BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - In this predominantly Catholic nation, prostitution has long been considered a sin before God and a crime by law.
But thousands of women who practice the world's oldest profession are now demanding it be treated as precisely that - a profession, just like any other. They have formed the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina, known by its acronym AMMAR - the word amar means "to love" in Spanish - and have appealed for government recognition as an official union.
It would be the first sex workers' union in Latin America, and one of a handful in the world. And it has led to disputes - and perhaps death.
The prostitutes' demand for equal labor rights has encountered political opposition led by the Roman Catholic Church. On the streets, union activists have run up against Argentina's notoriously corrupt police, some of whom force the women to give them a cut of their profits and who stand to lose if prostitution is decriminalized.
And, at the end of last month, one of the movement's leaders, 33-year-old Sandra Cabrera, was found dead, a bullet through the back of her neck, in the red-light district of Rosario, Argentina's second-largest city.
According to provincial Interior Minister Alberto Gianneschi, "there are suspicions of police involvement" in the killing of Cabrera, who in recent months had reported death threats against herself and her 9-year-old daughter. In September, Cabrera had accused the provincial police of protecting illegal brothels, and harassing and extorting street prostitutes, which led to the dismissal of two officers in charge of the Department of Public Morality.
"The police used to pass by frequently, but that night they didn't pass by at all, as if they had freed the zone for crime," says Elena Reynaga, secretary general of AMMAR. "That's why we're totally certain it was them.
"Sandra fought a lot with the owners of the brothels in that area, and last year they actually beat her. What they wanted was to drive out the girls at the corner, because evidently this went against their business. And Sandra defended to the death that corner with her companeras."
Two other prostitutes belonging to AMMAR were killed in suspicious circumstances last year, although neither had the stature of Cabrera, who ran the organization in the province and was a public figure in Rosario.
Since being founded nine years ago, AMMAR has incorporated about 1,700 members nationwide, making it one of the world's largest organizations of prostitutes, according to Ana Lopes, who leads the London-based International Union of Sex Workers. The organization operates as an unofficial union under the auspices of the CTA, Argentina's second-largest union confederation, and arguably its most powerful.
Members of AMMAR dedicate much of their time to educating prostitutes about HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as labor and legal rights. They hand out condoms, offer grade school and high school equivalency courses, and distribute bags of basic foodstuffs donated by the government to those prostitutes living in poverty.
But the organization's most recognized achievement has been reducing police action against prostitutes. Staging public protests and lobbying local legislatures, AMMAR has helped pressure authorities into stopping the police from arresting street prostitutes in three cities and in one province.
Still, in most of Argentina, prostitutes are faced with paying bribes to corrupt police or being thrown in jail.
Technically, prostitution is not illegal in Argentina, but most provinces have laws that allow the police to arrest prostitutes for causing "scandal in the public thoroughfare."
Pimping is illegal, but brothel owners are rarely taken to jail. Instead, they often form part of a shady business alliance with the police.
Nearly all of the members of AMMAR work on the street; they are neither the high-priced prostitutes who frequent five-star hotels nor those employed in brothels. Members of AMMAR say many women who work in brothels do so because they are provided with protection from the police, who negotiate directly with the owners, and from the dangers of the street, while some want to keep their profession a secret from family and friends.
These brothels, which are illegal but tolerated by authorities, are notorious for oppressive conditions and for being centers of child prostitution.
"The police should be out using the penal code to fight these crimes," says Elisa Carca, a former senator from Buenos Aires province who presented a bill that would decriminalize street prostitution. "But not only are they not doing this, they end up persecuting the real victims, the street prostitutes, and forcing them to negotiate for money."
AMMAR leaders say a government-recognized union would allow them to more effectively push for decriminalization, while fighting against child prostitution. As an unofficial union, AMMAR lacks legal standing to file formal complaints against abuses.
Opposition to decriminalization has been spearheaded by the Catholic Church.
More than 90 percent of Argentines are nominally Catholic, and although the church's power has waned in recent decades, it wields considerable influence among the nation's political elite.
"Prostitution is a social blight," says Ana Maria Molina Gowland, who heads the women's commission at the archdioceses in Buenos Aires province.
"Decriminalizing it is only going to result in worse evils. This would allow public morals to relax and prostitution to increase. We have to look for other solutions that provide alternatives for these women."
The idea of forming a union also has its detractors among some prostitutes, including several dozen in Buenos Aires who left AMMAR to form their own organization. The splinter group, called Association AMMAR, wants to help women find a way out of prostitution.
The organization has formed a sewing project with 24 prostitutes that is financed by the city government, with the hope of starting a small cooperative that would produce and sell children's clothes.
AMMAR leaders agree that the ultimate goal of organizing is to create the conditions so that no woman is forced into prostitution. But reaching an attractive alternative within prostitution or in other occupations is no small task in Argentina, which is suffering the after-effects of the deepest depression in its history.
In a grungy park in front of a train station in the heart of the Buenos Aires garment district, Elsa Caballero sits on a bench waiting for potential clients. Dressed modestly in black pants and a blue sweater, with graying light-brown hair, she gives little sign of her profession.
Caballero says that the police no longer arrest her, thanks in large part to AMMAR's lobbying. But since the economy collapsed, there is more competition and less work.
"AMMAR was born so that nobody has to do this job," says Jorgelina Sosa, 34, who heads AMMAR in the city of Buenos Aires. "We aren't what is sold on television, that image of the sex worker who spends all day in a miniskirt with her nails painted, a cigarette in her mouth and high heels. No, we're humans, we're people, we're women, and we have the same rights as any other woman, and moreover, most of us are mothers, and some grandmothers. I would like a dignified job, to not be a sex worker anymore, but it's not so easy."