Rio De Janeiro Cracks Down On Prostitution Ahead Of 2016 Olympics
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Cris touches up her lipstick in the bar's dingy mirror, getting ready to work the rush hour in Vila Mimosa, Rio's bustling working-class prostitution zone.
As dusk descends, bass-heavy music rattles metal tables on the sidewalk outside the bar, and shirtless men fire up smoky makeshift grills next to coolers of beer. Women in little more than thong bikinis or lingerie navigate the cobblestone streets, teetering on stiletto platform heels. Leaning against doorways and out of windows, they wait for clients, eyes glazed with boredom.
The area is a beloved institution or a blight, depending on whom is asked.
But like so much of this city that officials have deemed marginal, it faces the prospect of being torn down in the name of progress as Rio revamps crumbling infrastructure and polishes its image prior to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Spelling the possible demise of Vila Mimosa is a 317-mile (510-kilometer), high-speed train the government wants to build to link Rio to the country's financial capital, Sao Paulo. The $22 billion project was promised in Brazil's Olympic proposal, and the government is expected to open bidding to prospective builders July 29.
Work on the train has not begun, but the prostitutes are already wary. If the current plans move forward, it will pass right through the neighborhood.
This wouldn't be the first time the women have been uprooted and relocated, said Cleide de Almeida, who grew up in the Mangue, the red-light district's original downtown location. One of 10 children of a woman who once cooked for the prostitutes, Almeida now heads the sex workers' residents and business association.
Prostitutes in Rio have witnessed seven government-led attempts to eradicate red-light districts over the past century. Two prostitution zones have been razed since 1980, most recently in 1996 to make way for the city's administrative center.
Following the evictions, the women were forced to conduct business in the open streets and in cars until they could buy property along the block that makes up the current red-light district: a former no man's land bordered by subway tracks and highways that is now bustling with business.
"There is a whole economy here: boarding houses, beauty parlors, cleaners, restaurants. Everybody's saying, 'Cleide, if the prostitutes go, can we go with you?'" Almeida said.
She said workers in the district are "definitely worried" by the prospect of relocation.
Almeida already has a new place in mind for Vila Mimosa if a move is unavoidable. But she's not talking. Last time the sex workers moved, she said, residents at their destination were waiting for them and tried to fight them off as they unloaded their moving trucks.
No one returned calls and emails seeking comment from the federal agency in charge of the train project, the Agencia Nacional de Transportes Terrestres. Spokesmen for the city of Rio and the state transportation department said neither was yet involved.
If they must be relocated, the women want something more than just a new site: Architect Guilherme Ripardo, working with the business association, has drawn up plans for a $1.8 million community center at the new, undisclosed location that would include a health clinic, child care, and professional training in everything from sewing to computer literacy.
Its clean, modern lines – blueprints show swooping curves and soft corners – were inspired by the women themselves, Ripardo said. The prostitutes nicknamed it "A Cidade das Meninas," or "The City of Girls."
The new center is meant to be functional but also beautiful, a source of pride, Ripardo said. Sex work happens in Rio, he said; it's part of the city's history. It's also within the bounds of law. Prostitution is legal in Brazil.
"We wanted to show the city that they don't have to hide it; it exists, and they should take care of the people here," he said. "The solution isn't to isolate it from the city, but to integrate it."
Vila Mimosa is now a chaotic jumble of modest homes jammed side by side. Old pipes leak sewage, which pools in the cobblestone streets. The lower floors of most houses have been converted to bars and nightclubs where prostitutes meet their clients; the upper floors are a rabbit warren of small, windowless cubicles branching off a narrow corridor where prostitutes take their customers.
Sex here is cheap, quick, with no frills: $18 buys 20 minutes in a cement bunk topped by a plastic-covered mattress. There's a bucket of water and toilet paper in each cubicle, and little privacy – the sound of sex fills the bare hallway.
About 2,000 women work Vila Mimosa's streets 24 hours a day – some before heading off to a full day of work as maids, cashiers, and manicurists; some after working their day jobs.
To its clients, Vila Mimosa offers easy sex and cold beer in a convenient location. It's just one subway stop from downtown and a five-minute walk from a station serving dozens of major bus lines. Highways connecting the heart of the city to far-flung suburbs crisscross nearby. The mayor's office and Brazil's football palace, Maracana stadium, are less than a mile away.
"If they make the girls move away from here, Vila Mimosa will die. The women will lose their income," said Andre Costa, 38, who works in a bank downtown and is a regular client.
"People come here to blow off steam after work, to have a drink. They're not going to get on some bus."
The women know this, so the question of where Vila Mimosa would go if it were moved is foremost in their minds.
They've already seen how multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects meant to streamline Rio's intractable traffic have uprooted hundreds of families in Rio's slums.
Construction has begun on the $618 million Transcarioca, an express highway that will link the far west of the city to the international airport to the north, also part of Rio's Olympic infrastructure package.
Nearly 1,000 families have been evicted, and according to the city government, 3,000 homes will have to be razed before the Transcarioca is completed. Residents have been offered homes in neighborhoods 40 or 50 miles (65 or 80 kilometers) away – but they say that is an unreasonable distance for those who rely on buses to navigate Rio's congested traffic.
Both Amnesty International and the United Nations have called attention to allegations of rights abuses during evictions – residents say they've been roughed up and suffered evictions in the middle of the night.
The prostitute Cris, who declined to give her last name so neighbors wouldn't discover her occupation, said a move could kill her income. She's worked the central location five days a week for years, buying a small house and furnishing it with income from steady clients. At 48, she's not going to start again, she said.
"My clients come here, they know me, and it's safe. I know all these girls," she said. "When we leave late at night, there's transportation here, and there's always someone keeping an eye on you."
The government has targeted other sex venues over the past year and a half. First it shut down Help, a nightclub and meeting point on Copacabana beach where hundreds of prostitutes hooked up with their mostly foreign clientele. City officials said they wanted to turn the property into a museum dedicated to Brazilian music.
Two small hotels used by prostitutes in a square near the music and nightlife neighborhood of Lapa were shuttered this year, ostensibly for nonpayment of taxes. A massage parlor used by sex workers in the city's west side was closed for sanitary reasons, said Thaddeus Blanchette, an investigator at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro's Macae campus who has researched prostitution and sexual tourism for seven years.
"It's about raising property values, but the big thing is making the city more acceptable to foreigners' eyes," he said. "It's taking people who shock foreigners and pushing them out of the way: prostitutes, street vendors, homeless people. They're going to clean up parts and throw a rug over the rest of it."