Ex-guerillas in Colombia push to legalize sex work, former prostitute speaks out

Amidst the armed conflict, the guerrillas became both my clients and my overlords. Trapped in deep sadness and helplessness, the notion of freedom faded into a distant dream.

  • 4 months ago
  • December 16, 2023
7 min read
Mary Luz Lopez Henao delivers a powerful speech about her personal journey through the armed conflict, her challenging times including prostitution, and condemning the actions of former guerrilla members. | Photo courtesy of Mary Luz Lopez Henao Mary Luz Lopez Henao delivers a powerful speech about her personal journey through the armed conflict, her challenging times including prostitution, and condemning the actions of former guerrilla members. | Photo courtesy of Mary Luz Lopez Henao
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Mary Luz Lopez Henao, a 46-year-old Colombian author from Nariño, Antioquia, overcame a challenging past, including a kidnapping by the FARC in 2002, leading her to work as a prostitute. Turning her life around, she authored ‘I Raise My Voice’ and ‘The War Made Me Whore,’ books that denounce her experiences. Today, she is a renowned speaker across Colombia and a dedicated mother of two, symbolizing resilience and change.
background information
In Colombia, the Comunes party, established by former FARC combatants, has proposed a bill to regulate sex work in collaboration with groups like Astrasex and Putamente Poderosas. The bill aims to legalize various forms of sex work, including webcam modeling and escorting, treating service providers as employees. It defines sex work as consensual, paid activity between adults, distinct from crimes like human trafficking. The proposal emphasizes the significance of consent, which can be withdrawn at any time, in these interactions. However, the bill has faced criticism, as highlighted in a recent article, for potentially revictimizing those affected by sexual exploitation.

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — In 2002, armed guerrillas ambushed me in the La Iguaná ravine in Medellín, Colombia. The experience shattered any sense of peace I had and thrust me into a world of fear and uncertainty. I quickly faced a harsh new reality: we were not safe. Fleeing my home, I became a prostitute in an unknown town. All the while, I struggled to maintain my dignity.

Now, over 20 years later, ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces proposed legislation to legalize sex work and it reopened old wounds. To see these men seek to legitimize sex work felt like a dismissal of my story and the stories of so many victims. My pain transformed into motivation, and I decided to fight the policy, armed with my experiences.

Now, as an activist, I confront these issues head-on. I challenge the ex-guerrillas’ role in regulating sex work. My journey, which was filled with exploitation and loss, fuels my advocacy. I aim to help those trapped in similar situations and I stand against normalizing practices rooted in violence and trauma. 

Read more stories about Colombia at Orato World Media.

Guerrilla fighters left us terrified of being targetted

As a young woman in Medellín’s La Iguaná ravine, I worked under the hot sun clearing debris. Clad in work gloves and boots, I cut weeds with my machete and found peace in the ravine’s beauty. As I worked, my mind often drifted to my children at home.

One day, members of an armed guerrilla group disrupted my calm. They threateningly ushered a group of us into a cave and demanded we kneel for an interrogation. They claimed to be searching for someone. Facing a hooded man, we feared making a fatal mistake, despite our innocence. I spent that day engulfed in terror, and we lost a piece of our freedom when they released us.

Trudging home, I realizing my once-safe neighborhood had become a danger zone. The possibility of being targeted by the guerrillas or their rivals loomed large every day. After an anonymous caller on the phone spoke the words “rest in peace” to my mother, I knew I needed to do something. With my family’s safety at stake, I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave everything behind.

My story mirrors the tough choices many people face in conflict zones, where survival means sacrificing everything familiar for a chance at safety. Heeding a friend’s advice, I found myself in an unfamiliar town, jobless, and desperate for money. At that time, not a single option existed for me to support my family, and I reluctantly turned to prostitution. Overwhelmed, shy, and humiliated, I endured being paraded around town by the brothel owner. She crudely advertised us as “new meat” to lure in local men. I quickly felt dejected and trapped.

Adapting to life as a prostitute, Guerillas became clients and overlords

Adapting to life as a prostitute felt like a slow and painful ordeal. I spent nights at the bar, waiting for clients, whom I disdainfully referred to as “whorers.” Although I resisted at first, I soon gave in to it, coping by numbing my emotions with alcohol. Night after night, in a rundown, makeshift room propped up by beer crates and cardboard, I encountered numerous men.

The stench of alcohol and cigarettes on their breath hovered in the air. I tried to detach myself, existing only as a body to get through each encounter. During those years, my identity diminished to a single name given to me by those who paid for my time: Yayita. Plagued by guilt, my religious beliefs intensified my torment. I felt like I was committing unforgivable sins. Every morning, I prayed and pleading to survive.

My desperation led me to the commission agents at the transport terminal, who I believed could offer me a way out. Naively, I never foresaw the darker reality, being ensnared in human trafficking. They took my identification and confined me for 20 days. Amidst the armed conflict, the guerrillas became both my clients and my overlords. Trapped in deep sadness and helplessness, the notion of freedom faded into a distant dream.

The toll of prostitution became too much

I had one particular client named Andrés who became a regular in my life. Unlike the others, Andrés gave me a sense of comfort and gradually, I fell in love with him. He was kind and helped me rebuild my self-esteem. When I moved in with him, I left prostitution, hoping this marked a new beginning. However, in 2008, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tragically took him away.

Rumors whispered through the streets: they executed him and disposed of his body in the river. Losing Andrés felt like losing part of my soul. Though his fate never became official, his brutal end haunted me every day. The loss pushed me back into prostitution and my self-worth dwindled until the clients’ compliments became my only solace.

I never learned to love myself. Rather, I sought validation from men. Eventually, the toll on my body and mind became overwhelming, and I fell ill. One day, my daughter directly asked me, “Do you prostitute yourself?” Her question shattered everything. I gathered my children together for a raw, honest conversation. Admitting the truth to them pained me deeply, but they deserved to hear it. Their heart-wrenching reaction led me to promise I would never return to that life.

For years, I repressed that dark chapter of my life but when I came upon old medical records, the memories returned. When I linked my initial kidnapping with the prostitution and interaction with the guerillas, I finally came to understand the full extent of violence I endured due to the armed conflict in Colombia. So, I took action, filing a complaint and seeking help. Psychologists from the victims’ unit came to my aid, significantly advancing my process of recovery.

Ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attempt to legitimize sex work

As part of my healing, I began writing in order to process my story. Today, I understand it much more. Medellín, like much of this country, suffers deeply from violence, with drug trafficking at its core. I saw that world first-hand. So, to witness former perpetrators of terror – people who exploited women and girls – standing as the voice to regulate sex work deeply disturbs me.

When I learned that ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia intended to legitimize sex work, a wave of anger swept over me. Watching the news, that anger was followed by disappointment and grief. It took me right back to those dark and humiliating memories. The armed conflict in Colombia drove me to prostitution, and it left deep emotional scars.

Yet, I quickly moved past the initial shock and made a decisive choice: to use my story to fight injustice. My goal is to prevent others from suffering as I did and to honor those who cannot share their stories. For years, I hid my past. No more. Now, I am dedicated to shedding light on these issues, raising public awareness, and advocating for change. I am committed to protecting women from the dark underworld that nearly swallowed me whole.

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