Philippine 'sin city' loses lustre after US Marine is accused of murdering transgender

Students looking on alongside the USS Peleliu in the northern Philippine port city of Olongapo on Octobar 14, 2014. The two ships were in the Philippines for just-concluded joint amphibious opeation exercises. However the USS Peleliu may be staying l
Students looking on alongside the USS Peleliu in the northern Philippine port city of Olongapo on Octobar 14, 2014. The two ships were in the Philippines for just-concluded joint amphibious opeation exercises. However the USS Peleliu may be staying longer as one of the US marines aboard became the main suspect in the murder of a Filipino transgender person in Olongapo on the weekend. Philippine police plan to charge the marine with murder in a case that will test the Visiting Forces Agreement governing legal liability of US troops during exercises between the two close allies. -- PHOTO: AFP

OLONGAPO, Philippines (AFP) - Standing beneath shimmering red lights, bar bouncer John Bunsoy bemoaned the loss of free-spending United States 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 Mr 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.

Mr Bunsoy was interviewed about the murder by the 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.

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 Ms 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 (S$57), about five times the minimum daily wage, and the authorities mostly look the other way.

"The entertainment (sex) industry is an important means of livelihood for many people here," said Ms 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," Ms Ubuta said.

"When I was younger I was like Jennifer, doing Americans," Ms Benjie Perez, a transgender former sex worker who manages a beauty salon on the strip, told AFP.

"There is no denying Jennifer's beauty. People paid money to gain access to her beauty," said Ms Perez.

Ms Kate Montecarlo Cordova, chief of the Association of Transgender People of the Philippines, said most transgender Filipinos suffer discrimination at conventional workplaces.

"There are a lot of trans women who engage in sex work due to unemployment," Ms Cordova told AFP.

But Olongapo police insist violent crime is rare.

The only previous case involving transgenders was a 2013 complaint for slight injuries, Ubuta said.

Police say prostitutes seek their help mainly to go after non-paying customers, while their clients sometimes report thefts.

The last American serviceman to get in trouble was Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2006 for the rape of a young Filipina he met in a bar on Olongapo's outskirts.

He was acquitted and walked free in 2009 when the victim recanted her testimony.

Murder or not, Manila is set to push ahead with a new accord signed with Washington in March that would allow US troops greater access to Philippine facilities - in support of President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia.

Hotel manager Mose said he expected the US military to return because it sent out scouts last year to inspect Magsaysay hotel rooms, bars and restaurants.

"They are good business," she said.