Mexico's Most Wanted Journalist

Lydia Cacho made some powerful enemies by exposing Cancun's sex tourism industry. Now she's taking a historic civil rights case to Mexico's highest court.

| Tue May 1, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Mexico—which Americans often think of as our friendly, tequila-providing neighbor to the south—placed second, after Iraq, on the 2006 Reporters without Borders list of countries most hostile to journalists. Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho knows just how far Mexican authorities will go to shut journalists up. After her 2005 book, Demons of Eden, implicated powerful people in a Cancun child pornography ring, she became a target. Cacho had reported that a Cancun hotel owner named Jean Succar Kuri was orchestrating a child pornography and prostitution ring. She also alleged that a well-placed entrepreneur was protecting Succar Kuri.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Eight months after the book appeared, Cacho was arrested in Cancun by police from the state of Puebla. She was driven to a beachfront pier and told to jump. Fortunately, Cacho is savvy and well connected, and a flurry of urgent faxes to the government and human-rights groups was sent just in time to save her. The police backed down, and after being held in jail for half a day, Cacho was released unharmed. A few months later, audio tapes of Puebla's governor plotting with the entrepreneur to imprison and intimidate Cacho were anonymously provided to a national paper.

Cacho is now suing the government of Puebla for failing to protect her civil liberties. Her landmark case has already caused a significant change in Mexican law, which has seen defamation and slander downgraded from criminal to civil offenses. She is the first woman to have her case heard by the Mexican Supreme Court and one of the first individuals to win the right to argue a civil rights case before the court. Cacho explains, "I truly, honestly, do not believe that what I'm doing is outstanding. I just think I have my rights—not because I think I'm a heroine or anything else, just because I'm a citizen."

Cacho also founded and directs the Refuge Center for Abused Women of Cancun and is the president of the Center for Women's Assistance, which aids victims of domestic violence and gender discrimination. Cacho recently came to San Francisco to accept Amnesty International's Ginetta Sagan Award for Women and Children's Rights. She took a moment out of her whirlwind schedule to talk to Mother Jones at a North Beach coffee shop.

Mother Jones: Could you tell me how you got started writing about sex crimes and prostitution?

Lydia Cacho: I started working as a journalist 20 years ago in Cancun. I've been a feminist since I was a little girl and my mom was a feminist, so I saw everything through that lens, which you can never take off. Every time I interviewed Mayan women or men in the city, I saw that what was going on had a lot to do with discrimination. It's not the main issue that I cover; it's just that it keeps coming out in almost every aspect of society. I started by covering the case of a young woman, 21 years old, who went to the police and told them that she had been part of a network of young women—that hotel owner Succar Kuri had a pornography ring working there, with sex tourism. I started covering the story in the newspaper. I wrote the whole story as a book after I knew that all the things they tried to do through the police were failing because these men are so powerful.

MJ: Do ever find yourself trying to figure out how to balance helping people and trying to write about them?

LC: It's always an issue, of course. First of all, you never, ever pay for evidence, no matter what. Everything we did for all the victims in this case, we did as an institution. I never did anything personal, like taking them to my house. It was through a psychologist, the crisis center, and the shelter.

MJ: How hard is it as a female journalist in Mexico?

LC: It is still a challenge. There's a glass ceiling. With the years, I've started becoming known in the journalistic world as a feminist journalist, or the one who writes about "those things." Newspaper editors call me and ask me to write pieces on certain issues. Then you're marked, and some part of this male-dominated journalistic world doesn't take you very seriously because you write about women's issues. But I don't really care. I just keep going.

MJ: You were arrested for defamation, and in Mexico journalists can be charged regardless of whether or not what they say is true. Do you think that law has something to do with how much corruption there is in Mexico and how politicians manage to get away with it?

LC: Absolutely, that law was created by politicians that belonged to the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power from 1929 to 2000]. The law was created to protect the corruption of the powerful. It's a gag system for the media, and it's worked for a long time. Once we changed to democracy with President Fox—whatever that means, the media was in a frenzy that we had freedom of speech; we could write about anything. And that really, really scared the politicians, and those who have money. They started buying newspapers themselves, to find new ways of controlling the media. Now with my case, the good part of my case is that we were able to change the law. They have decriminalized defamation.

MJ: But you still can be charged even if what you say is true?

LC: Yes, absolutely. That's what the law says. It's amazing: "A fact whether true or untrue," that's how it reads.

MJ: That is pretty crazy.

LC: Yeah, that's what I was telling the judge. I said if some guy is a bank robber and I have a video of him robbing a bank, then I write about him robbing a bank—can I go to jail for that? And he said, "Yes, if the bank robber sues you because his wife didn't know he was a bank robber."

MJ: What do you think about how Mexico is covered in the U.S. media?

LC: I believe that it is hard if you are non-Mexican—or haven't lived in Mexico long enough—to grasp what corruption and impunity mean, not only in politics, but in Mexican culture. When we talk about "femicides"—the way women are being killed, and how these killings are not being investigated—as you go deeper and deeper into that, not only in Juarez, but all over the country, you always hit the same rock, which is a misogynist, sexist society that doesn't really care about women. Corruption is very hard to explain, because it is a cultural issue—it's not an isolated fact.

In my case, you have tapes of the governor of Puebla saying that he's going to put a journalist in jail, and the other guy is saying he's buying girls from Florida and girls from El Salvador. You listen to the tapes and you are overwhelmed—you say this is a complete fantasy! And are they still in office? Yeah. How can you explain that? I don't even know if it can be explained.

MJ: You do seem pretty unwilling to be scared off. What do you think it is about your experiences that makes you that way?

LC: It's the way I was educated in my family. I'm the daughter of a feminist. My mom was French; she was born in France, but she grew up in Mexico. And she has always told us that she was shocked by how willing Mexicans were to negotiate their dignity in exchange for apparent freedom. When I was a teenager, I asked her what she meant by "apparent freedom" and she said, "You are always under somebody if you sell your dignity to them." When all this happened I realized what she meant. I won't negotiate my dignity because it has to do with my real freedom—my freedom of speech, my freedom of being a woman, protecting others. I have met hundreds of people that are really amazed at what I've done, and they keep telling me—mainly men, which is pretty strange—"Aren't you afraid of getting killed?" People are so, so afraid.

I keep thinking of my fellow citizens—men and women, but more men—as battered women. When a woman is in a cycle of violence, she always thinks that [her abuser] is almighty and all-powerful. It doesn't matter where she goes: He will find her and make her life miserable. We're like a battered woman, and the husband is the government.

MJ: That's an interesting twist on Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude.

LC: [Laughs.] In learned helplessness, you learn that it doesn't matter what you do, you won't get out of the situation you're in. We're in that situation too. The government kills people—nothing happens. They disappear students—nothing happens. They take you to jail—and nothing happens. That teaches you a lesson.

MJ: How likely do you think it is that the government might come after you or try to assassinate you? Is that realistic or is it paranoid?

LC: Well, it's not paranoid, but it wouldn't be the government. It would be somebody like the governor of Puebla who could hire a private citizen to come after me, or me having an accident like many other journalists have, without anybody knowing what happened. What the state does is allow others to kill you or disappear you. That's what the state does: They don't investigate. Eighty-five percent of violent crimes in Mexico are not investigated.

MJ: Do other journalists go through similar things, where they're wrongfully imprisoned? And, if so, why did your case get more attention?

LC: Yeah, and some of them are still in jail. One day three years ago, I sat down with all my team and said, "Let's make a safety plan. In case I get murdered, this is what you will do." Because that's what you have to do—we are in a high risk job, and if you don't accept that, you could be killed and nothing would be done. I got some death threats for publishing the book. I know I'm messing with organized crime; I'm not a kid anymore.

On December 16, as I was arrested outside my office—we have video cameras because we've had so many people with guns threaten us, like any other crisis center—and the team was inside viewing the camera. Everything was taped. And my team immediately took action. They called Amnesty International. They started calling NGOs around the world. My boyfriend is a journalist in Mexico City—they called him, and he called the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. The network worked really fast. I was arrested on the 16th at 12 o'clock. Probably two o'clock in the morning, the police stopped by a beach and told me I was going to jump in the ocean and die there, that they were going to rape me—and all these things, all these psychological forms of torture. But then they received a phone call. The caller told them to stop it and take me to Puebla. I didn't know [what had happened]; I'm telling you now, but I didn't know then, I just knew that the officer received a phone call in front of me and said, "Change of plans" and took me back to the car. It was months after that that we learned what happened. But [at the time] the governor of Puebla and others got calls from everyone you can imagine. An urgent action from Amnesty International arrived at the governor's office by fax and to the press and to the whole country. Then people cannot just play dumb.

MJ: So this person, whom you accuse in your book—he's a convicted pedophile at this point in Arizona, Jean Succar Kuri—how connected is he, and why are so many people, including the governor of Puebla, willing to protect him?

LC: Well, he was actually extradited to Mexico, and he's now in a high-security jail in Mexico. The authorities say [Succar Kuri] was money laundering for some politicians. Not necessarily all politicians were involved in the pedophile ring, but he was useful to them, so they had to protect him because otherwise he would talk.

MJ: In general, what's your view of Mexico's progress toward democracy?

LC: I think we're looking for democracy. It's hiding somewhere in Mexico, and we will find it eventually.

MJ: It might take a while, though?

LC: Yes, I think so.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.