Guatemalan prostitutes tell bitter tales of bondage and baby trade

Date: 1997-11-02

EDWARD HEGSTROM
Houston Chronicle

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala - Some of the prostitutes who work in this town's 79 brothels say they have been bought and sold like cattle.

Maria del Refugio Rosas, a Roman Catholic nun who does outreach work with the women of Tecun Uman, believes the stories.

The nun also says she knows at least 15 prostitutes who have sold their babies to help pay expenses.

Rosas says nuns here suspect a business in the nearby town of Coatepeque serves as a sort of trading house for the buying and selling of prostitutes. The trade includes girls as young as 13, she says.

As the main border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico, Tecun Uman sees a constant flow of traffic between the countries of Central America and the north.

The town has a resident population of just 20,000, but as many as 10,000 transients pass through every day.

The brothels crowd just about every corner of town. Dozens of women stand on the front porches.

Most of the more than a dozen prostitutes interviewed say they know of women who have sold their babies. But none would say they had ever sold a child themselves.

"I'd consider giving my child away to someone who would pay the expenses for the pregnancy," says Maria, a pregnant prostitute who continues to live in a brothel. "But I'd never sell my baby. That's a sin."

The prostitutes come here from poor homes throughout Central America. Most say they were either sold or forced into prostitution after a parent or guardian died.

Some women say they have worked in bars where their passports were held by the owner to prevent them from leaving.

Marta, from El Salvador, says her mother couldn't support her after her father died. She says she was forced to live with her brother, who was sexually abusive. Marta claims her brother sold her into a life of prostitution.

Gloria Sanchez, 26, of Nicaragua, tells the most complete story, even offering to show her passport and other documents.

She says she came north in search of a job a few years ago and wound up working as a maid in the Guatemalan city of Escuintla.

Eventually, Sanchez says, her boss decided she no longer needed her and another woman, so she drove them to the nearby town of Guazacapan, promising them work as bar maids. Instead, Sanchez says, the woman sold her and the other woman to a brothel, where they were essentially held as slaves.

Sanchez says a customer helped her escape one night. But by then, she says, she knew no other work than prostitution. She voluntarily migrated to Tecun Uman.

"My life has been difficult," she says, softly. "It has been very bitter."

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