Taking a foreign reporter and filmmaker to a brothel in a remote town in Ecuador clearly worried a taxi driver. So Dominique Soguel took the precaution of making sure police officers were also on hand.
ESMERALDAS, Ecuador (WOMENSENEWS)–Yellow taxi cabs add a dramatic dash of color to the petrol blue and jungle green of Esmeraldas, Ecuador’s largest industrial port.
But the city really should be red.
Egalitarian salutes redolent of the leftist movements of the 1960s–comrade, sister, brother, colleague, compatriot–add a revolutionary tinge to common interactions.
Anti-fascist slogans and graffiti updated for the times–variations on: "Uribe and Bush Assassins, Nazists, Fascists"–blare out from town walls in criticism of Colombia’s and the United State’s armed crackdown on drugs in the region.
But the strongest reminder of the Cold War and Latin America’s revolutionary past during our reporting trip here in January was the name of our taxi driver: Stalin.
As Amy Brown, an independent documentary filmmaker, and I pulled away from our hotel in Esmeraldas, Stalin kept a steady hand on the steering wheel, yet his voice wavered when he asked: "Why at night?"
En route, I explained that we were working on stories about sex workers along the Ecuador-Colombia border, particularly undocumented Colombian women who turn to the trade as a means of survival upon arrival in Ecuador.
We focused on the province of Esmeraldas as a major entry point for Colombian refugees displaced by ongoing military, paramilitary and guerrilla violence in the southern provinces of Colombia. The formal economy of the city survives on the oil, fishing and timber industries, whose male-dominant work forces provide a solid clientele for brothels, some of which function as camouflage for drug trafficking.
Our destination was outside of the city: Club Sensation, a remote brothel about 31 miles away, just south of Colombia.
"Aha," said Stalin. "You want to capture them in their natural habitat."
The trip was conceived earlier that day when I met Pavel Tenorio, who works as a bartender and pimp at Club Sensation.
The bleached-blonde 22-year-old was at a town hall meeting where RedTrabSex, the national network of sex workers, presented its HIV-AIDS initiatives and gave health officials, local authorities, brothel owners and sex workers a chance to air their concerns.
Tenorio was representing his uncle, a brothel owner who had a nightclub in Borbon, a timber town two hours northeast of Esmeraldas. I convinced him to call his uncle to approve a meeting with us, so we could see firsthand the inner workings of the business.
Stalin’s car swerved and swung down a potholed, half-paved highway. Frogs flashed to life under the headlights. Cicadas complained of the heavy rains.
Borbon is a small village on the banks of the Rio Cayapas. The U.S. Embassy in Quito advises travelers to take caution here due to the spread of organized crime, drug trafficking, small arms trafficking and incursions by Colombian armed groups. The area reported over 100 murders in 2008 and local politicians complain of death threats.
"I understand this is not the safest destination, do you have any advice?" I had asked Sargent Fernando Ovalle at Esmeraldas’ police headquarters before we took off.
"Yes," he had said. "Don’t go."
After I insisted that was not an option, he relented, punched a few numbers, called a colleague, and told me to check in with Sargento Sanchez upon arrival in Borbon, that he would provide an escort.
Stalin drove with his fist clenched around the gear shift.
I worried that once we got inside Club Sensation he might drive off at the first sight of trouble. Two undercover policemen–who boarded the taxi in Borbon and had instructions to stay in the parking lot with our driver, their cell phones on–seemed to partially soothe his nerves.
Stalin pulled up to Sensation shortly after 10 p.m. The yellow cab conspicuously lit the empty streets and solitary, locked-up shacks, washed out by rain. It would be difficult, given the poor road conditions, to make a speedy getaway.
Sanchez’s patrol car had parked in the vicinity, watching out for his officers.
Tenorio stood behind a curtain of rain under the neon lights of Sensation. He waved us in and introduced us to his uncle, Harold Valencia. As we exchanged words, a group of roughly a dozen men, part of the clientele, formed a ring around us, drawn to my colleague’s video camera.
A few men made an exit, asking that we not air compromising footage because it would spark a fresh round of rows with their wives. Others demanded our tape and threatened to ban our entry to the brothel. I gave Tenorio the kiss of Judas.
"We are here under invitation from Pavel and the owner of the establishment," I said, hoping this would give us safe passage. "They have the right to show their locale."
Owner in Tight Spot
The owner of the establishment broke a sweat as customers redirected hostile tirades towards him.
"Bad call, you’ll be out of business," one man warned.
Sensation employs between seven to 14 prostitutes at any one time and caters to a population of local and itinerant men. The night we visited, women in tiny skirts, some of them topless, wove their way among groups of men sitting on plastic chairs, sipping beers and playing cards. A hand was held. A man was led.
Eventually, as Brown began to discreetly shoot video, I managed to persuade the owner, Valencia, to give us a private, on-camera interview in one of the rooms usually reserved for sex workers.
"Sensation is a family heritage," Valencia told us. "The idea is not to make money but to offer a space where people who cannot obtain jobs find an income. We are an enterprise."
Valencia told us that he had bought the place three months prior for $25,000. He showed obvious pride in the generous dimensions of the rooms (at most 9-by-6 feet), the availability of a fan and a sink in each quarter. The puppy-printed sheets he sat on during the interview looked clean. He earns $1 for each client’s 15 minutes in a room.
We learned that the "toque" or touch–slang for intercourse–costs $6. A session lasts 10 to 15 minutes but can last longer, Valencia said, if the customer is slow to "discharge." One hour of sordid details later–the nuts and bolts of the business, really–we left Sensation. A fresh round of shoving and cursing ensued as we walked out the door.
We dropped off our undercover policemen at the station.
Sanchez escorted us halfway out of town in the patrol car. Stalin wished out loud for an extended backup. Fear of a paramilitary backlash–part of Borbon’s nightclub clientele–had obviously gotten to him.
Our collective adrenaline shot up even further when a man in a ski mask stopped us in the middle of the night, on an empty highway in the jungle.
"Documents please," the policeman asked before letting us pass.
Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.
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