BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- By day, Italian tourists pack the beach of this Caribbean seafront village. By night, prostitutes fill its streets.
“Prostitution is everywhere here; on the beach, in the bars, in the clubs,” said Antonio Guzman, 36, a hustler who has worked the beach for 15 years and regularly connects tourists with prostitutes. “This place runs on it.”
On a weekend at midday recently, a few blocks from a beach where hundreds of Europeans tanned, a few middle-age men entered a small club on a quiet street. Inside, they had their choice of pretty, young, mostly Dominican women: $50 bought them two hours in a private room with the girl of their choice, drinks and food, the men said.
Across this nation of 10 million, similar scenes play out — from small bars and hotels where tourists pay $40 for a half hour with a woman to packaged sex tourism vacations costing upward of $4,000 for a three-night, all-inclusive stay.
Long before explosive allegations emerged claiming Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and a political contributor flew to the country for wild parties with several prostitutes, the Dominican Republic had cemented its reputation as a hub for sex tourism. Menendez has denied the allegations, calling them a political smear campaign.
Studies suggest between 60,000 and 100,000 women work in the sex trade in the country, according to the Center for Integral Orientation and Investigation, a health and outreach organization based in the capital, Santo Domingo.
By no means is sex tourism solely the domain of the Dominican Republic. Countries from Costa Rica and Brazil to Thailand and Cambodia have massive industries. But the Dominican Republic’s proximity to the United States — less than two hours from Miami by plane — and Europe, coupled with its cheap travel packages, have made it a preferred spot.
“The Dominican Republic has been associated both on the island and off the island with sex for sale,” said Denise Brennan, a Georgetown University professor and author of What’s Love Got to Do With It?, which examines sex tourism in the country. “Dominican sex workers strategically position themselves and talk about themselves and make use of foreigners’ expectations of them as being hot and sexy.”
The country — which attracted 4.6 million visitors last year, making it the most visited nation in the Caribbean — is well known for its pristine beaches and mega resorts. But in those same tourist areas, it’s common to find European or American men with women half their age — a highly visible underbelly of the tourism industry neither emphasized nor condemned by the government and tour promoters.
The tourists who flock here from the United States, Europe and beyond are among the best-paying and most sought-after clients.
“Europeans or gringos, they pay the most and you don’t have to deal with the excuses that the Dominican men give you,” said Odalis Vasquez, a 36-year-old prostitute who each winter travels to a small town on the island’s north coast.
There, she stays in a small house where the owners provide her room and board and send her clients, almost all of whom are foreign tourists.
In two weeks, she can earn between $600 and $800. “It’s as much as I make in two months at home,” which is a small house in Haina, adjacent to Santo Domingo, where she lives with her husband and four children.
Speaking on her way home, Vasquez wore a short, pastel-shaded polyester dress that she struggled to keep from riding up. Smiling, she revealed a mouth of crooked teeth — her biggest flaw, she said. “I would fix them if I could afford it.”
To find clients, Vasquez visits beaches and bars, and also relies on word of mouth.
The women like those who allegedly visited Menendez at the vacation home of his political benefactor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, rely more on the Internet and intermediaries who put them in touch with rich visitors.
Those women, known as “mega-mamis” don’t consider themselves prostitutes.
“We’re not like the average girl,” said Yaneisy, who asked that her last name be withheld because family members “would kill me if they knew.”
She has a day job, but at night, Yaneisy said, she can charge upward of $500. She convinces men to come visit for a few days or a week in which she stays at a hotel with them, receives gifts and then payment when they leave.
“I have ads on websites. They contact and we chat,” she said, explaining how she finds foreigners.
For Vasquez, the attraction to the profession is financial. For foreigners, “I’ll do the things that their wives won’t do. And then it’s done. They never have to see me again if they don’t want to,” she said.
Vasquez recalled one of her best-paying clients: a German tourist who had always dreamed of a night with two women and hired Vasquez and her friend to make it happen.
“We’ve become known as a place where foreigners feel they can come and live out their fantasies,” said Jacqueline Montero, a former prostitute and now executive director of an organization that assists sex workers. “It’s not illegal. … It’s easy and, for tourists, it’s inexpensive.”
While laws prohibit sex with those under age 18, prostitution is neither illegal nor legal in the Dominican Republic. And although it is practiced openly and widely accepted as legal by police, the legal gray area leaves women powerless.
“Women are left with no rights, and police take advantage of that. They arrest them or harass them for money,” Montero said.
In Boca Chica, women said the tourism police regularly fleece them. “They come to you — these are guys that you know and see every day, you know them — and all the sudden they detain you,” said a 24-year-old woman who goes by Orchid. She declined to provide her full name for fear of retribution from police. “And then you have to pay or someone you know has to pay to get you out.” That bribe can cost as much as $25, she said.
Asked about the allegation, the local tourism police supervisor waived his hand and said he couldn’t talk to reporters without the public relations office first clearing it.
For Orchid, it wasn’t a deterrent. “Tonight,” she said, scanning a beach of tourists sporting Speedos, “is going to be busy.”