Agents of Violence: What the violations against sex workers in Latin America reveal about U.S. presence in the region
In much of Latin America, collective memory of terror is often tied up with U.S. presence and intervention. For over a century, the U.S. government and military has occupied nations, trained soldiers on how to be better murderers and torturers, and helped to squash democratic popular movements in favor of genocidal fascist dictators in Latin America and the Caribbean. This may sound hyperbolic, but the facts show that if anything, the previous sentence is understated. So it’s with good reason that the presence of agents of the United States can signify at best deception, at worst widespread violence. The latest examples of these signifiers, involving United States armed forces and executive security detail, reveal a complex history that continues to impact the lives of ordinary Latin Americans, and should prompt all of those living in the United States to ask the question, “Why are we there?”
Over the past month, a “scandal” has erupted over the exposure of Secret Service agents who have used the services of sex workers. It is important to remember that scandals are created from popular imagination. So why has this news in particular captured people’s imagination? The story is often referred to as an “embarrassment” and a “public relations” problem for the Obama administration. Missing from these descriptions are the voices of the women who were victimized by agents of the United States. Let’s be very clear: sex work is work. And refusing to pay a sex worker for his/her services is a form of violence and slavery, in the same way that refusing to pay any worker for his/her labor is violence and slavery. An even more appalling incident in Brazil came to light recently, where three U.S. Marines ran over a female sex worker with a car after she tried to open the car door to demand payment for her work. Although the Brazilian police wanted to press charges, the Marines were immediately deported (or smuggled out, let’s be real) back to the United States where they were supposedly “punished,” far out of the reach of the Brazilian justice system to which they should have been held accountable.
So where does this leave the women who were victimized by these agents of the United States? Calling these acts of violence, deception and manipulation a “sex scandal” diminishes the horrific nature of these acts, perpetrated by those who have immense power over the vulnerable woman-bodied people who survived these interactions. Similarly, as the media loves to use the phrase “sex scandal” for instances of rape and other types of sexual violence, the portrayals have again devolved into exotifying brown-skinned women, particularly sex workers, as simultaneously sexually deviant and unrapeable.
Sex workers face instances of violence at astonishing rates, largely because of the stigmatized nature of their work as well as misguided efforts to “rescue” sex workers which actually both drive trafficked individuals further underground and place sex workers in increasingly dangerous situations. For the women whose services were used by these American men in particular, the imbalance of power seems almost unimaginable. Clearly, the men who caused the harm to these women in Colombia and Brazil did so precisely because they knew they could, because brown-skinned women not of the so-called “First World” have always been assumed to be invisible, and because the gender-based violence that accompanied every U.S. war game in Latin America and the Caribbean has been buried, dismissed or even condoned. One should not assume that this history is not recent enough for average folks in Latin America to have collective memory of the role U.S. state agents played in these tactics that sought to crack down on dissent, self-determination and empowerment through terrorism.
The Obama administration has been criticized from the outset for its willing participation in maintaining and expanding military campaigns around the world, campaigns which go hand in hand with neoliberal economic policies that would never survive without the framework of violence at all levels of their implementation. Women throughout the world have rightfully decried the gender violence that inevitably follows occupation and militarism, no matter who is fighting whom. As Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of women’s human rights organization MADRE International states when describing gender violence during the Guatemala wars, “Through the years of the conflict, tens of thousands of Guatemalan women and girls were raped, tortured and murdered. These were not attacks carried out randomly; violence against women was deliberately calculated by U.S.-backed fighters to traumatize families and destroy the capacity of communities to resist and organize.” Women of color globally have also been at the forefront of elucidating the intertwined nature of U.S. political and economic interests, and how tools of neoliberalism actually make women more susceptible to violence at a community and structural level.
These latest incidents are a continuation of the legacy that U.S. presence in Latin America has established, a legacy that was articulated through U.S.-backed coups in Guatemala and Chile, the occupations of Grenada and Haiti, and the devastating impacts of NAFTA and CAFTA (as well as countless other exploits that are too numerous to name). The violence committed against these Latin American sex workers should not provoke embarrassment, it should provoke outrage. As long as the Global South is seen as a playground for the U.S. to extract what it wants and ensure that its corporate interests are protected, such incidents will continue. When it comes to U.S. intervention in Latin America, brown-skinned women’s bodies are always collateral damage.