In mid-April, I arrived in Panama for an 18-day stay at the Trump International Hotel & Tower. One weekday night I found myself at Habano’s Cafe, a well know bar and nightclub where it is very simple to find prostitutes, mostly women from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. “I am from Philly got some great pussy out of here,” one enthusiast commented about the YouTube video I just linked to.
On this night I was hanging out after a long day of reporting and two Colombian woman approached me, and I bought them a drink. My main reason for being there was because I had noticed a lot of prostitutes at the Trump property and was curious if women from outside establishments were also welcome there. And indeed they were.
(Let me emphasize here that I’m not a moralist and I have a lot of respect for women who work as prostitutes. Most of them clearly don’t want to do it and have to put up with a lot of assholes, so I feel for them. I have previously written about prostitution, including this piece in Slate, “A Brief Tour of the Cambodian Sex Industry; Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?.”)
My two new friends were very interesting conversationalists but mostly they were aggressively seeking to convince me that a threesome was a great idea. I told them I had a girlfriend in Washington, which in no way deterred them. “But she’s in Washington and you’re here,” one replied.
I shifted ground, saying that I was at the Trump property and surely they could not escort me to my room at such a high-brow place. They both said that was no problem, they’d been to the Trump many times. And they weren’t lying because they knew the place, and described how they could go to an elevator on the ground floor — that’s where the entrance to the property’s condos are — and I could go to the elevator in the hotel lobby level, on the 15th floor as I recall, and they’d meet me in my room.
They proposed this sensible solution not because they had a problem coming with me through the front door, but to save me some cash. While they knew a number of doormen who would wave them through, the deal at the Trump is that you stop at reception and pay $100 per companion so I would be up, literally, $200 if they snuck upstairs.
(Note here that a U.S.-based Trump company managed the hotel until a few months ago — and another one managed the condos until a few years ago, until the condo owners fired Trump for gross mismanagement — and took a cut of every hotel booking. It also took a cut of food and drink sales ordered at the hotel’s restaurants and bars. So it’s more than fair to say that Trump and his family — he and Eric and Ivanka were involved deeply in the project and were the officers of the management companies — benefited directly from prostitution. I’ll have more on this a little later.)
My Colombian friends’ cost-saving plan was hard to gainsay — though I was going to need to pay them $200 each, plus, no doubt, they would expect a tip — but I said I was just too tired and I wasn’t up for it. “Look, if we leave now you’ll have two hours with us and be asleep by midnight,” replied one. (It was about 9:30 p.m. at that point.) Anyway, finally I just said no, maybe some other night, and they gracefully accepted defeat.
The saddest part of the whole story came when I asked, “Hey, why do you come from Colombia to work here. I’ve been to Colombia and prostitution is legal. Wouldn’t it be easier to just work there?”
“Are you crazy?” one of them replied, saying something blindingly obvious but that had never occurred to me. “What would happen if my father or brother or a friend walked into a place where I was working and saw me? I would be totally humiliated and it would ruin my life.”
I hadn’t gone to Panama to look into prostitution, but it was staring me in the face from the moment I got there. That’s because I went to the Trump property’s casino my first night in town — it is owned and managed by a South African firm and you have to go out the Trump front door and turn immediately right to enter it — and prostitutes were everywhere. Indeed, well more than half of the female customers at the casino bar on the multiple nights I went there were prostitutes.
Prostitution is legal in Panama but only at a few spots — the casino at the Trump property was not one of them — and women who work the trade have to be licensed and get regular health checks. The women working at the casino are called “pescadores,” or fisherwomen, because they are the bait for casino customers and people staying and living at the Trump.
Many hotels in Panama allow prostitution but not all, and most brand name hotels don’t openly encourage it and some flat out bar it, according to local sources. Prostitution is reportedly not nearly as obvious, for example, at the Sheraton and Marriott.
Prostitution is not just tolerated at the Trump property casino, it’s encouraged. One prostitute, a drop dead beauty of around 20, from a small town in Panama, told me the casino general manager briefed the pescadores about the rules, i.e. don’t be too aggressive, the expected dress code and general behavior. I also routinely saw prostitutes in the hotel and coming out of the condo residences; I’d go up to my room at midnight or 1 a.m. and see young women, some certainly teenagers, getting on and off the elevators and coming or going to hotel or condo rooms.
Prostitutes I met at the casino told me there was no problem coming to my hotel room. Rates for their services varied from $80 to $200 per hour. I got the phone number of one woman, from a nearby South American country, whose WhatsApp profile picture showed her hanging out at the Trump property. She told me she and other prostitutes had no problem going to the property’s restaurants, bars and the Infinity pool.
As noted above, women at outside properties, some quite seedy like Habano’s and others ever so slightly more upscale, like the Veneto Hotel & Casino, also said they had no problem coming to the Trump and some claimed to be regulars at the hotel and condo units.
(Incredibly, Panama’s horrible president, Juan Carlos Varela, President left yesterday — November 15, 2017 — for an official visit to China and the delegation included Julio Diaz Strunz, whose Facebook page says he worked at Habano’s. I am told by a highly reliable source that he had some sort of significant role at the establishment. See image below.)
The Veneto used to be owned by the sleazy Andrew Silverman, who got creamed in this delightful New York Post story, “In the ‘ho’-tel biz: Lauren Silverman’s husband owns Panama ‘prostitute’ palace.” Here’s the lede:
It just gets seamier.
Simon Cowell’s baby mama is married to a guy who co-owns a Panama City resort that’s notorious as a haven for hookers.
Friends and relatives of cuckolded hubby Andrew Silverman have tried to claim the moral high ground on his behalf since he sued wife Lauren for divorce last month after she got knocked up by his friend Cowell.
But the sleazy atmosphere at the Veneto — which the Silverman family bought for $90 million in 2007 — is hard to ignore.
At the Veneto one night a Brazilian woman offered her services and told me she come come to the Trump hotel, where she’d been before. “It’s $100 and I won’t take less,” she said in making her pitch.
“Sorry, I’m not interested,” I replied.
“OK,” she shot back without hesitation. “$80.”
Trump supporters will claim he and his family are not running the casino so he’s not directly involved, but by now that’s pretty obviously ridiculous. I’d also note here that I talked to two hotel bellboys on two different days and told them that I wanted to bring a woman to my room. They confirmed, as various prostitutes told me directly, that there was no problem and all I needed to do was pay $100 per night, per female, at reception.
Trump and his family, through the management company, took a percentage of every room booking so it’s clear they were profiting. The Trump family, through the management company, also would have benefited because the management company got a cut of restaurant and bar sales at the property as well.
I’m not a lawyer but the Trumps were also almost certainly moving money from Panama into the U.S., where the hotel and management companies were based, and it would be curious to know how that money was routed.
Personally I have mixed feelings about all of this because as regrettable that it is that some women have to work as prostitutes, many even traveling to Panama from neighboring countries, these women have to make money, and good-paying jobs are scarce. But it would be interesting to know what conservative evangelicals, Trump’s base, make of all this since they are, in theory, so terribly opposed to prostitution and in most instances would view some of the women who work at the Trump property as “trafficked.”