Trick Town

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.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo