Tijuana is cracking down on prostitutes by requiring them to pass monthly exams to detect sexually transmitted diseases, part of new standards aimed at protecting them and their clients and putting unsafe brothels out of business.
The regulations amount to an open, official acknowledgment of what has long been a fact of life in this Mexican border city. Before, the few standards that existed were unwritten, which authorities say made them difficult to enforce. They included requiring prostitutes to submit to regular health exams, including three AIDS tests a year.
Tijuana’s prostitutes have drawn tourists since the turn of the century, spreading in recent years from the red-light district known as “La Coahuila” — a few square blocks near the main tourist drag, Avenida Revolucion — to other pockets of the city of 1.2 million that borders San Diego.
In La Coahuila, men beckon tourists to massage parlors where women parade in a waiting room. Young women dressed as schoolgirls mingle with officers in front of a police station, whispering to potential customers.
Customers strolling through La Coahuila earlier this week welcomed the new standards, but all refused to give their names.
Prostitutes at a government-run health clinic didn’t seem too concerned about the change. They said they get checkups anyway, to ensure they are healthy.
‘A form of insurance’
“It’s a form of insurance,” said Claudia Zarate, 18, who arrived from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz four days earlier and plans to work in the street. Back home, she was earning $25 a week in a clothing factory.
Marisa Jimenez, 50, said she easily earns $600 a night at Adelita bar down the street.
“Money is like a drug,” she said.
The new regulations, which took effect last month, call for the city to issue electronic cards to replace pink, pocket-size health history books given to Tijuana’s 4,700 registered prostitutes.
Inspectors will swipe the cards through hand-held devices to ensure women have passed monthly health exams. The city says it expects to begin issuing the cards later this month, although there’s no prototype yet. Dr. Manuel Noriega, who runs the government clinic, says brothel owners have agreed to pay part of the cost.
Also under the new standards, brothel owners must cover furniture with rubber or plastic, disinfect the surroundings periodically and change sheets regularly. Brothels must be 164 yards from schools and day-care centers and limit hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“We are only recognizing what has long been practiced out in the open,” said Councilwoman Martha Montejano, who wrote the regulations that took effect Aug. 12. “The idea is to have more control and promote public health.”
Violators will be fined and their permits can be revoked. Bernardo Padilla, director of municipal enforcement, said he closed 18 massage parlors in the month since the regulations took effect. But he acknowledges the owners may simply move their business elsewhere.
Skeptics expect little change
Skeptics say the new standards, modeled after those in the Mexican cities of Monterrey and Acapulco, will change little.
“All it does is recognize the status quo,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana.
It also remains to be seen whether the regulations will be enforced.
Clinic visits are down nearly 50 percent this year because fewer inspectors are asking prostitutes for health booklets, Noriega said. The health department had four inspectors but they left amid corruption allegations. City officials say other regulators have been assigned to enforce the stricter standards.
An effort to improve Tijuana’s image last year by forcing streetwalkers to confine soliciting to inside bars and hotels was soon abandoned when hundreds of prostitutes marched across town and threatened to strip in front of City Hall.
Dr. Leticia Chavez, one of the government-run clinic’s three doctors, said she sees about 10 to 15 cases of gonorrhea a month. So far this year, there have been only a few cases or syphilis and no cases of AIDS.