Veteran sex worker rights activist and human rights defender, Alejandra Gil has been in custody on remand for charges related to Human Trafficking. The prosecution is still looking for evidence while finalising their case and all the while it is not certain when the final judgement will be reached by the Court in Mexico. The laws under which Alejandra are charged conflate human trafficking with sex work. Alejandra is one of a large number of women currently incarcerated in prisons all over Mexico under these new laws. In December 2014 one of the NSWP regional correspondents had the privilege to speak with Alejandra Gil by phone, from where she is currently on remand in a prison in Mexico City.
Alejandra Gil is a well-known sex worker rights activist, and has been active in the sex worker rights movement since the 1980s. She was also an elected board member and Vice President of NSWP. She represents Latin American sex workers in a global network of sex workers and has participated extensively in large international events, including World Aids Conferences and high-level UN meetings.
Early in 2014 Alejandra was arrested by Mexican law enforcement authorities and accused of engaging in human trafficking activities. Human Trafficking is a highly politicised and controversial issue in Mexico and in Latin America as a whole. New laws and legal interpretations conflate sex work with trafficking. For instance, Mexico’s anti-trafficking law is very broad and includes for example, living off the earnings of prostitution.
Alejandra, before being arrested, was running the sex worker-led organisation APROASE, an organization that offers sliding scale health services to street-based sex workers in Mexico City. Sliding scale health services enable those sex workers who are unable to pay, to access health care for free while those sex workers who are able to pay for health care pay for services according to their ability. While some sex workers who can afford to pay for their health services in a fee-for-service arrangement, it is difficult to see how prosecutors are using this fee structure to argue that it points to someone living off the earnings of prostitution or human trafficking. Alejandra, according to the prosecutor, is still being considered a trafficker of several women in the district of Sullivan in the city of Mexico.
Police raids, according to Cynthia Navarette, Alejandra’s daughter who was also on the call, are common practice and several sex workers are currently being detained and accused of trafficking. She stressed that the vast majority of the detained women do not have adequate access to legal services and justice, as they do not have financial means to pay for a good lawyer. Moreover, their cases are also less visible which makes the women more vulnerable to torture and violence in prison. Alejandra wishes to know how many women sex workers are in a similar situation in Mexico.
Alejandra informed us that she is in good health and that so far she has been well-treated in state prisons in Mexico. Alejandra’s son, Omar Sayun Gil, who was also arrested on the same day, is also fine and his case is at the same stage as hers.
The prosecution’s investigation of the case is still ongoing and the Court will make a final judgment when there is sufficient evidence about her involvement with trafficking. However, the justice system is slow in Mexico and for this reason she is still waiting for the final judgement to be made in the case.
Alejandra is facing one of the greatest challenges of her life. Even though there has been no final judgment, she is awaiting sentencing and has to do so while on remand. It is noteworthy that Alejandra has never been involved in criminal activities and does not represent any danger to others; even so, the Mexican authorities consider that she must respond to the judgement and be incarcerated while the investigation into her case is completed.
Because sex work is conflated with trafficking under Mexican law, there is a lot of uncertainty whether Alejandra will be able to be released or not in the final judgment. Alejandra, who many times during the call emphasised she is not guilty, said that her case is not about her; it’s about a political game against sex workers. Her case calls attention to the international community on how sex work is being conflated with trafficking all over the world.
She clarified that one of the sex workers that is denouncing her today, was someone she helped, in 2011, to denounce a real trafficker. On that occasion, she thanked Alejandra for providing support through the organisation APROASE. By that time, Alejandra organised a demonstration calling on authorities to recognise the vulnerability of sex workers before the current law and organised crime networks. Surprisingly, she says, “this person is now accusing me to be her trafficker”. And, according to the Mexican legal system, victims of trafficking do not have to present any “strong evidence” for an investigation to start.
These women, including the one she once helped, informed the prosecutor that Alejandra was charging sex workers an amount of 200 pesos per night to work on the streets. This supposed “pimping” activity practiced by Alejandra – and she clarifies on the call that it is untrue – is the only evidence the prosecutor has. She is surprised though that the women who denounced her have bursaries to study at a private university, that has links to the prosecutors and have been supporting the prosecution in the investigation against Alejandra. She further alleges that it is in the interest of these girls to collaborate with the prosecutor and the university in order to continue studying for free..
Her son is being accused of the same crime, and is also being detained on suspicion of trafficking offences. She has contact with him on Saturdays, and Cynthia is active on social media and other platforms in defence of her mother.
Alejandra is extremely disappointed with the way trafficking laws are being applied in Mexico, as it puts sex workers in a very difficult situation. She knows that about 60 women are facing similar charges. She explains that the majority of them are sex workers who worked in bars. Because any form of business offering sexual services is illegal, the women working at such businesses are also being arrested along with their managers who in many circumstances are themselves former sex workers. Any form of collective working for sex workers is illegal.
The element that surprises Alejandra is that if someone receives money from another person who performs sexual services, that person is considered a trafficker in Mexico. That is contradictory to the definition of trafficking as defined by international law. In Mexico, any third party can be considered a trafficker and law enforcement and prosecutors can use any evidence they can find to enable the arrest of sex workers and third parties for suspected trafficking offenses.
Alejandra was also asked about her legal defence. As she has been an activist since the 1980s, and well-known internationally for her advocacy work, Alejandra presented extensive evidence of her engagement in human rights advocacy for sex workers. That is, in her opinion, the most obvious evidence that she is not a trafficker or an abuser. In her appeal, Alejandra’s lawyer made it clear how ironic it is for a human rights activist to be charged for trafficking.
According to Alejandra, one of the problems in cases like this is that victims do not take part in the penal process and do not have to give evidence in the trial. The penal process is ongoing and hearings have been held, but Alejandra says that she hasn’t seen the victims. In one of the two hearings, an external specialist was hired to further investigate the accusations.
In his report, the external specialist informed that there is no evidence that the women were victims of trafficking. They are/could be considered vulnerable for several socio-economic reasons, including personal ones, but none of these vulnerabilities relates to Alejandra and her supposed trafficking activities. This result included a psychological analysis of the situation of the victims.
At the present moment the Public Ministry can still present their final evidence and arguments against her, leaving her lawyer with the right to appeal after that. Meanwhile she is incarcerated and her case exposes her to humiliation in the media. The media smear campaign against Alejandra has also had an effect on the image and reputation of APROASE, according to Cynthia. The smear campaign is being coordinated by a centre/institution called Colegio, which supports the claims of the victims that Alejandra trafficked them.
In her legal defence, several documents related to her activist work including a letter of support from NSWP were presented to the Court. Either way, she mentioned that she had to provide evidence to the Court that her travel around the world were related to her advocacy and activist work. The prosecutor was accusing Alejandra of using trafficking money for private international travel. Alejandra, because of her international human rights work has traveled to many meetings across the world. The media selectively used several photos of her abroad in new articles defaming Alejandra.
Her main concern was that other sex workers who are being arrested and detained under the same circumstances don’t have the opportunity to provide evidence of their activism, as many of them are not. She believes that her status as a human rights defender counts in her favour, however she stated – “it is a political case and the final decision taken by the Court will be inevitably political”. She hopes that other sex workers who are arrested have proper legal support.
Since their arrest, there has been sensationalised media coverage of the case, as if Alejandra and Omar have been found guilty. Since this story broke, the media have consistently engaged in biased reporting favouring the alleged victims, said Cynthia. Alejandra said it was “really hard to read about herself in news articles and being called a criminal”. TV channels have also reported on the case nationally and the case has become notorious as it shows how the media influenced the public debate around her case and how that affects the public’s opinion on sex work. Alejandra and her family members are constantly being defamed as ‘pimps’ and abusers who some say received up to 300,000 pesos daily from their victims. Cynthia commented that the media have no evidence of any money and that it is all is speculation. The media is trying paint a picture using imaginary numbers. Lately though, not much has been said about the case in the media, which to Alejandra is a big relief – “if they can’t help, at least don’t make it worse” she said. Cynthia concluded that the day her mother is released there will be perhaps no news articles published about it.
Alejandra first engaged in activism in 1986. What moved her was the lack of human rights for sex workers, like her. She started working in the Sullivan area, which was considered at the time, a safe place to work. As time went by, the level of violence increased and human rights abuses became a widespread. The increased risks did not deter Alejandra from engaging in sex worker activism, and defending the labour rights of her community.
The challenges were many; sex workers were being arrested and detained all the time, which caused severe psychological damage to those who remained working in the area. Later, the HIV epidemic worsened the situation as sex workers were considered a ‘pool of contagion’. The infection by then was named “whore disease”, she says, and sex workers were targeted by unlawful public health inspections and other health-related abuses.
Taking in view this situation, she said “we started mobilising the community to use condoms and to fight for our rights”. Alejandra was proud of being the leader of this strong community mobilisation against sanitary control and violence.
When asked about her achievements, Alejandra immediately said that having established APROASE was her greatest achievement. That is how she started to empower sex workers in Mexico, particularly female sex workers. Today, APROASE is also actively involving trans* and male sex workers in their activities. Cynthia emphasised that it is fundamental to have a strong and informed coalition of sex workers from all genders to face the challenges. She also explained that APROASE, regardless the case against Alejandra, remains active and fighting for sex workers rights in Mexico and Latin America.
Lately, they have been involved in the organising of a new Latin American Network of Sex Workers, known as PLAPERTS (acronym in Spanish). This (alternative) network was established in an HIV-related meeting held in Peru by NSWP in 2013 and later re-formed in Ecuador in 2014. The platform is compromised of sex worker representatives from four Latin American countries: Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. Their Quito Declaration was named “With the dreams of Gabriela”, in honour of Brazil’s greatest sex worker leader: Gabriela Leite.
Alejandra, unfortunately, was not able to join the meetings as she is being detained; however Cynthia has been part of it since its start and APROASE has been contributing significantly to its development, she said. Cynthia clarifies that one of her efforts is to assess the situation of anti-trafficking laws in Latin America, as well as their negative impacts on sex workers.
The Latin American Context
Today, the major challenge in Latin America is the political persecution of sex workers, said Alejandra. Once more she underscored that she fortunately can access justice and is respected in the detention facilities, but calls the international community to the situation of hundreds of sex workers who are currently in prison in Mexico, with little support and who are vulnerable to violence and abuse.
She also pointed out the case of Isabel, the Brazilian sex worker who is being persecuted by the police (her story was covered by NSWP and reported here and here), which represents a threat to sex workers’ rights to be free from violence. Isabel also joined PLAPERTS and is currently being supported by Cynthia and other sex worker activists in Latin America, and has integrated the sex worker-led group DAVIDA, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Finally, Alejandra concluded: “its all about fighting sex work, not trafficking or exploitation within the sex industry… it’s a double moral”.
Wishes of Alejandra
Alejandra wishes that her case will end with justice and respect for sex workers. Hopefully, her case will be brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and serve as a precedent for other similar cases. She asked sex workers around the world to make her case and other cases like hers more visible, so that things can be changed.
She called on researchers and academics to investigate how many sex workers are being detained under trafficking offenses in Mexico and other countries in the world.
She called on governments to revise their anti-trafficking laws and policies, particularly because victims are not being found and sex workers are being severely damaged.
Her Message to the Global Sex Worker Movement
- Don’t render yourself.
- Recognise your work.
- Let’s call ourselves whores.
- Let’s make our work recognised and respected internationally.
- May we be a single voice, with a single strength.
Profile by Regional Correspondent Europe. Main Photo courtesy of Dale (APNSW)