A New Law in Tijuana Regulates the Oldest Profession </nyt_headline>
TIJUANA, Mexico - She arrived at the clinic at noon, dark sunglasses covering her eyes and a baseball cap pulled down low. She clutched a small pink book with her picture stapled inside. The dates of her examinations for venereal diseases were stamped in inks of various colors, like a passport.
Her name is Olga, and like thousands of other women in this town, she works as a prostitute, recruiting clients at a topless bar. These days, however, unless she is tested every month at a government clinic and has the right stamps in her booklet, the police will arrest her.
"You cannot work without it," she said, running her finger down the list of dates and notations saying "H.I.V. negativo." "If you don't have it, the police will take you away and you have to pay a fine."
The testing is one of the measures that this city has taken to regulate prostitution, which has flourished here for decades. The city council passed a law in June that requires the town's active prostitutes - 5,000 are currently being tested each month - to have monthly medical exams for sexually transmitted diseases and forces brothel owners to adopt more sanitary practices. Those who do not face stiff fines and the loss of their business licenses.
The city has also begun issuing new credentials to prostitutes to replace the old pink booklets. The new licenses look like a credit card with a photo. A magnetic strip on the back allows health inspectors with hand-held scanners to check the card-holder's medical status in seconds.
"If a person is infected at the time when they read the credential, there will appear a red light that says she cannot work," said Manuel Mayor Noriega, who runs the city health clinic for prostitutes.
Though there are still laws against prostitution on the books, the sex trade has long been part of the atmosphere in downtown Tijuana, a city that bloomed from a tiny town during Prohibition around bars, casinos, brothels and racetracks.
Women in skimpy outfits loiter at all hours in front of bars and hotels along the streets in La Coahuila, the red-light district in the northern part of the city, beckoning to men who have crossed the nearby border into cheap hotels, massage parlors and cabarets.
Martha Montejano, a city councilwoman who pushed through the new law at the behest of Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, said the city has legalized the sex trade for all intents and purposes, in hopes of stopping the spread of disease. "It would be impossible to get rid of or to avoid prostitution," she said. "This initiative protects the clients as well as the women."
In a sense, city officials here are trying to assert more control over a haphazard and informal system that had developed during the past two decades. In the 1980's, city health officials started a clinic in La Coahuila. They began registering prostitutes, urging them to have regular tests and issuing the pink booklets.
But the enforcement of the health official's recommendations was lax at best, and while inspectors could take away a prostitute's booklet, they lacked any legal leverage over cabaret and hotel owners. The owners of brothels, massage parlors and strip clubs also often paid inspectors to look the other way if their workers lacked credentials, city officials said.
One measure of the magnitude of the problem health officials face is that more than 8,000 women and men who have registered as prostitutes since the system began have stopped coming to the city clinic, Dr. Mayor Noriega said. It is unclear how many left the business and how many simply decided not to pay for the tests any more.
Streetwalkers are as much a part of the scene in Tijuana as the wandering mariachis, who also linger on corners looking for clients. The hotels where the women take clients share streets with shops selling souvenirs, ponchos, leather goods, switchblades and cheap guitars, with old-time cantinas where men in cowboy hats drink tequila and beer to the strains of ranchera music, with barber shops where one can still get a straight-razor shave for a dollar, and with drug stores that sell all sorts of prescription medicines to people without prescriptions at low prices.
The sex trade is so clearly accepted that on a recent afternoon police officers arrested several small-time drug dealers while dozens of prostitutes plied their trade in broad daylight nearby. Later, some police officers warned a reporter and a photographer not to photograph women in front of the topless club El Corral. "It is to protect their identities," an officer explained.
The effort to tighten the regulation of prostitution was pushed by the owners of the city's 236 cabarets and tourist bars, many of which employ women as erotic dancers. Most prostitutes pick up clients in these nightclubs, pay the club's owner a fee and then take them to local hotels.
"As owners of these businesses, we are worried always that our clients come back," said César Sánchez, president of the association of bar and cabaret owners. "Our principal interest is that our clients are not infected."
Marías Magdalenas, an organization of sex workers, also supported the new regulations, viewing them as a form of insurance that might help their members avoid getting sick.
The regulations, for instance, require hotel owners catering to prostitutes to cover furniture with plastic, disinfect rooms and change sheets regularly. The city has closed at least 18 massage parlors and brothels for violations since the regulations took effect in August.
Still, the regulations could do nothing to change the general ugliness of the work, nor the miserable pay the market dictates, several prostitutes said. Women in their 30's who work the older clubs said they are able to charge their clients only $20 to $30 for sexual intercourse.
Younger women said they were able to command a higher price, especially those who work at topless bars on Avenida Revolucion and other parts of town that attract more American tourists. Some said they could earn as much as $3,000 a week.
It was the lure of that kind of money that brought Coral Gutiérrez, 22, to Tijuana recently from Veracruz. She came out of the city health clinic on a recent afternoon, still holding a cotton ball to her arm where a doctor had drawn blood for an H.I.V. test.
She said she had been making a very meager living as a waiter in a café in Veracruz, but now made more than $100 a day in the sex trade here. "It's good to be tested," she said. "Not only for our health, but for everyone else's."
Dr. Mayor Noriega said the incidence of AIDS in women registered with the city clinic is very low - with only three cases detected so far this year. All were women who had arrived from other cities and were seeking a credential to work. The incidence of syphilis and gonorrhea is similarly small, less than five cases of each discovered this year, he said.
But state health officials in Baja California say there is preliminary evidence that the rate of H.I.V. infection might be much higher, especially among prostitutes who are also intravenous drug users, many of whom are not registered with the city authorities. A study of the incidence of H.I.V. in prostitutes will be completed next year.
Dr. Jorge Alvelais Palacios runs a clinic at the state hospital here where free H.I.V. tests are available. He estimated that, according to preliminary data, between 10 and 12 percent of the people in the sex trade who come to his clinic test positive.
Olga, who asked her last name not be used, said the fear of the virus hangs over her constantly. Her home is in Monterrey but she comes to Tijuana for a week of every month. The money she earns as a prostitute goes to support her parents and younger brother, she said.
"I'm doing this for a year and a half, two years and that's it," she said as she entered the clinic for an AIDS test. "Nobody likes this."