On Saturday, the Webb County Sheriff’s office arrested a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, Juan David Ortiz, in connection with the serial killings of four women and the kidnapping of a fifth.
The news was shocking in the breadth and scope of its violence — four women killed in a two week long spree — and in the revelation that these crimes were committed by a federal law enforcement agent. What was less shocking, was the way the press labeled and judged the victims, all of whom were involved in sex work.
The Associated Press first reported the news on its Twitter feed at 12:08 a.m. describing the victims as women. Less than an hour later, they’d changed the word “women” to "prostitutes."
It took nearly a full day for the news outlet to reconsider their wording. They took down the original tweet replacing it with one that explained, “The AP has deleted a tweet about killings in Texas because it identified four individuals allegedly murdered by a Border Patrol officer as prostitutes, rather than as women or victims.”
WOW. LOOK AT THESE TIME STAMPS.— Jackie Fielder (@FielderJackie) September 16, 2018
The @AP went OUT of its way to take down a tweet that actually dared to call 4 deceased people “women” and put up a new one calling them “prostitutes.”
Show these people some fucking dignity after they’ve been killed by the State, won’t you? pic.twitter.com/kb5YruD8d6
In life and in death, sex workers are routinely dehumanized and left out of the conversation about violence against women — despite the fact that, as Mic reports, the homicide rate for female sex workers is estimated to be 204 per 100,000. This is a higher occupational mortality rate than any other group of women ever studied.
The AP has deleted a tweet about killings in Texas because it identified four individuals allegedly murdered by a Border Patrol officer as prostitutes, rather than as women or victims.— The Associated Press (@AP) September 16, 2018
And yet, over and over, cis and transgender female sex workers are blamed for their own deaths, when there murders are covered in the press at all.
In August, 23-year-old Donna Dalton was shot eight times by undercover police officer Andrew Mitchell in Columbus, OH. The officer alleged that Dalton stabbed him in the hand after he tried to arrest her in a prostitution sting. However, at the time of her death, Dalton, who was not in handcuffs, was trapped inside the officer’s unmarked car and may have been protecting herself from sexual assault. At the time of Dalton’s murder, Mitchell was under an active internal affairs investigation.
Despite all of this, headlines repeatedly referred to Dalton as both an “attacker” and a “prostitute” when reporting her death. On their official Twitter account, the Columbus Police Department explained the incident saying that “a Vice Unit officer working prostitution complaints attempted to take female suspect into custody & was stabbed. He fired multiple shots. Knife recovered.” This narrative implicates Dalton in her own death and portrays the officer as the endangered party, despite the fact that studies find that sex workers regularly experience violence from police.
This isn’t the first time the Associated Press (or other news organizations) have used headlines that reinforce negative stereotypes. In March, two male reporters referred to a teenager who murdered his classmate as "lovesick." Almost immediately readers came forward to express their outrage that that the killer’s actions were being excused or normalized by using a turn of phrase that evoked a mopey boy undone by romance to describe a violent man who’d committed homicide.
In the case of Ortiz’s victims, the reference to them as prostitutes, before identifying them in any other way, serves to further a narrative that sex workers are actively — even blithely — courting danger and therefore are somehow complicit in their murders. And as the moral panic around sex work continues, the recent misguided passage of the FOSTA/SESTA laws have actually made sex workers lives even more dangerous. Whereas once they could use online platforms like Craigslist and Backpage to create a community that allowed for the screening of potentially dangerous patrons, the FOSTA/SESTA laws have forced many women to solicit unvetted clients on the streets.
Indeed, law enforcement is crediting the tight knit nature of the sex worker community in Laredo, Texas for Oritz’s capture. His intended fifth victim knew two of his earlier victims — one was her friend Melissa. She said recognized that Ortiz was acting strangely when she asked about Melissa. Her mind and body on heightened alert, she was able to escape from Ortiz’s car when he grabbed her shirt and pulled out a gun. Her shirt torn from her body, she located a State Trooper and hours later Ortiz was in custody.
Webb County-Zapata County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz told the Washington Post that while all of the victims came from within the sex worker community, he may not have targeted them at random. Alaniz also praised the fifth victim, whose name is being withheld, saying Ortiz’s killing spree might have continued had she not shown such bravery.