Latino Neighborhood Rife with ‘Chicas Cards’

Elected officials say that some ground has been won against the “chicas cards” but that the war is not over. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

Elected officials say that some ground has been won against the “chicas cards” but that the war is not over. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario)

Just steps from a fruit stand on 45th Street and Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, a man around 30 years old quietly hands out brightly-colored cards inviting laborers to “enjoy a hot latina.”

The dark-skinned man, who wears a Mexican fútbol jersey, blends in with others in the lively neighborhood. As soon as a man who may be Latino walks by, he gives him a card and discreetly announces: “Man, we have girls.”

Some of the pedestrians take the card and put it in their pocket. Others look at it quickly and toss it in the nearest trash bin.

“Miss, you have not discovered anything new. This ‘chicas card’ thing and the brothels have been going on for years,” said Mexican merchant Juan Carlos Torres, a Sunset Park resident for almost 20 years, to this reporter. “It used to be more discreet but, lately, that mafia doesn’t mind looking for customers in broad daylight.”

During a walk between 40th and 60th streets, El Diario was handed 10 cards with unique phone numbers and contact names such as Luis, Pedrín and Angelito.

In 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law a bill proposed by Sen. José Peralta and Assembly member Francisco Moya against the cards, which had proliferated along nearly 40 blocks of Roosevelt Avenue and adjacent streets in neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst.

“The law did not do much. You see fewer of these cards on the streets, but the ‘chicas chicas’ (‘girls girls’) don’t go away completely,” said Roberto Meneses, an organizer for Jornaleros Unidos (“United Laborers”), in Woodside.

Day laborer Gonzalo Pérez, who frequents Queens streets, said that it is now women up to 60 years old who are distributing the cards along Roosevelt Avenue. Their inconspicuous appearance helps them evade the authorities.

“These ladies are people from the community. We know them well. They make a living without knowing what is behind it,” said Pérez. “Before, it was young men giving out the cards.”

Assembly member Francisco Moya said that he had not heard about this new distribution method.

State legislation classifies the distribution of more than 10 cards promoting prostitution services in public as a crime. Violators face a fine of $1,000 or up to a year in prison, or both. In spite of the offensive, card distributors have gained ground in other areas in the city.

“Ever since the law was passed, [the number of cards distributed has] been reduced in Queens but they are still being distributed disregarding the rules and limits imposed by the legislation,” said Sen. Peralta. “Some battles have been won, but the war against this shameful and obscene material is not over.”

The elected official said that the fact that the cards are becoming more common in areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx is “bad news.”

“Despite the raids the police sometimes perform, pimps do not cease to exploit women, and continue to distribute shameful material,” said Peralta.

“Chicas cards” are also widespread in Queens neighborhoods such as Jamaica and Astoria, Fordham ‒ in the Bronx ‒ and Upper Manhattan. In Sunset Park, some of the distribution points include churches after Sunday Mass, as is the case of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, located on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.

“Last Sunday, they gave me a card even though I was with my wife and children. I felt more embarrassed than that man,” said Jesús Martínez, a Dominican who lives in the area. “Children are exposed to these immoral pictures.”

It is hard to determine the effectiveness of the chicas cards law. The police said that they do not classify arrests under specific laws. However, in May 2014, the New York Times chronicled the arrest of a Corona man named Adelfo A. López, caught handing out the cards.

The article states that López was charged with promoting prostitution in the fourth degree and that the NYPD said that this was the third time the man was detained for the same reason.

Brothels behind the “chicas cards”

When an El Diario decoy called the number on a “chica card” picked up in Sunset Park, a man’s voice simply said: “Cousin, I’ll call you in a few.” Minutes later, the man sends a text from a different number.

“Cousin, text me back,” it reads. The decoy texts: “I’m in Sunset Park. What do you have around here?”

The man offers Mexican and Salvadoran women, and states that the brothel is on 41st Street and Fifth Avenue. Then he texts: “What are you wearing?” and “I’ll come down and get you.”

This is not the only brothel in the neighborhood. Residents have reported another one on 42nd Street and Second Avenue. It is located inside an inconspicuous, dilapidated building in a solitary area. El Diario stood nearby for a few hours, and reported seeing four women come out and get into taxis heading in different directions. Neighbors say that this is for their “delivery service.”

“I learned about this place because they hired me to do some repairs in the bar on the corner,” said Jacinto, a day laborer from the area. “Everyone around here knows where there are prostitutes.”

Oren Yaniv, spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, said that the authorities know about the distribution of the “chicas cards” in Sunset Park but that there is currently no investigation open linked to brothels.

Several requests for comments made to Council member Carlos Menchaca were not immediately answered. The Latino bastion in Sunset Park belongs to his district.

Still, brothels could be only the tip of the iceberg. Moya said that part of the purpose of the law against “chicas cards” is to combat human trafficking.

“Many of these places are a prison for victims of sexual exploitation,” said Moya. “The end purpose of the authorities’ offensive and of legislation is to eradicate this problem.”

Other counties agree. Hildalyn Colón, spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said that although the community thinks of victims of trafficking as being held captive in a basement, many are actually exploited through intimidation. Financial debt, threats of deportation or to hurt their families and manipulation associated with drugs can be some of the psychological chains that bind these women.

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