look at. In the white-hot sunshine it's easy to put things in perspective. The place is little more than an unpaved parking lot segmented by rows of bars/whorehouses. The heat bounces off the sun-bleached gravel as if it were aluminum foil. Nothing is paved. Empty beer cans rattle across the rocks, pushed by dusty wind. Listless old men and women, employees and club owners, sweep their establishments and tidy up the rooms. No one moves very fast.

This gap in the walls is the only way in and out of Boys Town. Signs prohibit minors, guns and bringing your own booze. Things are slow inside the walls during the day (below).
Joe Pappalardo
This gap in the walls is the only way in and out of Boys Town. Signs prohibit minors, guns and bringing your own booze. Things are slow inside the walls during the day (below).
La Zona sports a donkey show; its stars serve as barkers to draw customers.
Joe Pappalardo
La Zona sports a donkey show; its stars serve as barkers to draw customers.

The layout of La Zona is simple. Within the confines of the walls are a dozen bars and a handful of bordellos/clubs. The transvestites work one corner of the unpaved four-block box; authentic women get the rest. A restaurant, police station and taxi stand provide a minimum of non-sex-related services. Linking the bars are rows of single-occupancy rooms, dirty work stations for the women to service men who aren't too uptight about creaky bedsprings, dingy mattresses and general cleanliness.

During the day the prostitutes stay low. They're around if you want them, but the profession has always been nocturnal. The clients who stick around during the day are the worst of the worst, those with shame levels so low they don't feel compelled to scurry back across the land bridge after being serviced. One bearded man with an unidentifiable accent and booze breath walks around trying to sell a newborn puppy. He stumbles in and out of each cantina, passing Greg, who is braving the blinding light on a mission to the police station.

Greg is a drinker, and he knows it. He was in day three of his Boys Town binge, just past noon, plastic cup of beer waving precariously in front of his Ralph Lauren shirt. A former motocross biker with roots in Houston, Greg knows Spanish and sees no problem with driving his car across the international bridge and staying in the flophouses of La Zona until he's sated.

But Greg does have a problem. A waitress shortchanged him at the wrong time--his $2 beer ended up costing him his last $20. His gas money, he says emphatically. So off he went to the police station to get his wrong righted.

Most of the time, approaching the Mexican police is little more than a good way to pay a bribe, get robbed or become annoyed by slack-jawed indifference. But moments later he emerged with an officer on his arm. In a brief transaction the $18 was returned.

The police station within the walls is vital to the sex industry of La Zona. It exists to keep some semblance of order on the scene and keeps the army from launching raids into Boys Town. There is a military garrison in or close to nearly every border town, and the state governors use them like the their U.S. counterparts use the National Guard--except a lot more frequently since local cops are too close to the action (and corrupt) to be trusted to act decisively.

What brings the army? "Some things are in the rules, some things are out of the rules," says a savvy local newspaper editor. Too many blatant drug deals, violent crimes or weapons seizures could bring army intervention. Shake-ups like that mean the profits of Boys Town plummet and renting proprietors conceivably could be tossed out of their leases. The women of Boys Town are answerable to a bar and nightlife association, which sets vague regulations and serves as a liaison to the local and state government. In Boys Town the bar proprietors scorn free-lancers and despise trouble that could arouse federal ire. They supposedly require women to obtain a license called a boleta de registro to work the rooms and bars of La Zona--not that you'll ever see one of these licenses or meet a spokesperson for the nightlife association. They are as rare as dignity in La Zona.

The ability to self-regulate is vital in Mexico, where most authority figures have proven themselves hopelessly susceptible to corruption and most citizens expect it to stay that way, especially since the laws give them little to work with. Mexican prostitution laws, like those in many developing countries, seem designed to sanction the trade with little enforcement and no regulatory oversight.

"Prostitution is legal in Mexico, but the surrounding activities-- pimping, procuring and pandering--are not," says Dr. Laura Lederer, director of The Protection Project, an independent prostitution and human smuggling research organization located in Washington, D.C. Without the ability to arrest women and coerce them into informing on pimps, prosecutors don't even try unless smuggling children is involved.

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