By Luisa Ardila
It was 2 a.m. on a mid-December early morning in 2005. After hours on the road from Cancun, Mexico to Puebla, the five men that had taken journalist Lydia Cacho hostage stopped the car and pulled her out.
“Can you hear the ocean?” one of the men asked her. “I could hear [it] roaring,” she later recalled. Cacho also remembered why he asked. They were torturing her, to get her to deny the allegations in her book and the evidence of her investigation that implicated several influential Mexican and international figures. They dragged her into the water.
Cacho had just published “Demons of Eden,” which uncovered a ring of child pornography, sexual abuse and sex trafficking operated and protected by government officials and powerful businessmen in Mexico. She had already received threats to her life during her investigation.
The men, who had taken Lydia at gunpoint, were police officers under the orders of the governor of Puebla, Mario Marin. They kept asking her to confess that it was all a lie. “I just kept saying ‘no I won’t.’ ” They continued to hurt her.
On Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2009 Lydia Cacho was awarded the Tully Center for Free Speech Award due to her work to promote human rights and fight what her presenter Jane Kirtley called “censorship through murder” in Mexico. Throughout that Monday and Tuesday, Cacho spoke to students at Syracuse University about human rights issues and her views on the media.
When she was young, Cacho dreamed of being a poet. She even published a book of poetry—she described it as “very bad.” A poetry professor told her that she would never make it in poetry because she was too involved with reality. Lydia knew he was right, she knew she could be a journalist, and one day while writing a story she found her own voice and began to write professionally. The pay wasn’t great: she worked as an interior designer to make up for the small pay she got for her stories.
Then, one day while discussing women’s rights over tequilas she got an invitation to a public radio show. In it she realized that people really cared about this topic, so she started a show; and so began what she calls the most exciting time of her life.
With the popularity of her radio, and later a TV show, people began to recognize her in the street, even coming to the studio to ask her for help. When she realized that men in authority positions would not help abused women, she took matters into her own hands and founded a high-security shelter for them.
Cacho continued to investigate the violation of human rights against women and children. To get to the truth she says “I did some things you wouldn’t do in the states.” Still, she never could have imagined that she would investigate child pornography. “It was something I couldn’t bear.”
But when a girl sought Cacho at her shelter and told her what had been done to her, she could not bear but do something. The girl told her that she had been raped and videotaped by men who seemed to be powerful. The girl didn’t know that the men she was accusing were in fact so influential. The list included Jean Sucar Kuri, a hotel entrepreneur from Lebanon doing business in Cancun, other widely recognized Mexican figures, and foreign tourists. The girl also told Cacho that when she had reported the crimes to the police, the officer in charge actually warned Sucar Kuri that the girl was a threat.
Lydia was blown away by the allegations but started to investigate alongside a federal police officer she trusted. She found other children that had escaped the criminals and listened to their stories. One in particular brought her 100 incriminating photos she had stolen from under Sucar Kuri’s bed. “They were appalling,” Cacho said.
Only days after she first heard the allegations Cacho presented the case in her TV show, in which she invited experts to debate the consequences of the matter. At the same time she wrote about her initial findings in her newspaper column. That is when the threats intensified. She received a call from Sucar Kuri, who told her that she was intruding in his private life and was threatened by the then-senator, Emilio Gamboa Patrón.
With her life in danger, she went on to publish her book, which she says details the girls’ confessions and the damaging evidence against the many men connected to the case. Lydia also implemented cautionary measures to keep safe. Still, one day as she arrived at her office in Cancun she found herself surrounded. Police officers arrested her, putting a gun to her torso. They took her to the police station in that city on a defamation charge.
“In Mexico defamation was a criminal offense,” Cacho explains. “So, say I reported on a bank robber. Even if it was true that he robbed the bank, even if I had a tape of him stealing the money, if he could prove that his honor was hurt by my report I could go to jail for years.” The laws hadn’t been changed since colonial times when a man’s honor and dignity was so valued, she said.
Yet, after going to the station the men snuck Cacho out, despite the fact that her bodyguards were present. That is when her 20-hour trip to Puebla began. The men “touched” her, threatened her and tortured her to get her to deny her findings.
At 3 a.m. the morning after Lydia Cacho was abducted, she was still on the beach being tortured. But then the men received a call from Marin, the governor. He asked whether she was still alive, and when they said she was, they got her back to the car. “Change of plans,” she heard them say.
Upon arriving at Puebla she was jailed and then began a year-long trial for her defamation charges. The prosecution sought to prove that she was not a real journalist, based on the fact that she is a woman, she said. She won the case , she said, on the grounds that if anyone’s honor was hurt, it was that of the girls that were sexually abused. “They thought that I would be quiet after that,” Cacho said. But instead she presented the human rights violations at the Supreme Court of Mexico. She lost that case, she says, because the people who were charged bought off the judges.
In early 2006, tapes surfaced of phone conversations by Sucar Kuri’s main ally, Kamel Nacif Borge. He was a businessman that worked to protect Sucar Kuri and their shared ring of child pornography and sexual abuse. To her, this was “poetic justice,” because thanks to these tapes the public finally believed her that the men plotted against her.
But Lydia says that the most important facts from the conversations are not the plans to put her in jail for her work, but the parts in which the men talked of children as products they could buy for $2,000 from places like El Salvador and Florida.
Turns out his wife, fearing for her life, taped his conversations and upon seeing Cacho’s case made them public, Cacho said. Later she would ask Cacho to help her get a divorce from Nacif Borge, Cacho said.
Because of the uproar that her case made in the media, people demanded that the defamation laws be changed. While she admits that being outspoken to the media about the threats to her life in fact saved her, she has very strong opinions about how the media is handled.
“Journalists have the power to change the world,” Cacho said. But with egotism and lazy reporting in the media, societies end up with a superficial yet powerful media structure where the news can be covered up like they didn’t happen. She points out that American and Mexican television networks have grown so large that they have their own interests: that of their stockholders. She incites students to rebel against that by turning off their television and reading the news from reporters they can trust.
Lydia challenges Americans to look at what their government is doing to Mexico. “They think we are a bunch of money crazy Latinos” because of the drug wars, she says. “That is a big fat lie.” She argues that it isn’t even a war against drugs. The Merida Plan—an agreement between the United States and Mexico that enforces anti-corruption measures and includes military aid to the Mexican government—is creating a war against citizens who want to create a great country without drugs. Most of the guns that are killing thousands of Mexicans every year come from the American government in this deal, Cacho said.
She points out that the policies that are wrecking her country are very similar to what has been used in the US. The Mexican government justifies wiretapping and torture as matters of national security and government officials warn that “you are either with us, or with the evil doers,” which she says echoes George W. Bush’s philosophies in United States.
Cacho is working on her next book. She has traveled the world investigating sex trafficking rings. Not a lot has changed: She still gets death threats. And she sees what keeps her going despite the threats: the stories that forge her ethical commitment to the abused and misused.
She is also digging deeper than ever, as she told those present at the dinner Monday night in Newhouse: she’s gone as far as dressing up as a prostitute to ask the men why they traffic women.
“People say that was brave,” Lydia says about her reporting. “It was not brave. It was real.”