Alika Kinan was trafficked and sexually exploited over a period of 20 years in the brothels of Ushuaia in Southern Argentina. In 2016 she made history when she took both her pimps and the Argentinian state itself to court...and won.
A short film about Alika with English subtitles
“My mother was prostituted. My grandmother and my aunts were prostituted. My father was a consumer of prostitution and also a pimp. I don’t know where this endless chain of prostitution that runs throughout my whole family begins or ends”.
Alika Kinan was 15 years old when her parents, locked in a violent and abusive relationship, finally separated for good. She was left alone to look after her nine year old sister in her home city of Córdoba in central Argentina. “We had no food in the house. I remember those long days with my little sister, living on potatoes and drinking mate. Being left to care for my sister alone and with no prospects was like the end of the line for me”.
Struggling to make ends meet, she eventually asked her father for help, who told her “you know what you have to do...” That is how, at the age of 17, Alika entered the world of prostitution, servicing men in the “Aries” brothel in Córdoba where she had to hand over 60 percent of her earnings to the pimps. In 1996, at the age of 20, she was offered a flight to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. In the documentary Cuerpo a Cuerpo (which can be viewed with English subtitles here) Alika describes how she ended up leaving behind her home city. “This girl, a friend of mine, proposed that we go down south to work. There was a woman who’d pay for the flight. She said that we could make good money there. We didn’t have many other options”.
Ushuaia is a coastal city with an important port and Naval base, creating a high demand for prostitution from the sailors and fishermen who pass through the city in their thousands. Over time the city grew around these men, who came from all over the world. “They demanded women to satisfy all their needs” explains Alika. “And when I say ‘needs’, I’m not just talking about sexual needs. They also needed women to live with, to cook for them and to bear their children. And the women were their property. They were brought in by the men, owned by the men and there to serve the men. That’s what this city was built on”.
Ushuaia provided a location for scores of brothels, under the guise of ‘whiskey bars’ and ‘cabaret clubs’, which operated with the complicity of the local government and police force. As Alika explains, “the Russian and North American ships that land at the port are often staffed by men from the Philippines because they’re cheap to employ. What’s more, they get paid in dollars, which means huge profits for the pimps in Ushuaia”. The clubs open at 8pm, when it is still broad daylight in the city, and service the men all through the night until the following morning. “It has direct access from the port!”, exclaims Alika. “They used to get off the boats with their wages and come straight up to the clubs in the city centre. Brothels are illegal in Argentina, but nobody controls their operation. Most of the women in the clubs are under the influence of drugs, and they don’t even realise they’ve been trafficked”.
|Alika in Ushuaia - the city at the end of the world|
Alika had arrived in the city that is often referred to as ‘the end of the world’ ostensibly of her of own free will, although today she understands that trafficking does not always entail straightforward kidnapping. At the age of 20 she had already spent three years in the sex industry, but she was unprepared for the brutal culture of exploitation that had developed in Ushuaia’s whiskey bars and cabaret clubs. On arrival, Alika recalls how her exploiters “acted like they were very friendly people. They took me to the club and I remember walking down a very long corridor filled with barred windows and doors. One of the doors opened and a woman welcomed me inside. When I walked in there were lots of girls in bathrobes who all went to their posts because they thought a client was coming in. They took me into an office and told me in basic terms how the system worked. They didn’t really tell me very much. They took for granted things that I had never imagined before”.
In those years the prostitution industry in Ushuaia operated in open collaboration with the local authorities. As part of her initiation she was taken to the local police station to open up a file and check that she didn’t have any previous convictions. The policeman who took her details and fingerprints was himself a regular client at the ‘Sheik’, the first of many brothels where Alika was to be exploited. Next, she was issued an official health booklet and had to agree to monthly medical checkups. “They gave you a HIV blood test and a vaginal swab once a month” recalls Alika. “Why did they do that? Well, I know why they did it. They wanted to keep the women healthy so we wouldn’t get the so-called ‘clients’ sick. To be a legal prostitute, I mean, a ‘regulated’ prostitute, that was how it worked”.
Soon after her arrival, her pimps took her to the local casino “to teach me what to do and show me off to the men who’d be going to spend their wages at the whiskey bar later that night. If you behaved badly they passed you on from one brothel to another, where the conditions were worse. It was a matter of life or death”.
The conditions in the brothels were terrible; small, filthy rooms where the women slept, ate and serviced an endless stream of men from 11pm until 6am every day. They were expected to clean up the blood and semen that stained the walls themselves. Pedro Montoya, the owner of the ‘Sheik’ club, kept 50% of the women’s earnings and made them pay for their own food, clothing, travel expenses, make-up and condoms. Their identification documents and passports were confiscated and they were kept in debt bondage which made escape impossible. They were fined 500 pesos by the pimps for turning up late, failing to clean the rooms, having a day off or daring to refuse a client. The women had to continue attending to men even when they had their period by inserting a sponge in their vaginas; a method which Alika’s pimp had apparently discovered on the internet.
“At night the pimps thumped their fists on the bar and demanded more money” recalls Alika. “They’d say, ‘girl, you’re here to make me money. You’re not here to sleep, you’re not here to look beautiful, you’re not a famous star. You’re nothing’”.
The walls surrounding the brothels were lined with barbed wire. “It was a prison. They kept you isolated. The madam said that we couldn’t have any contact with anyone outside the brothel. We weren’t allowed to have friends. They controlled everything...there were posters everywhere inside that told you what time you had to get out of bed. You couldn’t get up before four in the afternoon. You weren’t allowed to wake up any earlier”.
One night Alika met a Spaniard named Miguel Pascual in a bar named “Black & White”, which has also been investigated by police for suspected prostitution. Pascual was a client who, without her knowledge, began to pay Alika’s pimps extra so he could spend more time with her. He told her he had fallen in love with her. They had children together and eventually he took Alika to live with him in Spain, but the relationship was marked by violence and abuse. “I found myself in a home where violence was completely normalised”, says Alika. “Later he started to beat me and our oldest daughter, who was 8 years old at the time. I decided to escape and I returned to my traffickers in Ushuaia, who of course received me with open arms”.
As a result of what she describes as ‘constant violence’, Alika was left with scars on her face, several missing teeth and still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The women prostituted in the brothels of Ushuaia typically suffer venereal diseases, lesions, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, regular physical violence and many become addicted to the alcohol and drugs which they consume in order to withstand the abuse.
|There were so many insults. Something was broken inside me.|
In October 2012 Alika was rescued from the brothel by police, along with seven other women, following an investigation conducted by the anti-trafficking organisation Protex. Looking back, she calls the day of her rescue “the first step in our becoming people with rights. Women with rights. It was the first step towards freedom”. But at first she couldn’t recognise herself as a victim. When social services offered her a place in a refuge for trafficking victims for herself and her daughters, Alika was initially reluctant. “They wanted us to share a house with five other women from the Dominican Republic. They locked us in at 10pm and came to let us out the following morning. It was crazy! I was angry and I even felt sorry for my pimp Pedro. I shouted ‘why have you locked him up?’ I didn’t understand the nature of the crime and I refused to consider myself a victim of human trafficking. I saw myself as a strong woman who had arrived there because she had no other option, which is an idea promoted by human traffickers, because they make you believe that once you enter the network”, she affirmed.
The social worker initially assigned to the case concluded in her report that Alika was not a trafficking victim because she had acted of her own free will. However, once liberated from exploitation she began to process and reflect upon what had happened to her. “When I realised I was repeating the history of other women in my family I saw myself as a victim. From then on I began to rebuild myself. I had internalized my pimp’s speech. It took many years of therapy and the help of my lawyer and a feminist organisation who always supported me and taught me to have a gender perspective. It was a difficult process because you just don’t believe what has happened to you and I had to look after a family alone. I had to get rid of my preconceptions, and accept that there is no pride in being a prostitute. The fact that I was receiving money in exchange for sex didn’t mean that they were consensual relations. They were rapes, and there was a permanent risk. I have four young daughters and a one year old baby. I always tell my girls to maintain control over their own bodies, to love and care for themselves. I lived in a situation of violence for many years where I was told constantly by the buyers and pimps that I was a dirty whore, that I was worth nothing. There were so many insults. Something was broken inside me that was difficult to repair. I don’t want the same thing to happen to them”.
|"The day of my rescue was the first step towards freedom"|
Alika’s courageous decision to take her former captors and the municipal council of Ushuaia to court was unprecedented. Following four years of anxious expectation, the trial began in November 2016 amid an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Brothel owner Pedro Montoya, his wife Ivana Garcia and Lucy Alberca Campos, the brothel’s madam, were all accused of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The case revealed many uncomfortable truths about the government’s complicity in the sex trade; the state allowed the existence of the brothels, official records were kept on the prostituted women and commercial permits were granted by the authorities.
In the months leading up to the trial Alika received numerous threats and was physically attacked several times. She was approached and intimidated in the streets and attacked on social media sites by those who feared being named in court. Alika recalls being physically assaulted while she out was out shopping with her family. “It was a female pimp, who I recognised, and her daughter. They jumped on me in the supermarket. I was with my baby in the pram and two of my daughters who didn’t understand what was happening. She came running up, spat on me and knocked me over. It was like that day after day. The threats came from Facebook, anonymous phone calls, attacks from strangers in the street... it even happened when I was out on a feminist women’s march”.
Perhaps the nadir in the campaign of intimidation against Alika came when her former husband Miguel Pascual became involved. He had stopped making maintenance payments to Alika when he found out that she had returned to Ushuaia. He circulated a video via social media sites of what he claimed to be his own daughter being prostituted in an attempt to discredit Alika and have her children taken away from her. The video was later proven to be a fake. A week before the trial started he attempted to destroy her reputation by posting a series of what Alika calls “very subtle, well prepared and organised” attacks on Facebook from his home in Scotland. Pascual even testified against his former wife at the trial via videoconference, claiming that she was exercising prostitution of her own free will. At one point he even appeared on a radio programme and openly admitted that he had once “reduced her to nothing” during an argument, and described how he had “twisted her arm, pulled her hair, stuck my knee in her back and made her kneel until she said sorry”. When Alika heard it she “thought about how crazy it was that this guy thought he could say something like that in public. Just think about the level of impunity, sexism and misogyny... the people don’t see it, they don’t recognise the violence, even when they are proudly talking about it on the radio”. She realised that she was facing an orchestrated attempt to intimidate her and prevent her from speaking out. “They tried to destroy my nerve before the trial, so that I couldn’t be spontaneous and think straight, so that I couldn’t sustain the five hours of testimonial in court.”
Despite the dirty tactics employed against her by those in support of the sex trade, Alika went ahead with her testimonial and received strong support from a large section of the Argentinian public, lead by several feminist collectives and anti-trafficking organisations such as Ni Una Menos, AMADH and RATT. An internet campaign was launched using the hashtag #AlikaNoEstaSola (‘Alika is not alone’) and there were huge protests in Buenos Aires and in the street outside the court in Tierra del Fuego as the trial began.
In her epic five hour testimonial, Alika described how her captors had sold her the “false image of a family that I had never had... they instilled habits of cleanliness, order and punctuality in me so that I would be shaped for the brothel’s clients , so that I would continue to be productive, so that I wouldn’t open my eyes and see what was really happening.”
|Alika embraces a supporter after the historic verdict|
In an historic verdict, Pedro Montoya received a 7 year prison sentence and a $70,000 fine. His wife Ivana Garcia and Lucy Alberca Campos both received 3 year prison sentences. For the first time in history the state was also found guilty; the municipal council of Ushuaia was ordered to pay Alika $780,000 in damages for having facilitated the crime of trafficking. It is now hoped that the judgement will set a precedent and encourage more women to come forward. On hearing the judge’s verdict, Kinan embraced members of the feminist organisations who supported her and declared, “now we’re going after the pimps all over the country.”
Today Alika lives in Sierra Leone with her family. She is a feminist activist and the founder of the Sappa Kippa institute, an NGO which fights for women’s rights in Ushuaia. She spreads the abolitionist message wherever she goes and is an advocate of the ‘Nordic model’, a law which would criminalise sex buyers, pimps and traffickers and decriminalise prostituted women. She believes that eliminating economic inequality would bring an end to the exploitative sex trade. “No woman with a decent job, housing and access to health care would ever give up that stability to be with someone who defiles her body”.
She strongly opposes ‘sex worker’ organisations who argue that prostitution is just a job like any other because she believes that violence is an inherent part of the industry. “You can’t unionize what is essentially a criminal activity” she insists. “Prostitution is the accumulation of every type of violence that can be committed against a person: economic, physical, psychological, verbal. Prostitutes are required to withstand this constant violence.”
|"I don't want the same thing to happen to my daughters"|
Alika campaigns against the so-called ‘sex worker unions’ such as AMMAR (The Argentine Prostitutes’ Association) who, in her view, only serve the needs of pimps and traffickers. “They talk about ‘autonomous prostitution’, that the women want to do it, that they do it voluntarily. But in prostitution and trafficking there is a network of pimps; one who buys the plane tickets, another that meets the girls at the airport, one who runs the brothel...at what point do the women have any control? How is this an autonomous process?” she asks in disbelief.
She also questions the problematic concept of ‘consent’, which she argues is often deliberately confused with the idea of ‘free choice’. “I was reduced to meat to be consumed” she says. “I said that I had given my consent to be prostituted, and it’s true, but it wasn’t a ‘choice’ because a choice is when you are given options, which I never had.” As for the idea that prostitution is somehow ‘transgressive’ or ‘liberating’, Alika is now convinced that “it reduces human sexuality to dominance and submission, abuse and brutality. It’s one thing to enjoy sex, but what is often considered ‘consensual’ sex actually includes prostitution, rape and many more types of abuse”.
Alika expands on this point in the documentary Cuerpo a cuerpo, when she describes her life in Ushuaia’s brothels. “Sometimes you felt a sensation of power, which is how a lot of the women feel. They’re being exploited, but at the same time they feel powerful because they think they maintain control over the men. But they don’t really have any control. The men are very sure about what they’re doing. From the moment they enter the brothel they know exactly what they want, because they come in looking for a particular thing. That’s why, for the reality not to seem so terrible, or so painful, or so humiliating, or so shameful, we make ourselves believe that we have power over the men. But once you’re between four walls and they grab you from behind, by the hair, and they penetrate you, painfully...you’ve lost that power. And you lose, not only your rights, but all form of autonomy over your body.”
Original article and translations by Ben Riddick
English subtitles for the short film about Alika Kinan produced by Ben Riddick in collaboration with ‘Traductoras Para La Abolición De La Prostitución’, a collective of English to Spanish translators whose fantastic website can be found here
A list of sources for the article is posted in the comments box below.