In Remote Patagonia, Business Is Booming For Prostitutes

Tourism, mining and oil in this southernmost region of South America are financing a flourishing, multinational sex trade.

A hotel in Puerto Natales, Chile
A hotel in Puerto Natales, Chile
Claudio Andrade

PUERTO NATALES â€" Doña Vilma sits on an old sofa, its cushions stained and pockmarked with holes from carelessly handled cigarettes. In front of her is a 70-inch television showing a Spanish-league soccer match that nobody pays attention to. Vilma's attire is understated. She doesn't wear jewelry. The lines etched in her 50-something-year-old face have never been softened with expensive creams. She doesn't look like someone who earns a million dollars a year.

Vilma owns four brothels in Puerto Natales, in far southern Chile, that together employ approximately 35 prostitutes of varying nationalities. Puerto Natales lies across the border from Río Turbio, in Argentina"s Santa Cruz province. The two Patagonian towns are intimately linked, with a shared history and culture that dates back generations. Something else they have in common is the sex trade, which pays little attention to local border controls.

It used to be miners who kept the prostitution business going in this far-off corner of the continent. They'd crowd into the brothels on payday, covered with coal dust, and flush with banknotes and all the "eagerness" they'd built up underground. That was 40 years ago. "Better times," Vilma says, when "the girls" would cross the frontier, as they still do, to come work with her.

But the girls aren't just "friendly" Argentines, she says. They also hail from Colombia, Paraguay or even the Dominican Republic â€" women who are lured here by stories about "getting paid more" in the south.

Upstairs for "dessert"

Vilma says the business began when she was a teenager, in this very house. Back in the 1950s, it was a popular local restaurant, run by her father. They had a cook called "Manitos," as he was so deft with his hands (manos) for cooking, cleaning and readying customers' bills. But as Manitos aged, Vilma and her sisters began exploiting a parallel activity already complementing the eatery's earnings: receiving girls and ushering them onto the upstairs rooms, "for dessert, let's say."

The eatery is now part of a larger tourist complex and Vilma's brothels, which include bars and "end rooms," are in another part of Puerto Natales, a tourist hub two hours' drive from the Torres del Paine national park. Punta Arenas, capital of Chile's Magallanes Region, is two hours away in the opposite direction. Río Turbio in only 30 minutes away. In all of these places, prostitution is surprisingly brisk.

An oil rig in Patagonia, Argentina â€" Photo: nestor galina

The area is decidedly remote. And yet its receives approximately 400,000 tourists a year. Oil and mining firms also have operations here, and pay their workers relatively well. Río Turbio has a huge power plant that employs 1,000 people. A former welder from Río Turbio says the unions themselves are adamant supporters of the sex trade because "it keeps the men quiet."

In the 1990s, the politicians who emerged in this region, following the end of military rule, also became clients. A prominent journalist from Neuquén, in central Argentina, recalls being offered a prostitute following a dinner meeting a few years back with area businessmen. ""They're clean!," they assured us."

Since the oil boom began in the Vaca Muerta area, police and health services have noticed a marked increase in the flow of cocaine and prostitutes toward areas close to the oil fields. A pretty girl can "pick up" 40,000-50,000 pesos (up to $3,500) a month in Añelo, capital of Vaca Muerta. But she will also face a constant risk to her personal safety, and spend a good deal of that money on high rents, drink and probably drugs.

Money to be made

There are about 1.5 million people in Patagonia and in this ring of southern districts, the sex trade is thought to generate an annual turnover of $25-30 million. That excludes the drink and drug businesses that prosper on the sidelines. There are many lonely or single men here who work hard and earn good money, and that is just one factor fueling prostitution.

At some point, the business evolved thanks to the Internet. Women from other countries started "coming down" to Patagonia, often stopping in Santiago or Buenos Aires, the Chilean and Argentine capitals. Caribbean girls reportedly charge a premium for their "well-rounded" bodies, and can earn more than Argentines.

"The black girls changed this business," says Vilma. "Men here had never seen a woman with skin and curves like that. The first one that worked with me was a sensation: There was a queue of men waiting their turn," she recalls.

A Patagonian district of some 150,000 can typically boast about 100 prostitutes working full time. But while the money is good ("Where am I going to earn money like this?" asks a girl from Bariloche, Argentina), the night has its dangers. Quite a few of the girls end up involved with a man who becomes their pimp, which can change their routine. "It's purely money for sex now," says Osvaldo, a regular customer. "Before you had a drink, sex and a chat."

The average cost in Patagonia is 500 pesos ($35) for a half-hour, and 700-1,000 pesos ($48-$70) for an hour. VIP girls charge 2,000 pesos ($1,400) or more. And it is all fairly irregular: Many of the girls arrive with forged papers, have criminal records or are employed as "waitresses" as the law allows, before doing whatever they want around, or instead of, their regular job.

It is a "trick" that exploits gaps in Chilean employment laws. Argentina has closed this particular loophole â€" in discotheques especially â€" inadvertently driving prostitution to the roadside, or into cars and flats, according to a health workers' association in Río Negro. "It is more clandestine now, and it has become more difficult to keep in touch and perform health checks," says Nelly Costa, coordinator of the El Galpón help group.

Trucha, a transvestite and prostitute who had a regular act in one of the clubs, concurs. "The cabarets may be over, but it's all continuing elsewhere," she says. "I used to do Rocío Durcal and Paloma San Basilio. It was divine." Trucha now works in a bread shop.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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