As the sun went down one night last week, Tijuana's red light district came to life — with flashing neon signs, scantily clad women lining the sidewalk, bars filling with customers, and police pickups slowly cruising the main drag, Calle Coahuila.
The business of sex has for decades been conducted openly along these few blocks near the U.S. border at the edge of Tijuana's downtown, an area of La Zona Norte known to locals as La Coahuila. But in recent days, the mere mention of its name has become a touchy political subject.
The hot-button issue is a program called Tijuana Coqueta, roughly translated as "Tijuana Flirty," described in a recent Tijuana television news report as a campaign to bring sex tourism to the city. Tijuana's tourism chief, Miguel Angel Badiola, subsequently denied the campaign's existence. Mayor Jorge Astiazarán said he would never stand for it. And after days of controversy, both men say they're done talking about Tijuana Coqueta, which local bar owners say is the name they gave to their own plan to improve sidewalks and add lighting to the area.
Near the U.S. border fence, at the northern end of downtown Tijuana, this is an area of town that goes unacknowledged in tourism campaigns. Promoters would far rather keep the focus on Tijuana's growing gastronomic offerings, its expanding music scene, and its vibrant and evolving community of artists — not these streets that speak to the city's raunchier side.
But for decades, clients from both sides of the border have brought a booming business to the bars, hotels and cantinas in one of the city's older and grittier neighborhoods.
On any given night, scores of U.S. visitors mingle with a Mexican clientele crowded inside bars named Adelita, Hong Kong, Chicago Club and other establishments that line Calle Coahuila and a series of smaller side streets. For decades, this has been Tijuana's zona de tolerancia — a tolerance zone for the sex trade.
"If one wants to understand the social, cultural and economic dynamics of the border, understanding la zona de tolerancia from an academic and anthropological perspective is fundamental," said Victor Clark, a Tijuana human rights activist and adjunct professor at San Diego State University who regularly takes his students on tours here.
"There's nothing like it in San Diego," said a 63-year-old East County resident, stopping for a taco on Wednesday evening. "This is freedom; you can do whatever you want," he said, then quickly adding: "You've got to be very careful."
The man declined to give his name but said he is divorced, has no children, and works as a government clerk and has been coming down for 17 years. "It's called living," he said. "I've had many problems, I've had 1,000 problems, but the good far outweighs the bad."
He avoids the tonier clubs, more closely monitored by the owners, where prostitutes ask for $70 for a half-hour in a hotel room. He said he prefers selecting from las paraditas, the women standing on the streets, who ask for $20 for their services.
Prostitution is prohibited in most of the United States, permitted only in a handful of counties in Nevada. But, as in other parts of the world, it is a tolerated activity in Mexico — neither formally endorsed nor expressly forbidden. In Tijuana, the activity is regulated under the city's health laws.
Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel, a former Baja California attorney general, said the state's first governor imposed regulations in the early 1950s requiring prostitutes to pay a daily fee of $3. Josué Beltrán, an anthropological historian who researched the roots of the city's sex trade, said during the same period, the city's first mayor ordered prostitutes confined to a hotel on the outskirts of town.
The sex trade "is a topic that has always scandalized Tijuana society," Beltrán said. "They know of its existence, but they have not wanted to acknowledge it."
Still, the city adopted new rules in 2005 requiring sex workers to register, carry an electronic card and submit to regular checkups, including testing for HIV. The rules stipulate that establishments must maintain rooms that "are perfectly clean and hygienic," and that mattresses be protected with a plastic cover to make cleaning easier.
City officials did not reply to requests for the number of registered card-carriers, but Clark, the human rights activist, said there are approximately 1,700 signed up with municipal health authorities — a fraction of the 5,000 to 6,000 sex workers that business owners have told him operate in La Cohuila and other parts of the city. As the city has grown, he said, a few smaller tolerance zones have sprung up.
Tolerance zones have existed on Mexico's northern border since at least the U.S. prohibition era, from 1918 to 1933, and peaking in the years following World War II, said Daniel Arreola, a geographer from Arizona State University. In some cities, like Tijuana, they grew on the margins of traditional tourist areas. The years after 1945 saw the emergence of enclosed compounds such as Boystown in Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border, he said.
La Coahuila didn't become a center for the city's sex trade until the late 1950s, longtime residents say. Jack Doron remembers the days when topless bars proliferated on the city's tourist strip, Avenida Revolución — until a mayor ordered them removed in 1966.
Doron now owns one of the oldest shops on the street, Hand Art, which sells embroidered dresses and blouses. He heads a merchants group called Ceturmex.
"We want family tourism, people who want to know Mexican culture, gastronomy, that's what we're promoting," Doron said. Asked about the bars and cantinas just blocks away, he shrugged: "We're not going to be able to say it will disappear because we close our eyes," he said. "They have their area, we have our area, we don't mix."
While apart from the mainstream of the city's economic activities, La Cohuila has been the subject of much academic investigation. One field study involved interviews at public health clinics with 220 women who worked in the city's sex industry — from escort services to strip bars to brothels to street walkers. Sheldon Zhang, a San Diego State University professor and the lead investigator, said about 12 percent of the women reported being deceived or forced into sex work, but "the vast majority were in that business on their own terms," he said.
Another researcher, who studied Tijuana's sex trade as a graduate student, said that in spite of the regulations, she saw many continue to work illegally, risking fines and jail.
"You have minors, people that do not have a birth certificate to register. There are a lot of barriers to working legally," said Yasmina Katsulis, now a professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department of Arizona State University.
Those in Tijuana's sex trade vary widely, Katsulis said. "There is an assumption that there is no violence, that everyone is healthy," she said. "That's a misperception, it's an illusion. No matter what the laws, we aren't doing enough to address poverty, and the reason that drives people into commercial sex."
Sandra Dibble is a staff writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.