Next month will mark five years since Albuquerque police investigators unearthed the remains of 11 murdered women buried in shallow graves on the city’s West Mesa. Most of the victims were prostitutes hustling to feed hungry drug habits.
The discovery highlighted one indisputable fact: Prostitution is a dangerous way of life often characterize by violence and drug abuse. The violence is so widespread some studies report that roughly 68 percent of those working as prostitutes will be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who pay for their services.
New Media Street Press talks to one area prostitute to better understand why so many women find themselves in harm’s way.
Angel is one of many area prostitutes living with drug addiction and violence. The 37-year-old petite sex-worker with long brown frizzy hair accented with red highlights explains that every time decides to turn a “trick” she is playing with her life.
“We all toy with our lives because we get in cars everyday with strange men,” she said. “We go to remote places where there’s nobody else and you don’t know if he is going to bring you back. It’s a risk we take everyday.”
Angel who turned to prostitution about 12 years ago after a string of poor choices led to heroin addiction and felony convictions said she would prefer a job and often thought about a career doing hair and nails.
She said that life has been rough ever since she quit high school. That is when she started shooting heroin with her father and since then she’s been in out of trouble with the law.
But she says it’s the rough life that allows her to help others.
“If I have it I will help you because I know how it is. If I say I’m gonna do something, it make take me a couple of days but you damn well better be sure I am gonna get it done,” she said emphatically.
The divorced mother of four came home to New Mexico from Las Vegas, NV and returned to prostitution after her third marriage failed.
She said her ex-husband gave her $6000 to pay her bills and move back to Nevada. Instead she used the money to buy crack.
Like most of the prostitutes she knows, Angel has been been physically attacked and robbed many times. She explains how the need to get high often lead women to make poor choices that place them at-risk.
“Girls are in a hurry,’ Angel explained. “If they are doing this out here they are in a hurry to get that first hit of whatever drug they are into—they are in a hurry to get it.”
“So once that money is in their hands, they are just going to run,” she said expertly. “More times than none they are gonna run. They always run and then it gets them in trouble and you don’t remember who you got into the car with. So tomorrow you get in the same car with the same person, and there is your trouble.
Christine Barber is director of Safe Sex Work an organization working to help keep area prostitutes alive and healthy.
Every Friday, right about quitting time, Barber and outreach workers converge on a parking lot near the corner of Central and Tennessee to pass out condoms, pepper spray and “bad date lists.”
The list warn sex workers about men who have reportedly attacked women in the Albuquerque area.
“We are accepting that this is what has to happen and this is what they need to do, lets protect them and help them as much as possible, so we don’t have another West Mesa,” Barber said resolutely.
Martin Walker is outreach program coordinator for Albuquerque’s Health Care for the Homeless. He says the goal is to keep the women physically safe.
“Every week we get at least 10 new reports of ladies that are out working that are raped, accosted, physically abused and mentally abused by people who use their services.” Walker said.
Barber says most of her 400 clients have reported being raped or beat up on at least one occasion and some as many as 30 times—spanning several years.
“I end up being the first person and maybe the only person they report being raped to,” Barber said. “They never are going to see anyone else. They don’t trust the system, and so, I get to be the one who kind of try to help them as much as possible.”
Angel, the Albuquerque prostitute, says she’s been clean from the hard stuff for two years, except for the three week run where she smoked up the $6,000 but continues to work as a prostitute to keep up with her $40 a day motel rent, instead of trying her luck at one of the homeless shelters
“They have a lot of shelters for men and stuff,” she said. “They need to have some kind or programs that gonna put them in school or work. I don’t know how to explain it, but they help you get schooling work, your own place to live, independent living.”
New Mexico Attorney General Gary Kings said the state does have resources available to help prostitutes transition from the underground back into the mainstream but they are reserved for confirmed victims of human trafficking.
In other words, in order for a prostitute resources, such as counseling or housing support, to help them transition from a life of prostitution someone must have been arrested as the prostitutes pimp or human trafficker, he said.
Barber said some day she hopes to establish a system that will help local officials find and identify those that disappear off Albuquerque streets.