By Monica Campbell
Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho exposed the web of business and political elites behind a child pornography ring. Since then, the list of her enemies has grown to include some of the most powerful men in Mexico.
Lighting a small candle in her office on a balmy morning in Cancún, Lydia Cacho Ribeiro is the picture of calm as she recounts the day nearly a decade ago when her work as an investigative journalist almost killed her. In 1999, soon after she'd begun to report and publish articles about violence against women, a thin blond man assaulted Cacho in a Cancún bus station, raped her and left her crumpled on the floor with broken bones. The man was never caught, but Cacho believes the crime was retaliation for her work.
Far from cowing her into silence, however, the assault only spurred Cacho— today perhaps Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate—to intensify her fight against gender-based violence. The year after the rape, she founded a shelter for battered women. She then began a series of ever-deepening investigations into child pornography and sex-trafficking rings in Cancún that culminated in the 2005 publication of The Demons of Eden. The book propelled her onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and eventually into the halls of Mexico’s Supreme Court. It also put her on a collision course with some of the most powerful men in the country. As her investigations cut to the heart of what she calls the "culture of impunity" at the highest reaches of Mexican politics and business, retaliations became increasingly elaborate.
"You are under arrest," police told Cacho on December 16, 2005, as they cornered her outside her office. They were from the state of Puebla, more than 900 miles away, and lacked jurisdiction in Cancún, a fact that alerted Cacho to the likelihood that her arrest was a power play by Puebla textile baron Kamel Nacif Borge, one of Mexico’s wealthiest men. The Demons of Eden had named Nacif, who is known as the King of Blue Jeans, as a crony of Jean Succar Kuri, a 63-year-old Lebanese hotel and retail mogul currently on trial for child pornography in Mexico.
After the cops muscled her into their car, her ordeal began. The officers, she says, forced a gun barrel in her mouth and threatened to rape her. They drove to a beachfront pier and said they would make her jump. Cacho faced the ocean, shaking with fear, when one received a call on his cell phone. "Yes sir, yes sir, okay sir," he said. He hung up, turned to Cacho and said, "Change of plans. You're famous, you're on TV."
Her captors put her back in their car and began the 20-hour drive to Puebla, where a frenzy of local reporters who had been tipped to the arrest awaited. She was taken to jail—ostensibly held on defamation and libel charges filed by Nacif—and was released on $10,000 bail the same day. Two days later, Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action— the first of several on her behalf— mobilizing thousands of members to write to Mexican authorities to stop the "judicial harassment." The libel charge was dropped two months later, in February, and the defamation charge was dropped in January 2007.
Cacho, her journalism colleagues and local human rights groups suspect that her arrest was orchestrated by a conspiracy of businessmen, politicians, and police allies, many of whom she'd connected to Kuri in her book. With help from such powerful friends, authorities say, Kuri used money and gifts to lure poor children to pool parties at his posh villas in Cancún, then sexually molested or filmed them. Cacho spoke to the sobbing girls who accused Kuri of sex crimes, and she watched the 2003 video secretly taped by Mexican law enforcement that showed Kuri acknowledging his lust for young girls—saying that having them in bed was like "winning the lottery"—and asking one girl to round up her friends. That video led to Kuri's 2004 arrest in the United States by U.S. marshals, acting on an international arrest warrant issued by Mexico, on charges that included child rape and corruption of minors. Cacho wrote The Demons of Eden quickly, desperately, to prevent Kuri from wriggling free of his Arizona jail cell.
Kuri, who was extradited in 2006, maintains that the video recordings of him were altered and that accusers will retract their allegations, as several already have—the result, Cacho says, of hush money or Stockholm syndrome. Yet it was not the sensational twists and turns of the Kuri case that turned Cacho's book into a bestseller. It was the revelation by reporters that the politicians and businessmen linked in Cacho's book had apparently organized her 2005 arrest.
In February 2006, recorded phone calls allegedly between Nacif and Puebla governor Mario Marín were anonymously leaked to reporters, including Blanche Petrich of Mexico's La Jornada newspaper. The blunt conversations—at one point, Marín allegedly refers to Cacho’s arrest, saying he "just smacked that old bitch"—are an indication that Marín may have ordered Cacho's apprehension as a favor to Nacif, an alleged contributor to Marín’s political campaign. In a recording made just days after Cacho's arrest, Nacif calls the governor his hero and offers him two bottles of cognac, according to Petrich. The recorded calls are all the more intriguing because they provide what Petrich calls an extraordinary glimpse of the corrupt world of Mexican politicians and businessmen. Both Marín and Nacif have admitted their voices were on the tapes but say the conversations were altered.
The leaked tape thrust Cacho farther into the national spotlight. Street protests erupted in Puebla, with demonstrators calling for Marín's ouster, and Cacho sued Marín and other officials for violating her civil rights, including her right to free speech. In April 2006, considering the delicate and high-profile nature of the case, Mexico's Supreme Court named a commission to investigate whether government officials had violated her civil rights when she was arrested and brought to Puebla. The report concluded that government officials had indeed conspired against her.
Nacif, for his part, denied wrongdoing in a September 2006 letter published in the leading newspaper El Universal. And Marín formally announced in January 2007 to Puebla state legislators that he had not "committed any crime." He told the legislators that he supported a serious investigation of the case so that there "would be no doubt left over my actions."
When the Supreme Court took up her case—Cacho is the first woman in Mexico’s history to testify in the highest court—its final November 2007 ruling contradicted the special commission’s report by concluding that some 30 officials named in the suit did not conspire against Cacho, and that her rights were not "egregiously" violated. The court also said that the taped telephone conversations could not be used as evidence because they were anonymously delivered and recorded without a warrant.
"There was an agreement between authorities . . . to infringe on the individual rights of the journalist," said Juan Silva Meza, the judge who had spearheaded the commissioned report and voted with the minority.
In protest, Mexico's federal prosecutor for crimes against women, Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte, resigned and argued that the violations against Cacho's human rights were clear. "I, like most Mexicans, looked at what happened in the court with much dismay," she told CNN en Español after announcing her resignation.
Petrich of La Jornada agrees: "It was a major blow. The judges missed a historic opportunity to change our culture of impunity." But while the final ruling disappointed, the importance of Cacho’s decision to fight her detention in Puebla, what she calls a "legal kidnapping," is clear. It forced the Supreme Court to discuss a case that dealt at its core with sexual crimes against minors. The extended legal drama, along with the renewed interest in the book that unleashed the fury, kept the crimes—as well as the corruption and impunity that supported them—in the news. "Just putting these issues in the public eye is one of the triumphs of Lydia’s story," says Alejandra Salas, a Mexican filmmaker who recently completed a documentary about Cacho.
Cacho's commitment to social justice has deep roots. As a child in Mexico City, she accompanied her mother, a feminist psychologist of French and Portuguese descent, into the capital's poorest neighborhoods. While her mother worked on grassroots community-aid projects, Cacho played with the kids. "I was shocked to see children my age getting tired so easily from hunger," says Cacho. "It was actually depressing and strange to me. It was then I started valuing my education and freedom."
As a young adult, she saw Paris, where her grandparents lived, and gathered life experiences there that included working as a maid to studying humanities at the Sorbonne. At age 23, after a near-fatal loss of kidney function and a three-month hospital stay in Mexico City, Cacho made her way to Cancún. She began writing about arts and culture for local newspapers, until one story led her to a strip club where young immigrant prostitutes worked. Not long afterward, she transitioned to radio and television work, began writing a syndicated political column, and delved into unreported stories about violence against women and human trafficking.
Yet acquaintances view Cacho's commitment to social justice differently. "One thing you learn from spending time with Lydia is that she deeply cares for Mexico, its people and culture," says Renata Rendón, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Americas. "There is a natural kind of movement for someone who is passionate about their country to see it progress."
In 2000 she opened the Women’s Assistance Center in a poor area of downtown Cancún, near the city's seedier brothels. Inside the plain, two-story converted house, a poster with bold lettering reads machismo kills—something Cacho and the women who seek refuge there understand in a visceral way. On a recent afternoon, a small girl played on a slide in the indoor patio, while her 22-year-old mother looked on. The two had arrived only days earlier, after the mother decided to flee her alcohol and crack-addicted husband. For years, she says, her husband beat her with the side of his machete at their rural ranch house, and in March he tried to push her into a well during a drunken rage. "I have nightmares that he's chasing me with a machete, but I wake up here and feel okay," says the mother, who requested anonymity. "I’m trying to change my life."
Yet in December 2007 Cacho dismissed her bodyguards, federal police officers. They no longer snap photographs of the people she meets, follow her to the bathroom or stand watch outside her condominium, where she lives alone. She had a near miss in May, just days before she testified at Kuri’s trial, when her driver nearly crashed into a freeway barrier after someone had tampered with the wheels of her car. Still, she asks, why should she trust the state to protect her when Mexico’s top judges ruled against her? Corruption and impunity, after all, are her areas of expertise.
"I feel freer on my own," she says.
In April Cacho published Memoirs of a Scandal—the story how Nacif, Kuri and other powerful men targeted her after the publication of her first book—and dedicated it to assassinated journalists. Then she began her current project, a book about the trafficking of women and girls in Mexico, which is a top destination for sex trafficking from countries like Colombia and Guatemala. Local pimps and club owners came to recognize Cacho, forcing her to don a wig to do her reporting. Unfazed by the risks of plunging even deeper into the criminal underworld, she finished the final chapter during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.
Cacho is by now well aware of the risks of reporting on taboo topics in Mexico, one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, at least 21 reporters in Mexico have been killed by drug traffickers, other organized criminal groups, crooked cops, and henchmen working for corrupt politicians. "Reporters here are kidnapped and never seen again,” Cacho says. "I was found alive. I can’t ignore how unusual that it is."
As she was finishing her book on trafficking, she gazed often at a portrait of Russian investigative journalist Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, who was slain in 2006 following numerous death threats, an arrest by Russian military officers and an attempt to poison her. Cacho says she hopes to grow old but holds on to the image of Politkovskaya as a reminder of the realities of the world.
"People come up to me sometime and say I'm their hero,” says Cacho. "But I’m not Superwoman. There’s no cape. I realize that I still live in a culture of impunity and that honors on a wall can't protect me." ai