Texas Serial Killings Highlight the Need to Decriminalize Sex Work

Mugshots, front and profile views, of a man wearing a jail-striped shirt
Border Patrol supervisor Juan David Ortiz confessed to the serial murders of four women in and around Laredo, Texas, in September 2018 (mugshot via Webb County Sheriff's Office)
A U.S. Border Patrol supervisor confesses to the serial murders of four women in Laredo, spotlighting the dangers of sex work -- and pointing to the need for its decriminalization

U.S. Border Patrol supervisor and confessed serial killer Juan David Ortiz stalked sex workers in and around Laredo, Texas — picking them up off the street, driving them to deserted patches of freeway, then shooting them in the head during a two-week spree that ended with his arrest early on Saturday morning, September 15.

Ortiz, 35, reportedly confessed to killing four women, one of them transgender. Jailed on a $2.5 million bond, he has been charged with four counts of murder and two additional counts related to his attempted kidnapping of a fifth woman, who fought Ortiz and fled after he pointed a gun at her while they were at a gas station.

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That woman approached a state trooper shortly after her escape, reporting the incident and showing law enforcement personnel where Ortiz lived. In an interview with the Washington Post, Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz praised the woman , saying there likely would have been more victims if not for her courage.

As they hail the woman as a hero, some advocates for sex workers’ rights are going even further, arguing that this latest example of violence offers evidence that sex work should be decriminalized.

In an interview with Front Page Confidential, filmmaker Juliana Piccillo, a former sex worker who is the director of the Tucson, Arizona, chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), said the account of how Ortiz is believed to have hunted down and killed his victims underscores the need for safe working conditions for sex workers.

As Piccillo sees it, that means decriminalization.

“If sex workers could do their jobs in the light of day, serial killers would have eyes on them,” Piccillo wrote in a direct message via Twitter. “It would be far more difficult to abduct and murder sex workers over and over again.”

Sex workers must “assess risk in a split second because the police are constantly surveilling them,” Piccillo went on to explain.  Often they’re afraid to approach law enforcement, she added, “because they might be charged or humiliated in the process.”

(Note: In the context of sex work, decriminalization typically refers to removing all criminal laws that prohibit the sale and/or purchase of commercial sex by consenting adults. That’s distinctly different from legalization, which would make sex work lawful but potentially subject to all manner of government regulation.)

For many advocates, Ortiz’s arrest demonstrates that sex workers have reason to fear violence and exploitation from law enforcement.

Ortiz was reportedly off-duty when he preyed on his victims, according to Alaniz, the district attorney, who told the Texas Tribune that there was “nothing that suggested that [Ortiz] did this under the cover or authority of law.”

In the same interview, Alaniz was quoted as saying, “It’s super unfortunate and tragic. It’s not a reflection of Border Patrol, they do a great job protecting our borders, they’re super professional and the work they do is important.”

However, Alaniz’s office is prosecuting another Border Patrol supervisor, Ronald Anthony Burgos-Aviles, for first-degree murder in the deaths of his lover and their year-old child.

Cristine Sardina, director of the Desiree Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to sex workers’ rights, isn’t buying Alaniz’s reassurances.

“Law enforcement put forth a statement that stated, ‘We shouldn’t judge law enforcement by [one] bad apple,'” Sardina wrote in an email to Front Page Confidential. “It seems there’s a whole lot of bad apples that are not held responsible for the job they are here to do.  As a ten-year veteran of law enforcement, he just got caught. Are there more? How many women has he murdered and raped? He didn’t just become a murderer and a rapist in the last few weeks.”

Though she acknowledges that decriminalization would allow women to “work safer” in the sex industry, Sardina says she’s so skeptical of law enforcement that she doubts even such a radical step would put an end to abuses of power.

Regardless, decriminalization would seem to be a distant goal, given the ongoing nationwide crackdown on commercial sex. This year saw both the U.S. government’s seizure of the listings behemoth Backpage.com and passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a federal statute that effectively outlaws the advertisement of sex work online.

Sex workers say the one-two punch combined to leave them with no safe means to vet potential clients, which is pushing them into street-based sex work — a vocation advocates say is inherently more dangerous.

As a result, Piccillo and others say, they’ve noticed an increase in anecdotal accounts of murdered and missing sex workers.

“In the aftermath of the shutdown of Backpage and several other online advertising sites, it’s clear prohibition is deadly,” Piccillo observed.

That analysis is bolstered by academic research.

A 2017 study by researchers at Baylor and West Virginia universities found that adult ads on Craigslist reduced the overall homicide rate for women on average by more than 17 percent. (Craigslist began offering an adult-services section in 2002, only to abruptly remove it 2010 in response to pressure from state attorneys general — providing the researchers with a precise point of demarcation.)

The paper cited other research showing that sex work is by far the most dangerous profession for U.S. women, and that female prostitutes make up more than 50 percent of all serial-killer victims.

That last fact is memorialized every December 17, when sex workers and their supporters worldwide observe International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

Created to honor those who were murdered by Gary Ridgeway, Seattle’s Green River Killer, the date now serves to remember and combat all such violence.

One of America’s most prolific serial killers, Ridgeway pleaded guilty in 2003 to the murders of 48 women, many of them runaways or suspected prostitutes, though his actual number of victims is believed to be much higher.

In a chilling statement to the court admitting his guilt, Ridgeway said that he chose sex workers as victims in part because “they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing.”

See Also:
“Fear, Outrage, Activism: Sex Work After FOSTA/SESTA and the Demise of Backpage”

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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