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Aging Prostitutes Find Champion in Mexico City Mayor

Critics Say Populist Trying to Curry Favor

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page A20

MEXICO CITY -- Cataracts cloud her eyes and arthritis stiffens her spine, but Maria Luisa Torres, 70, still walks the streets of the Merced selling her body, as do many elderly women in the downtown neighborhood, where just about everything is available for a price.

"Would I like a change in life? Yes," said Torres, with a lipstick-stained cigarette stub in her wrinkled hand and her beige stockings held up with rubber bands. But after working as a prostitute for four decades -- or maybe five, she can't quite recall -- it is not so easy to stop now.

Maria Luisa Torres, 70, has worked as a prostitute for four, or maybe five decades -- she can't quite recall. She looks forward to living in a new public shelter. (Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

Among the thousands of prostitutes in North America's largest city are hundreds of women in their sixties, seventies and eighties who continue to sell themselves to earn cash to buy food or medicine, according to women's groups. Now, an unusual project to house some of them in a public shelter is drawing attention not only to their numbers but also to the social policies of embattled Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who recently turned over a building to the prostitutes.

Lopez Obrador has built a huge base of support among the disenfranchised since he took office in 2000. In addition to building houses for the poor, he has established monthly cash payments and public transportation discounts for the elderly, medical assistance for the disabled and economic support for single mothers. He has fixed streets and parks, spent lavishly on public works projects aimed at alleviating traffic congestion and even turned over the spacious city-owned building to aging prostitutes.

So when Congress voted Thursday to strip him of his immunity from criminal prosecution in a relatively minor land dispute, several hundred thousand people -- many of them the city's poorest residents -- turned out in Mexico's central square to support him. They decried the action as a political lynching of their mayor, the front-runner in early polling for next year's presidential election.

Lopez Obrador's opponents say his free spending on social programs represents not a big heart, but a big ego. Even though critics say some of his social programs such as the shelter are laudable, they argue that the mayor is using city money to buy votes at the expense of the city's long-term economic health. They say his economic policies scare off investors who could improve the city's economy and create jobs that would help lift people out of poverty.

On Saturday, Lopez Obrador told reporters outside his modest apartment building "there is no way to silence me." As supporters chanted, "You are not alone," he said he would remain in his home, with the ranking member of his staff running the capital's day-to-day business, as he awaited word of his expected arrest.

Authorities have indicated that they would seek Lopez Obrador's arrest in about 10 days. Mexican law states that anyone facing formal criminal charges may not run for elective office.

Speaking from Rome, where he was attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II, President Vicente Fox defended the action against the mayor, saying it gave the world an example of Mexico's "legality and adherence to the law."

Many of the aging sex workers who will soon trade grungy brothels and door stoops for an ornate, colonial-era building worth more than half a million dollars want Lopez Obrador on the ballot next year.

"This is the first government to open its door to us and listen to sex workers," said Carmen Muñoz, 51, an organizer of the women. She said she has worked as a prostitute for 30 years but never found a mayor so willing to help people like herself. "We are very grateful," she added.

The women in La Merced, a market area and red-light zone near the city center, said Lopez Obrador is giving long-overdue attention to the underprivileged and forgotten. After holding several meetings with the Merced prostitutes -- something they said had never happened before -- Lopez Obrador gave the building to them and directed his cabinet to help them obtain health care and other benefits.

Semillas, a women's group, is leading a fundraising drive to outfit the donated building with beds, a kitchen and a medical clinic. The plan is to open it later this year. Well-known female personalities, including writer Elena Poniatowska, singer Eugenia Leon and actress Jesusa Rodriguez, also support the project. Poniatowska is helping organize a huge march in support of the mayor on April 24.

Those who will live at the shelter are the "independent" prostitutes 60 to 85 years old who are not connected to pimps and groups that take a percentage of the women's earnings.

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