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These photographs were taken in the Red Zone near the Mexican-United States border, where sex workers live in isolation, concealed behind walls. Once a bustling district where sex was sold, it’s now a violent, lawless territory that few dare to visit. Most of the original residents have migrated to other states in Mexico, and only a few remain. They are trapped by their past, their history, someone they love, or something that makes it impossible for them to leave. Despite the visible decline of the place, the women’s need to survive keeps the Red Zone alive. What was once a lucrative prostitution district is now a devastated area.


How Are “Tolerance Zones” Created?

Fabiola Bailón Vásquez
Postdoctoral student of the Institute of Historical Research, UNAM

The so-called “red zones” or “tolerance zones” are specific, enclosed places for the exercise of prostitution, which have their origins in a regulatory system implemented in Mexico in the middle of the nineteenth century.  At that time, Maximillian of Hapsburg, concerned about protecting his soldiers from venereal diseases, consolidated a whole series of administrative, legal and sanitary measures aimed at the surveillance and control of madames and prostitutes, as well as the spaces where prostitution was practiced.

Under this regime, women working in the sex trade were obliged to comply with certain duties and obligations, registered, classified (into first, second and third class) and controlled through a guidebook. Likewise, “officially tolerated” brothels were established, which were assumed to be “ideal” spaces for the practice of prostitution without the danger of venereal diseases and without threatening patriarchal stability. In other words, they were functional for safeguarding the health of the clients and, moreover, were used to administer the visible and invisible aspects of the trade and direct the behavior of the women who lived in them. [1]

The houses of prostitution were supposed to conceal their true function, so from that time on, it was agreed that they should not attract attention so as not to interfere with the social life of the city.  In order to open a brothel or house of tolerance, it was necessary to submit a written request with the approval of the proprietor or owner, who could establish such a house in practically any area of the city.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, specific areas for the practice of prostitution did not exist in Mexico City, only prohibitions aimed at establishing brothels in certain places.  Later on, around 1926, prostitution regulations included a section on “tolerance zones,” used by local authorities to designate specific spaces for establishing houses or rooms devoted to the sale of bodies,[2] although in truth, many were established “by custom”:

We consider that the zones should be adjusted to the surrounding circumstances, given that after careful, lengthy observation, the conclusion has been reached, with certain previous limitations, that existing zones established by use should be accepted as official tolerance zones since they are already well-known and even accepted by the public as being set aside for said purpose with minimum protests.[3]

Due to its size and lack of planning, Mexico City did not have one single “tolerance zone.” Instead, many of them expanded unevenly in poor neighborhoods where the trade in bodies and merchandise coexisted. Even though the idea of concentrating all the brothels in one place was never completely given up, it was never attained because authorities encountered resistance on the part of the madams or owners of the houses and the neighbors and inhabitants of the areas who “be affected” due to the relocation.

In other cities, however, the establishment of clearly defined areas was achieved, at least on paper, from the time the regulatory system was adopted. This was the case in Reynosa, where prostitution became an authorized business in 1925. At that time, the so-called “tolerance zone” began to function on the southeast side of town. In 1948, it was moved to the west side, with the characteristics portrayed by Maya Goded: rooms specifically devoted to the practice of prostitution with a bed, TV set, or small altar, much like the “accessory rooms” of the previous century; bodies on sale or exhibition, awaiting the arrival of a client in the isolated district to which they were marginalized to “conceal” their activity from the looks of “decent” folk; young girls alone or in the company of someone else, sometimes working under the supervision or “protection” of a pimp.

[1] “Reglamento de la prostitución, 1865” AGN, Gobernación, leg. 1790 (1), box 1, file. 2, p. 21
[2] Chapter XI, entitled “Tolerance Zones” of the prostitution regulations stipulates the following in Articles 56, 57 and 58: “The Health Department, in accordance with the opinion of District and Division authorities, will designate the zones in which allocated houses, authorized hotels, etc., should be established. The establishment of these zones will be subject to the rules in paragraph II, Article 40, and the location can be modified at the petition of the government of the District and respective Divisions. For the establishment of new zones permission regarding public order will be obtained from the same authorities.”  “Reglamento para el ejercicio de la prostitución” en Diario Oficial de la Federación, 14 de abril de 1926.
[3] AHSS, Salubridad Pública, Inspección Antivenérea, box 3, file 10, The italics are mine.

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