Philippine 'sin city' loses lustre after transgender murder

Philippine 'sin city' loses lustre after transgender murder

OLONGAPO, Philippines - Standing beneath shimmering red lights, bar bouncer John Bunsoy bemoaned the loss of free-spending US military clients who have vanished from his Philippine "sin city" after a marine was accused of murdering a transgender sex worker.

The killing in the northern port city of Olongapo, which hosted thousands of US troops who participated in joint military exercises last week, threatens to test longstanding defence ties between Manila and Washington.

The case sparked shock and anger in the city and the victim's relatives are demanding that the accused marine, currently held on a US warship anchored off Olongapo, be jailed in the Philippines.

But it also cast an uncomfortable spotlight on Olongapo's Magsaysay quarter, a sleazy "sin city" of nightclubs, bars and hotels -- much to the dismay of local business owners.

"There's nothing like the Americans," said Bunsoy, a bouncer at the popular Ambyanz bar where the victim was last seen leaving with the accused marine.

"Last night we had zero customers. Right now we have four -- all locals," he told AFP one recent evening.

Bunsoy was interviewed about the murder by police, who concluded that 26-year-old Jeffrey Laude, well-known as Jennifer, died of suffocation in a hotel room after checking in with the suspect.

Magnet for prostitutes

Magsaysay is only a short walk from the US Navy ships anchored at Subic Bay in the northern Philippines, floating fortresses which house 3,000 military personnel while on joint exercises.

The city's sex trade flourished during the Vietnam conflict and Cold War when Subic was a giant naval base hosting tens of thousands of servicemen, but suffered a huge downswing after 1992 when the US military withdrew.

These days, the place comes alive each time Americans - seen as a magnet for prostitutes - disembark from warships coming in for provisioning or for exercises.

"When they're off duty the street outside is packed with Americans. Their presence draws many other tourists," said Elvie Mose, manager of the 40-room Jade Hotel and Restaurant.

But the streets are deserted after the murder, with 3,000 US servicemen, including the murder suspect, ordered off the strip and back to their warships.

While prostitution is illegal in the Philippines with penalties of up to six months in prison, it is openly tolerated in a socially conservative Catholic nation that also bans divorce and abortion and does not recognise same-sex marriages.

Prostitutes charge about 2,000 pesos ($45), about five times the minimum daily wage, and authorities mostly look the other way.

"The entertainment (sex) industry is an important means of livelihood for many people here," said Michelle Ubuta, women's and children's desk section chief of the police precinct that includes Magsaysay.

"Some may be revolted by it, but you can't blame them (sex workers) because this is the only way they will be able to eat three times a day," Ubuta said.

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