NUEVO LAREDO--It's nearly 10:30 on a Thursday night and 23-year-old Les is on the street, prowling for women.
He's come to the right--if not necessarily the proper--place.
"It's much more organized than I expected," Les says, walking past the police station in La Zona Rosa and taking in the neon lights of the clubs, the strips of single-occupancy rooms with women spilling out of them like fishing lures from a tackle box. "I'm so glad I came. This place is crazy."
It's the Louisiana native's first trip outside the United States and will be, before the night is out, his first experience with a prostitute. His two friends are more experienced; they tantalized Les with tales of young women and cheap prices. The trio drove their truck from San Antonio across the international bridge, found an inexpensive Mexican hotel near the zocalo (town square) and took a $10 taxi ride to Nuevo Laredo's red light district.
Les and company don't waste time. They walk straight into Casino El Papagayo, the district's vaunted centerpiece establishment, a bar with connected rooms. But don't bother wishing them good luck. "I don't need any luck," says Les, spreading his arms wide and cracking what can only be described as a shit-eating grin. "I'm in Boys Town!"
Welcome to La Zona de Tolerencia, Boys Town, La Zona Rosa, the red light district. The 4-by-4 block section of Nuevo Laredo has many names, but there's only one reason to go there: legal prostitution.
Mexican law holds that prostitution is in a strict sense legal, but being a pimp or procurer is not. Cities can pass laws that form "zones of tolerance" to focus prostitutes into one area and--in Nuevo Laredo's unique case--wall it off from the rest of town. A two-car-wide entrance is the only gap in the 8-foot-high walls, which are decorated with political posters and other ads. Inside is a dark and never-ending dynamic of hookers and johns, of wasted nights and frantic coupling, a cycle broken only by the appearance of a blistering sun.
You don't drive south on Interstate 35 as much as you fall, like a seed from a lime dropping down the neck of a Corona. On one Thursday night, hardly a peak time for philandering, Texans from Houston, Wichita Falls and San Antonio were cheerfully degrading themselves in La Zona. On Friday nights the Texas license plates are as common a sight as taxis.
Most border towns in Mexico sport red light districts. None matches the allure of Nuevo Laredo's walled Boys Town. NAFTA has changed the border, but some things remain the same. La Zona Rosa is one of them.
This is the place where a generation of Texas forefathers came to cheat on their wives. This is the place where you can find online reviews of the best bars for attractive partners and the worst of men can turn the tables and dismiss scores of women as being too ugly. This is the place that's so safe that old men pop generic Viagra in a bid to relive their youths and timid first-timers drive for hours to go whoring.
There's something enticingly familiar about the concept of the Mexican whorehouse. The allure of a soft and willing señorita has been burned into the American psyche, courtesy of scores of Westerns, and sanctioned as acceptable modern road-trip behavior by Jack Kerouac. The prostitute is the prize cowpokes earn after a long, hard trail.
Riding into this fantasy of outlaw pleasure does not mean accepting too much risk. It's an odd fact that men will travel far out of their way to go whoring in Mexico when there are certainly prostitutes closer to home. For all the forces keeping La Zona operating over the decades, none of them is more fascinating than the psychological forces of exotic adventure and sexual desperation that keep men coming here year after salty year.
"Men have a tremendous appetite for sexual variety," says Dr. David Buss, a University of Texas at Austin psychology professor and author of The Dangerous Passion, an examination of the evolution of sex, jealousy and infidelity. "There's a saying that men don't pay prostitutes for sex; they pay to have women go away afterwards."
There's no place quite like the border between the United States and Mexico. The ties between nations are tight here, and the collision of economies looks like a directed explosion of road-grimed trucks, ceramic novelties and sub rosa smuggling.
Laredo and Nuevo Laredo exist like binary stars, bound together at the razor edge of nations and economies. Everything that happens here ripples across the international bridges in the form of immigrants, currency, drugs, trucks, pollution, dollars and wrought iron. Approximately 13,000 trucks coast north and south through Laredo every day.
The border operates under two sets of laws, and people are always eager to take advantage. And it's not just legalized prostitution; the availability of prescription drugs in Nuevo Laredo is staggering. Dozens of pitchmen for pharmacies and doctors slouch 10 feet off the footbridge offering "'scrips" to tourists. What started as a routine for older Americans taking advantage of cheaper prices has quickly become a drug trade that the Border Patrol is helpless to stop. Recreational pill-poppers waltz across the border with bags full of Valium, smiling happily and waving a Mexican prescription claiming clinical nervous exhaustion.
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.
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.
"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."
Here's another that captures the complex dichotomy of lust and pity that fills clients: "As she laid back and I mounted her, I had a good time but had a very difficult time looking at her because you could tell she was only doing this to survive, and I couldn't help but think that this was about as close to doing a dead corpse that I could think of."
Sex researchers pay lots of attention to what drives men into the bedrooms of prostitutes but tend to ignore their needs as consumers. Buss, whose book delved into the cycle of infidelity and jealousy, says the main drive of johns is as simple as you'd think, despite their emotions during the strange, abbreviated courtships.
"Prostitution is an outlet for variety. It's also an outlet for men who find it difficult attracting partners through normal channels," he says. "It occurs across the globe. It isn't a product of culture, I'll tell you that."
In other words, hard-up men are everywhere, and they all want to have sex without consequences. Whether their behavior blindly follows their desire is what separates those at home with their wives from those with their pants down in a seedy Nuevo Laredo hotel room. "Not all desires are expressed in behavior," Buss notes. "We'd all be in big trouble if they were."
The foreign location of Nuevo Laredo also grants distance for their actions. Boys Town is a fantasy world, an X-rated Epcot Center that gives people a trip to a realm of sexual conquest without consequence, of steamy nights where moral and social constraints can be dropped and recovered as easy as a shot glass.
Getting laid there is as easy and hassle-free as buying a Twix, yet many men will want to hang out with the women before they whisk off to a room. In La Zona you see it everywhere--in the way the men drink with their women, flirting and touching, like Heath Ledger on a hot date with fawning groupies. Old men hug and caress the younger women, while younger men down beers while their women cavort on their laps. It's the polar opposite of the typical hip American bar scene. Everyone's set up to score. The men are at ease, friendly and confident.
"They [johns] do kind of fall in love; that's the big secret," says Scott, recalling his own rebuff of woman after woman, seeking one that carried herself well and looked good. "They were all so ugly, I was on my way out of La Zona when I saw her. And that was it. It was over for me."
It's a meat market, but it goes both ways. Seducing men is an art that Mexican prostitutes must master if they are to work in Boys Town. Luckily for them, men are easily manipulated. If they weren't, the place wouldn't exist at all.
"I went in with this awesome-looking girl," says Jason from Houston, joking with friends outside a Boys Town club. "These guys were like, 'How'd you get that?' And I said, 'Easy, man. Patience and a little discipline.'"
Jason has an emotional history in Nuevo Laredo. He lost his virginity here at the tender age of 14. "My brothers brought me down here. They said I had to go. God, what a trip," he says, smiling wide under his cowboy hat. Now it's 10 years later and he's in college, but he still comes to Nuevo Laredo every couple of years. "Of course I keep coming back. Why not? What's not to like?"
The john's logic: The true abuse is desperate economic conditions that drive women to sell their bodies, and the remedy is to have sex with them and pay them off. "I do feel bad for them, but I never feel that bad," reflects Scott. "I mean, what else would they be doing?"
Aggressive recruitment of women into the sex industry is a chronic problem in Mexico, according to the research conducted by The Protection Project and international children's protection groups. The recruitment often begins with promises of steady entertainment jobs in a city, an offer that is transformed into hooking to pay off debts the women allegedly incurred. This resignation can lead to sexual servitude that can take many forms, with the worst possibly being exportation to another country.
According to research from the United Nations and The Protection Project, Mexican crime syndicates traffic women to the United States to staff brothels that service migrant workers and to Japan to work in brutal Yakuza-run whorehouses. The Protection Project documented the bust of one international ring last year that alone exported more than 1,000 Mexican women, ages 18 to 30, to Japan to become prostitutes.
"In the face of such horrors, the Mexican government is focusing enforcement efforts on the kidnap and export of women and children and letting the 'lesser evil' of red light districts run themselves, as usual. A lot of countries are struggling with this," says Lederer. "Mexico is slowly, slowly taking a look...But if they really want to enforce the law they should start with the export of children."
Smugglers are a destabilizing force on the border, and since NAFTA, the scourge is an international issue. Lederer says most smugglers of women also traffic weapons and drugs, making smugglers a high priority on police "to do" lists.
Big operations to shut down smuggling rings have captured headlines while potential abuses of homegrown prostitutes remain ignored. Until the Mexican government gets a plan to regulate its legal red light zones, life will remain as it has since Clayton Williams and his Aggies drove down for cheap sex.
A slim hand slides down into your crotch and gives a firm squeeze. Turn your head slowly; her face may be closer to yours than you expect--or want.
"I want to suckee you," the woman says. It's impossible to ignore the lusterless gold tooth and the network of deep lines in her face. You'd say she was 50, but a hard life of prostitution throws all guesses in doubt.
Her hand becomes more desperate in its grim work before you pull away. Polite rebuffs are not enough. Competition is tough, and it's a john's market, making the women desperate. You find yourself rationalizing, pleading and finally paying just to get her away from you. She lingers, eyeing your resolve from a nearby table. The woman seems to know that nothing's changing. Next week will be the same for her as this one, except she may not have any money if she can't get the seduction train rolling. Mulling the failure of her crotch-grabbing approach, she waits in a corner and sips a beer.
There's one last gamble left, taken as the john heads for the door and the dusty Boys Town night. "Come back later," she whispers, hand tracing light circles on a shoulder. "We go to my room for free."
Her line inflates the ego bubble with insensible testosterone and pride. Men and money are soon parted when their penises and insecurities meet at center stage. The rejected solicitation has a physical effect: puffed chest, bright eyes, straight backbone, a James T. Kirk swagger.
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It doesn't matter that her generous offer is a lie. The whole place is an outright fabrication that hookers, johns and the Mexican government have all chosen to believe out of convenience.
For all its legality and forthrightness the business of Boys Town is founded on the most desperate and false motives of both sexes, with both sides eager to get into character to fill powerful but different needs. Those inside the stark walls of Boys Town are cut-rate actors filling roles: the tall-stepping undersexed gringo, the willing dark-skinned woman. They dance in shadows, renting and buying bright moments of intimacy as the dark nights drag on into years.
So the whore lied. You're damn right the whore lied. If you didn't know it going into La Zona, you realize it coming out. The whore always lies.
Now ask yourself if you care; the answer determines if you'll return to Boys Town or remain outside the walls, bathed in harsh light and wanting.