Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994

By Gilberto Dimenstein

On the night of September 23, 1991, the São Bartolomeu--one of the small steamboats that ply the Amazonian rivers--sails to Laranjal do Jari in the northern reaches of Brazil. The voyage lasts three days and two nights.

The passengers lie in hammocks hooked up to poles. Besides passengers, the boat transports goods through the riverine regions. This voyage, however, has a shipment of special merchandise: a lot of girls who, without knowing it, are destined to become prostitutes. Such a shipment is special, but not truly exceptional for the boats that navigate these rivers.

Twelve girls--among them, Ana Meire Lima da Silva, age 15, and Miriam Ferreira dos Santos, 14--make up part of the cargo. They were persuaded to go with promises of work in a restaurant or luncheonette.

These girls were naive," says Elaine, a more experienced prostitute who was involved in the ruse but is convinced that she did nothing bad. "They knew nothing."

A terrible reception awaited them. Bucho de Bode ("Goat Belly"), a brothel owner, met them at the port. As the ship docked, Ana Meire remembers hearing catcalls from men on the footbridges: "Hmm, some fresh meat... She's for me... She turns me on... I'm going to suck you up whole."

This welcome is part of a ritual. Each time that girls debark at the port, there is a true festival. That night, all the men argued among themselves over who would have the privilege of being the first to eat the "fresh meat." New arrivals are highly valued by clients. In this unhealthly atmosphere, prostitutes rapidly lose value, which, in the words of one pimp, demands a constant "resupply of goods." When clients tire of a product, the moment has arrived to sell the girls according to the rule of "transfer." The girls move, therefore, from one region to another, from one garimpo-- mining community--to the next.

I invite the reader to share with me the voyage along these routes of trafficking in people, which will lead us into the secrets of child prostitution found throughout Brazil. The Brazilian Center for Childhood and Adolescence (CBIA) of the Ministry of Social Services estimates that there are 500,000 girl prostitutes in the country.

The setting of this particular voyage is exotic, unknown and largely inaccessible: the legal Amazon in the northwest of Brazil, which comprises close to 61 percent of the national territory. The Amazon has been a magnet for migration, which has changed the face of the region with extraordinary speed. Men and women with fair skin and blonde hair, from the South, mix with Amazonian mestizos, producing a mixture of skin colors, foods and expressions. Most of these migrants are looking for land; others are attracted by gold. According to the most recent census, Amazonia registered the highest rate of population growth in the country: the state of Roraima (9.1 percent), Rondônia (7.9 percent), Mato Grosso (5.4 percent), and Pará (3.4 percent).

Protected by nature and difficult to access by land or by air (there have been countless airplane accidents), the Amazonian jungle creates states within a state. The law is dictated there by those who are the boldest, the best armed, and have the best pistoleiros (hired guns). The traffic in girls forced into prostitution is testimony to the chaotic and inhumane character of this migration.

The girls are attracted by the promise of licit employment, but then are sent to work in night clubs in these faraway, inaccessible places, and kept captive like prisoners. Even the more experienced girls, who are not new to prostitution, are tricked. By contrast with the more naive girls, they know that they are going to sell their bodies, but they have little idea of the regime of slavery that awaits them.

Everything rests upon the debt--a bottomless pit. From the moment the girl arrives at the club, she is told that she owes money: her plane or boat ticket, which can be as much as $100. She cannot leave until this debt is paid off. The debt grows with the purchase of clothes, perfumes, medicine and food furnished by the club owner at an arbitrary price.

Without the girls realizing it, the owner keeps track of their expenditures using as a base the value of a gram of gold. The debt snowballs, especially when the girls fall sick--a common occurrence in this region ravaged by malaria. During the time they cannot "work," the debt piles up. Money from clients does not pass through the girls' hands; it goes, instead, directly to the cashbox.

In the majority of cases, the debt cannot be repaid, and escape attempts are severely punished. The girl regains her freedom only if she is sick, pregnant, or can no longer attract clients. Occasionally, a client will pay for a girl's release. Luísa Ribeiro Soares, a prostitute in Laranjal do Jari, received help from a lover who wanted to live with her. He helped pay her debt by buying back her "transfer," the equivalent of the certificate of emancipation given to slaves in the last century. In this milieu, the power to buy freedom bestows great importance on the pimps.

Many paths lead to prostitution. "Misery pushes the girls into the street," says Lurdes au Bar Jardim, the director of the Group of Female Prostitutes of the Center of Belem (GEMPAC). "They have nothing to sell. They don't know how to read or write or cook. They can sell the only valuable thing they possess: their body."

At times, the first step is linked to drug trafficking. A number of girls have become addicted to "mela," a kind of crack cocaine. "The girls are used as formiguinhas (little ants)," says Captain Luiz Cláudio Azambuja, head of the Department of Children and Adolescents of the military police of Rondnia. "They carry the drugs to protect the adults." The girls start by becoming addicted, and then they are used as formiguinhas and prostitute themselves to feed their vice and to try to wipe out an endless debt.

Another road to prostitution: a girl falls in love with someone whom her family does not accept. As a consequence, the family kicks her out. Without any skills, she has no alternative but to sell her body to survive. This is what happened to Adriana Pereira Lima, who works at a brothel in Laranjal do Jari. Her family rejected her after she lost her virginity. The street recovered her. Today, Adriana asks herself: "My dream is to have a husband, kids and a job. But where can I work since I didn't go to school?"

Family problems drive many girls onto the street. Of the 53 girls and adolescents that I interviewed, 50 came from broken homes. Here are some numbers: 80 percent have no contact with their father; the parents of 30 percent of the girls are dead; 35 percent say they have suffered sexual abuse in the home and point to the step-father as the principal abuser; and 50 percent say that alcoholism is a problem in their family. The girls all dream of a happy family, but their hopes are poignantly modest. When I asked one young girl to describe her ideal father, she thought a long time before replying: "This father would only hit me at certain times."

Francineide Luiza Cavalcanti, 14, is a product of the disintegration of the family. "I left my home because of my step-father," she says. "Each time my mom went out, he wanted to kiss me. I complained to my mom, but she did nothing. So I left and didn't come back. I prefer the street."

Indeed a number of girls consider prostitution an avenue to freedom. They are fleeing the oppression of a patriarchal household, where it is not uncommon for the family to be in conflict and often violent. In some cases, the girls are trying to escape boring, poorly paid jobs. They are seduced by the dream of having a room of their own and earning more money.

Claudia Amaral, age 13, came to Beiradão to work as a maid for a couple. She stayed in the city as a maid during the daytime. At night, however, she came to the night club to realize her deepest desire: to dance. Claudia convinces me that she truly doesn't want to leave the brothel. She is happy dancing and meeting new people, all of which gives her a sense of freedom. It is better, she says, than the tiring work of a maid.

But the street is not an easy school. The girls are obliged to submit to the depravations of their clients and the blackmail of police officers who demand sex from the girls without paying.

The girls sorely lack information. Of those 53 girls I interviewed, barely 15 percent use contraceptive methods and just 5 percent regularly use condoms. Most of the girls did not have the least idea how their bodies function or of the risks of pregnancy. Forty percent had already self-induced abortions by the most rudimentary methods--such as blows to the stomach, knitting needles, or inappropriate medicine (such as quinine for malaria). Others had abandoned their newborns in the hope that someone would pick the infants up and care for them.

Violence is a common reality. Students at the Federal University of Pará did a study in the garimpo zones in 1991. Their report contains the testimony of a man from Santare'm who frequented the brothels during his travels. He describes the violence he encountered: "The girls are submitted to all kinds of torture and exploitation, regardless of their skin color. When they refuse, they are mistreated--violently beaten, their hair cut with a machete, and sometimes even killed. One girl demanded money from a john with whom she'd just slept. She died from two gunshots in the vagina."

Ins Pinho de Carvalho, from the Pastoral Office of Minors in Santarém, can no longer recall how many girls she has helped liberate nor how many families have come to her in search of their children. One case in particular made a strong impression on her. Ins helped to free Lúcia Figueira, age 13, who was sent to the garimpos in the Itaituba region.

After her release, Lúcia told Ins what had happened to her. The night club owner was angry at her because of her escape attempts. One day when he was more furious than usual, he tied her to the back of his car and dragged her through the streets. "That wasn't enough for him," Lúcia confided in Ins. "Afterwards, he put lemon on my wounds."

This violence is sometimes turned inwards. Self-mutilation--a cry for attention--is a common form of self-punishment. Students from the Faculty of Pedagogy at the Federal University of Mato Grosso did a study of the girls of Praca do Porto in Cuiabá, under the direction of the psychologist Katia Marques. "When a girl falls in love with a boy," says their report, "he becomes her gigolo. She shares her earnings with him. However, the girls don't know how to master their frustrations when they are in love and are treated badly. For this reason, they beat themselves. They become totally masochistic."

In this route of human trafficking, a virgin is worth more than others. Maria Dalva Bandeira, a former teacher who studied in her adolescence to become a nun, organizes a well- known auction of virgins at La Casa da Dalva, a brothel in Imperatriz that specializes in virgins. When a girl arrives who is still "sealed"--to use the expression of the trade-- the whole city is told about it. The person who pays the most has the right to be the first.

The men gather in the salon. Dalva then presents the girl, who has been dressed up in new and seductive clothes, and has had her face made up and her hair styled. Immediately after the presentation, the girl returns to her room.

The auction then begins. The highest bid is usually placed by a son of the fazendeiros--the rich landowners. The following day is a big event for these rich young men. To deflower a virgin is a mark of social status.

Along the row of brothels where the Casa da Dalva is located, most of the prostitutes are young girls. The reason is simple: by age 18, a prostitute is a finished woman, eaten away by illnesses. It's necessary, then, to bring in new labor.

The garimpeiros--the gold diggers--call women over 18 years "chickens," and younger girls "chicks." The psychologist Maria Luiza Pinheiro, from the Brazilian Center for Childhood and Adolescence, frequently travels the routes of this traffic. She has often heard the men who chase the "chicks"say, "I had myself one of 15 kilograms (33 pounds). It was good."

Just as I'm about to go home after talking to some girls on a street in downtown Manaus, a child comes up to me and tugs at my shirt sleeve.

"Mister, aren't you going to interview me?" she asks. It is then that I realize that she is a little girl. Scarcely 12 years old, she already has a nom de guerre--Cristiane--like the other prostitutes. Her real name is Edvalda Pereira da Silva. Like most of the girls of the street, she has already been beaten up by the police. She says that one of them kicked her in the stomach because she had called him a "son of a bitch."

Edvalda knows what a condom is, but she doesn't use them. "They say that if you don't use them, you'll catch a kind of AIDS," she says, "but I don't believe it."

Edvalda has already learned some of the tricks of the trade. Another girl has explained to her that she must be paid in advance. Her price is 7,000 cruzeiros (nine dollars) a ve question: "Little one, have you already done programs?"

Edvalda bursts out laughing. She says that her mother works in Itamaraca'--a red-light zone--and she doesn't care if Edvalda turns tricks. "I am different than the other prostitutes," she adds. "Do you know why?"

I tell her that I don't have the faintest idea.

Her response takes me by surprise. She lifts up her blouse, which is so big that it functions as a dress, and says laughing: "I don't have breasts yet."

Edvalda and other girls I interviewed confirm the suspicions of specialists, even though statistical studies have not yet been done: the average age of the girls who fall into prostitution is dropping. They are becoming younger at the same rate as the total number of street kids is growing. Sex becomes an occasional source of revenue even for children.

One obvious result is the girls' total ignorance of the risks they run. The Ministry of Social Services carried out a study in Manaus of women from 16 to 40 years old. They found that 80 percent of the women didn't know their own bodies and didn't understand how one becomes pregnant or how to avoid it. One imagines, then, how little is known by young girls like Edvalda.

To escape requires courage and above all imagination. One war-like operation succeeded in freeing Maria Madalena Costa de Oliveira. Her misadventure began on April 28, 1991, in Altamira, when a couple, Walmir and Marisa, invited her to come work as a domestic employee in Itaituba. She was told she would earn 30 grams of gold per month.

On May 4, she arrived at the Miranda Hotel in Itaituba. There she met five other girls. An unpleasant surprise was not long in coming. Early in the morning, Walmir told the girls that they would not be staying in the city, but would go to the garimpo. If they wanted to bail out, it wasn't a problem. But first they had to pay the debt they had incurred for their plane ticket and lodging. The girls resigned themselves to going. They flew to Cuiú-Cuiú, where the pimp Tampinha was waiting for them on the runway.

Then they encountered the second unpleaant surprise of the trip: they had to work in the Matador night club. "Those were infernal nights," recounts Maria Madalena. "They forced us to sleep with several men. They made us perform homosexual acts and pose for photos."

Three months later, Maria Madalena--accompanied by her friends Tânia and Maria de Fátima--escaped with the help of two garimpeiros. After two nights and a day on the run, they were hungry and exhausted. They arrived at the plantation of Edmar Pereira, where they asked for food. It was a bad idea: the landowner returned them to his friend Tampinha for 49 grams of gold.

Maria Madalena didn't lose hope. In a letter to her sister in Altamira, she detailed her predicament and called for help. A sick prostitute left for Altamira with Maria Madalena's letter hidden in her luggage. With this letter in hand, her sister Raimunda Holanda looked for the judge Vera Araújo de Souza and for the federal police.

On November 25, with the judge's court order, a police commissioner left to look for Maria Madalena in Cuiú-Cuiú. As she was leaving, Tampinha threatened the girl. "He said to me that if I told anything, he would kill me," she says. "He said that if he wanted to, he could kill me right there and bury me. That all he had to do was give some gold to the police commissioner and everything would be forgotten." The story of Maria Madalena sums up the climate of impunity that envelopes the trafficking and slavery of women forced into prostitution.

Sister Dineva, from the Center for the Defense of Minors in Cuiab&aaucte, the capital of Mato Grosso, gives me an example of the cruelty of these power games: Jociane Silva dos Santos. Jociane is just nine years old. She is an orphan. Her mother had already passed away when her father died in December, 1991. At night, Jociane sleeps in a government home for abandoned children in Mato Grosso. The home is not very safe. Pimps keep watch in front of the building, waiting for the girls with offers of "protection and money." In the daytime, Jociane wanders around the plaza.

The street educators and Sister Dineva are worried about Jociane. She is already hanging out with an older girl who has decided to "sponsor" her. For all practical purposes, Jociane is ready to enter the "market," negotiating what she has of highest value: her virginity, an expensive commodity.

"I don't know how much longer we can maintain control," laments the nun, as she points a finger at the girl who is sponsoring Jocaine.

Jociane approaches us. I ask the usual questions: the names of her father and mother, place of birth, workplace, childhood memories, perception of violence, how she feels among these girls.

I ask her if she knows what AIDS is. She answers yes. I persist: "What is it?"

"It's a sickness that comes from the river," Jociane replies. "They tell people not to drink this water because of AIDS."

Mixing up AIDS and cholera highlights the ignorance of children like Jociane and their inability to manage not only their sex, but also their entire life. They collect trauma after trauma, rejection after rejection.

I heard an utterance that best expressed the deep scar left by child prostitution when I was doing research for an earlier book at the Casa da Passagem, a shelter in Recife. After telling her story, which was a tissue of trauma, frustration and violence, a young girl asked: "Is it possible to be born a second time?" For the little girls of the night, their first passage on this earth has been a tale of misery.


Prostitution Comes to the Indigenous Amazon
By Gilberto Dimenstein

The Indians, intrigued by his green eyes, watched him. They were afraid, thinking that he was an apparition. After all, they had never seen a man with green eyes. With time, the Indians grew accustomed to Dr. Marcos Pellegrini, who, in 1986, was the first white man to come in contact with a tribe of Yanomami Indians from the Moxafe region in Roraima. To get there, Marcos undertook a week-long journey, three days of which were on foot in the heart of the jungle.

For a number of months, Marcos lived with this tribe, learning their customs which had not yet been tainted by "civilization." It was a harmonious society--without epidemics or hunger. Hunting, fishing and agricultural production provided enough for all.

But after Marcos, with his green eyes, thousands of men arrived with their dredges, revolvers and mercury. It was the invasion of the garimpeiros--the freelance miners--in search of gold.

In 1991, Marcos, now a doctor at the National Health Foundation and the Indigenista Missionary Council (CIMI), returned to visit this tribe. Green eyes and blonde hair no longer impressed the Indians. A number of them had other interests: women offered themselves to him in exchange for gifts. The health of the tribe had deteriorated. Marcos noted the appearance of various illnesses, among them gonorrhea. An old Indian woman asked him a question, which was strange at first glance: "Aren't there any white women?"

Afterwards, he understood. These Indians had met only men-- soldiers and garimpeiros--who represented invasion and illness. They were not accompanied by their wives, and took advantage of the Indian women. Sex, so natural in the bosom of the community, had become a product with an exchange value. In this way, prostitution made its appearance in the tribe: sex was paid for with rum, medicine, clothes and food. The Indians had even stopped growing crops and were in need of food.

Marcos is currently working with the tribes of the upper Purus region in Acre. There, he has also noted the sexual abuse of Indian women and children-- especially by the marreteiros, hawkers who travel by boat selling their wares. They carry rum with them to pay the women.

I had the opportunity to interview the former cacique Raiaou, who lives in the Indian reserve of São Lourenco, in the municipality of Assis Brazil. Raiaou, who spoke in the jaminauá language which an Indian guide translated for me, admitted to having been the victim of this rum introduced by the marreteiros. One day, one of the men asked to sleep with his daughter in exchange for 12 bottles. The deal was struck. The old cacique had no complaint until the men asked for his wife.

"Then, I said: 'Respect me, you son of a bitch,'" Raiaou recounted, repeating the gesture he had made with his arm. He said the phrase "son of a bitch" not in jaminauá, but in Portuguese.

During my stay in Rio Branco, I discovered various jaminauá families wandering around the city. A team of television reporters approached a family to ask for an interview. The reporters were caught off-guard when the girls insistently offered their bodies in exchange for a little food or money.

Not only the marreteiros are responsible for the attacks against women and children, but also the soldiers scattered among the different garrisons of the Amazon. The doctor and anthropologist Antônio Maria de Souza, a researcher at the Emílio-Goeldi museum in Belém, has gathered dozens of testimonies of the "general"--a sort of gang rape on Indian girls that the soldiers engage in.

"It was common practice until very recently for a group of men--in general off-duty recruits--to catch an Indian, often a young one," Antônio says. "They took her to a deserted place and forced her to do 'the general.' In other words, they gang-raped her. These rapes occurred innumerable times despite the punishment of some aggressors. In the city, you hear people say that the Indian girls like it."

The commander of the Fifth Special Borders Battalion of the Army of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Colonel Francisco Abrão, does not appreciate the accusations against his soldiers. "It is the Indian women who try to rape my soldiers when they are in heat," he says. "I must protect my soldiers because they cannot respond to all these longings."


Gilberto Dimentein is a Brazilian reporter for Folha de São Paulo. He is author of Brazil: War on Children (Latin Ameria Bureau/Monthly Review Press, 1991). This article is adapted from his book Meninas da Noite (Editora Atica S.A., 1992). Translated from the Portuguese by NACLA.

Return to PANGAEA HomePage