World / Social Issues

Mexico City to decriminalize sex work and aim to cut trafficking

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Mexico City lawmakers have given the green light to decriminalize sex work in the capital, hoping it will be a first step to a crackdown on sex trafficking that traps thousands of Mexican women and children.

Lawmakers in Mexico City’s Congress on Friday voted 38-0, with eight abstentions, in favor of a bill to remove a line in the Civic Culture Law that said prostitutes and their clients can be fined or arrested if neighbors complained.

Temistocles Villanueva, a local representative with the ruling center-left Morena party, said the new law recognizes that people have the right to engage in sex work. “It’s a first step that has to lead to regulation of sex work, to fight human trafficking and strengthen the rights of sex workers,” he said. “Exercising sexuality in our country is still a taboo topic that few of us dare to talk about.”

Sex work is allowed in much of Mexico, but states have different and sometimes unclear rules, meaning workers frequently operate in legal vacuums that can leave them vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking by crime gangs.

Mexico is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, with women and children the most at risk from sex trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department.

Mexico is listed as a Tier 2 nation in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning it does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but it is making significant efforts to do so.

The report said observers had made links between women’s disappearances and murders and trafficking by organized criminal groups.

Elvira Madrid, founder of the sex work rights group Brigada Callejera, said the change to the law is welcome but there now needs to be a legal framework that protects workers.

Debate over the legal status of sex work in Mexico and elsewhere is controversial, particularly among some anti-slavery groups who argue that decriminalization provides a cover for human traffickers.

But sex worker and other human rights groups in Mexico say criminalization only sends the problem deeper underground, and exposes an already vulnerable group to abuses by police and organized crime.

Friday’s bill came after an earlier version was criticized by sex worker and human rights groups. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum’s office sent it back to Congress with suggested modifications that were taken up.

Eduardo Santillan, also a Morena Mexico City Congressman, said that now that sex work is decriminalized, anti-trafficking public policy should be strengthened.

“We think that the big challenge of this Congress will be making both of these fundamental principles compatible,” he said.