Deaths of two sex workers expose loopholes in policy
Both prostitutes had serious medical conditions ~ By Judy H. Fitzpatrick
ST. EUSTATIUS--The deaths of two Spanish-speaking sex workers within one month have exposed loopholes in the country’s Immigration policy, set the rumour mills churning and sparked a heated debate in this eight-square-mile island.
Both Carmela Rodriguez Capellan (22) and Estella Peralta (27) were nationals of the Dominican Republic. They both worked at a small brothel in Zeelandia run by Carol Houtman and the emerging evidence suggests that they both were suffering from serious health conditions.
Peralta reportedly had a serious heart condition and had been advised by her treating physician in the Dominican Republic three years ago that she needed bypass surgery.
Capellan had worked at another brothel here last year and reportedly had been forced to leave the island and return to the Dominican Republic because of health complications. She reportedly had a brain tumour and had been hospitalised in the Dominican Republic for two months before she return to St. Eustatius on March 16 and started working at Zeelandia Entertainment Club. This has been confirmed by Delores “Yolanda” Sosa, an official of Pink Reef Hotel, her former employer.
Zeelandia is home to both of these small brothels. They are the only brothels on the island and there are five to eight imported sex workers, primarily from the Dominican Republic and Columbia, at each of the two establishments at any given time.
An evidently distraught Houtman said Peralta apparently had risked her life to fly to Statia to work as a prostitute to accumulate funds to finance her bypass surgery. But that wasn’t to be. Her efforts were cut short when she succumbed to her condition on March 12 as medical practitioners at Queen Beatrix Medical Centre (QBMC) were trying to revive her.
In separate telephone interviews with The Daily Herald, Health Commissioner Julian Woodley, Temporary Head of Immigration George York, Dominican Association President Virgilio Solano and Progressive Labour Party (PLP) leader Clyde van Putten agreed that the deaths of the two women had brought into focus the need for an urgent review and revision of the Immigration policy as it pertains to sex workers.
Van Putten said the government needed to revise and broaden its Immigration policy to ensure that imported sex workers provided proof that they were completely healthy.
Currently, sex workers are only required to provide proof that they do not have any sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS or diseases such as tuberculosis, a blanket policy covering the Netherlands Antilles. It does not specifically require that the women provide proof that they do not suffer from chronic or life-threatening illnesses.
Senior Immigration Officer Louis Brown said the policy also stipulated that the sex workers be rigorously tested prior to arriving on the island as well as each week during the duration of their employment to ensure that they have not picked up any diseases on the island.
Asked why the medical practitioners hadn’t been able to detect the serious medical conditions of the two women during their weekly checks, Houtman said the women had “lied” about their medical history when asked.
Van Putten said there were questions about how the temporary employment permit had been approved for Capellan to work at Zeelandia Entertainment Club even though she had been forced to leave the island last year after encountering health complications while working at Pink Reef Hotel.
Van Putten also said the fact that sex workers were not allowed to work on the island within one year of their permits expiring, but Capellan had been granted a new permit ahead of that timeframe, raised questions about how this detail had escaped the scrutiny of the authorities.
Death of first sex worker
Houtman explained that it had become clear to him only after she had died that Peralta had applied for the job solely to accumulate funds to offset expenses for bypass surgery. He said Peralta’s death had thrown him into shock, as there had been no indications that she had a serious medical condition. She fell ill suddenly and was rushed to the QBMC where she died.
It was only after she had passed away and after authorities had demanded to see her previous medical records from the Dominican Republic that it was discovered that she had had a heart condition and had needed surgery.
“Her sister and friends also personally told me after the fact that she came to work for money to do the surgery,” Houtman said. Her death certificate indicated that she died of natural causes.
Houtman said one of Capellan’s acquaintances residing on the island had approached him to hire her and based on the service his club offered, he had filed for her papers. He had no idea until after her temporary permit had been issued that she had been working at the other brothel in 2007 and that questions had been raised about her health.
He said he had thought something was amiss last week when Capellan complained about having a headache. She was rushed to the hospital on Saturday, April 5, but then her complaint had changed to “pain in the legs.” She was discharged around midday on Sunday, April 6.
“When I visited her on Sunday, she was in her room laughing with the other girls. I asked her what the problem was and told her if she was ill she should return home, but she insisted that she was alright,” Houtman explained.
She worked on Sunday, April 6, and Monday April 7. “The lady who works in the kitchen (at the brothel) had told me (after Capellan died) that when (Capellan) came out for her food on Sunday, she told her if she was sick she should return home, but she (Capellan) started crying and said she didn’t want to go back.”
Capellan was rushed to the hospital again on Tuesday, April 8, and died shortly afterward as arrangements were being made to fly her to St. Maarten Medical Center for advanced medical care.
The Prosecutor’s Office confiscated Capellan’s body late yesterday and an autopsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. The Daily Herald understands that the doctor reported that she died from “rhythm disorder.”
Up to Wednesday Prosecutor Jacques Van der Horde had said that he hadn’t been officially informed about the second death.
QBMC officials could not be reached to confirm the cause of death, but Sosa, who had employed Capellan from May 2007, said the woman’s siblings in the Dominican Republic had confirmed that she had had a “tumour in her head.”
Sosa said that when she had hired Capellan last year she had complained about severe headaches and despite being rushed to the hospital and taking medication for a week, the headaches had continued with the same intensity.
“She had asked me to send her to the hospital in St. Maarten, but after a week I took her to the airport and sent her back to Santo Domingo,” Sosa said, adding that at one point Capellan had asked her to obtain pain medication that was available only with a prescription, but she had declined to do so because that was illegal.
Sosa said she understood from Capellan’s siblings in Santo Domingo that she had been hospitalised for two months after she returned to the Dominican Republic, where it was discovered that she had a tumour. This newspaper was unable to confirm this with relatives in the Dominican Republic.
“She was very, very ill, but when she was discharged, she had called me and told me she wanted to come back to work, but I told her ‘no, you’re sick.’”
Speculations and rumours
Speculations are rife in the small closely knit island that the two deaths were not due to any health-related issue, but because of some “strange” phenomenon and that drug use and heavy alcohol consumption were involved, but Houtman has dismissed these allegations.
One persistent rumour is that Capellan had consumed a concoction of Hennessey and Red Bull mentioned by several international media houses, including the BBC in its July 12, 2001, online edition, in reporting on investigations into the deaths of several persons who had passed away after consuming concoctions of Red Bull and alcohol.
In its article, BBC quoted the Swedish National Food Administration as issuing a public warning advising people not to drink Red Bull mixed with alcohol or after heavy exercise.
Houtman is not sure what to make of the latter speculation, but he said the entire issue had caused him sleepless nights and had raised many questions in his mind about the two incidents. Even before the body was confiscated late yesterday, Houtman was calling for an autopsy on Capellan’s body to put to rest rumours surrounding her death.
Van Putten has since requested an Island Council meeting in his bid to obtain answers to the many questions he said continued to linger about the two deaths. Van Putten and York said the entire issue exposed loopholes in the system, as both women were ill, but were still granted temporary employment permits.
Van Putten is also concerned about the issue of medical insurance coverage for sex workers. Unlike St. Maarten, sex workers in Statia are not covered by medical insurance. Houtman said he had attempted to secure medical insurance in the past, but had been advised that the insurance company did not cover sex workers because they spent only three-month periods on the island.
According to Van Putten, “What is clear is that they (the Government) have to change and expand the policies. If the system hadn’t any loopholes, these things wouldn’t have happened. These workers have to provide medical records so that the employer can know in advance if the girls are sick. None of us can control death, but there is need for an investigation because two deaths of women from the same brothel in 26 days is highly unusual.”
Solano, who said in his 16 years residing in Statia “nothing like this” had ever occurred, said the deaths had had a severe impact on the Spanish-speaking community on the island. He noted that the community had pooled resources to help with expenses incurred after Peralta had died. Before the body was confiscated he had said Capellan’s death warranted an investigation. “We will be keeping a close eye on the situation to ensure that everything is done right.”
Woodley said the Executive Council planned to look into the issue, but maintained that the issuance of permits for brothel workers did not fall under his competency, but under that of the Lt. Governor.
Lt. Governor Hyden Gittens was off-island for most of Thursday and could not be reached for comment. Acting Lt. Governor Gerald Berkel had agreed to an interview, but in the end he was unable to fit it into his busy schedule.
Meanwhile, as the rumour mills continue to churn in Statia, many residents believe that a policy revision would help stem the possibilities of a recurrence of the two incidents that have shaken up the island’s 3,000-plus population.