Sex trade growing in Spain amid ambiguous prostitution laws
The massive building with neon lights in the form of two palm trees advertises itself as a ''night club''.
Yet the "show girls" dancing inside are no ordinary performers, but prostitutes selling sex in what is being billed as Europe's biggest brothel.
Located in La Jonquera on the Spanish side of the French border, the establishment called Paradise says it employs 150 sex workers offering their services in 80 rooms and a couple of exclusive suites.The "mega-brothel" located in a drab industrial area made national headlines - receiving a barrage of free publicity - after its inauguration sparked protests from local residents.
The growing number of similar establishments in the area was turning it into "the whorehouse of France", La Jonquera Mayor Jordi Cabezas grumbled.
France has toughened its prostitution laws in recent years, banning brothels and restricting street prostitution.
That has touched off an influx of French men into Spanish brothels. The border and the nearby Girona area now have more than a dozen brothels, 80 percent of whose clients are French, according to local media reports.
The phenomenon reverses a trend that existed in Spain during the 1939-75 dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when Spaniards crossed the border into France to watch erotic movies that were banned in their own country.
"We come to Spain for sex," said a man identifying himself as Said, 40, who had come from France to visit Paradise.
Spain's ambiguous prostitution laws have contributed to turning the country into one of Europe's centres for the sex trade.
Some other European countries have either legalised or prohibited prostitution, but the Spanish government and parliament have been unable to agree on either approach, leaving the sex trade in a legal limbo.
As a consequence, an estimated 400,000 prostitutes ply their trade virtually uncontrolled in thousands of brothels as well as flats, cars and sometimes even outdoors - in parks or on the street. The branch is estimated to turn over more than 18 billion euros ($25 billion) annually.
The overwhelming majority of the sex workers are immigrants - often illegal - from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government believes that as many as 90 percent of prostitutes working in Spain have been coerced into the trade.
Many of the sex workers have said they were lured to Spain with false promises, and forced to become prostitutes in order to pay the alleged cost of their trip.
The owner of Paradise, for instance, has been indicted on charges including trafficking with human beings at other brothels he runs. He maintains that all the women working at Paradise do so voluntarily.
The government has pledged to crack down on criminal prostitution rings, but the lack of an overall policy on the trade has left cities and towns without guidelines.
Barcelona, for instance, fines prostitutes or their clients to chase them away from heavily transited areas or from locates close to schools.
In Madrid, the authorities have experimented with methods such as placing video cameras in a central street frequented by prostitutes, or instructing police to harass motorists looking for paid sex.
The authorities feel helpless in places such as La Jonquera, where Cabezas tried to obtain a court order to prevent the opening of Paradise, but lost the case.
Some local entrepreneurs defend the brothel, arguing that it brings business to the village of 3,100 residents, but most locals are against it.
"It gives the municipality a bad image, bringing insecurity and ... drugs," one female resident argued.
"We are still living with an absolute double standard. (Prostitution) activities need to be regulated more, but nobody ... has had the courage to grab the bull by the horns," said Salvador Esteve, mayor of nearby Martorell.