Lydia Cacho is often called one of Mexico's bravest journalists. It's a title she's earned many times over in her years investigating the global sex trade, organized crime, and human rights abuses both in her home country and abroad.
In the late 1990s, not long after she began reporting on violence against women in her country, Cacho herself was violently attacked – likely, she says, because of her work. The next year, she helped create a high-security shelter for battered women and sexually exploited children in her hometown of Cancun. Meanwhile, she kept digging, her work ultimately culminating in a 2005 book, Los Demonios del Eden,
a stunning exposé of child porn rings operating under the noses of authorities amid Cancun's ritzy resorts and pristine beaches. Seven months after the book was published, police showed up at her door, shoved her into a van and drove her nearly 1,000 miles across the country – she says they shoved a gun barrel in her mouth
, and for hours threatened to rape and murder her.
Cacho says she's been forced to leave her country many times but always returns – in large part because she refuses to be censored. Cacho, who's received numerous honors and awards over the years for her reporting and activism, will speak at Our Lady of the Lake University Thursday, October 6 as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Cacho will spend the night discussing her work as an advocate against violence and sexual abuse of women and children.
We caught up via email with Cacho, who up until this week was in Colombia reporting on the country's failed peace process, to talk about her background, her work exposing violence against women and children, and the broader media blackout in Mexico that she continues to combat with her work.
La Voz de Lydia: International Activist, Thursday, Oct. 6, 6pm, Thiry Auditorium at Our Lady of the Lake University. The event is free and open to the public. Go to ollusa.edu for more information.
I wonder how your upbringing in Mexico City contributed to kind of work you do, the types of injustices you've dedicated your career to exposing and the themes in your reporting. I've read some about your mother being an activist when you were growing up. How did that inform the work that you do?
My Mother was a feminist psychologist, specialized in working with women and teenagers; she eventually became a women’s rights advocate. My grandma and grandpa were also strong believers in justice and equality; they came to Mexico during the Second World War from France and Portugal, and learned lessons they shared with us as children. When I was fifteen my mom invited me to become a peer-to-peer workshop trainer with a group of feminist psychologists, loved it and discovered defending human rights was really empowering. So we grew up knowing that being a free woman in Mexico has a cost, and understanding how to work for freedom and equality in a creative and peaceful way is something we learned since we were teenagers. On the other hand, my father grew up in a military household. The contrast between the two sides of family taught me to see all edges of an idea or a conflict, loving within ideological diversity was one of the greatest lessons in my family.
I, as with millions of girls, grew up in a macho country where sexual harassment gender discrimination and bigotry were a social norm. I was a rebel against abuses since I was 3 or 4 years old. My mom had many anecdotes on that regard. So I guess it’s a combination: a little genetics, a dedicated education, a passion on my beliefs, and lots of love for our right to freedom and happiness made me who I am. From my mother I learned congruency and empathy, from my father discipline, consistency and commitment.
How did you become a journalist? What is it that drew you to the issues of violence against women, exploitation, corruption and organized crime?
Ever since I was little I kept asking questions relentlessly about everything. My grandpa used to tell me I would become a great journalist as I was good at observing facts and listening to people. It didn't make any sense to me, back then journalists for me were liars on the Televisa network. Every adult in my family talked about how they lied about the 1968 student killings, the forced disappearances in the 1970s (remember I was born in 1963). Everything I studied led me to believe I was going to be a poet, a writer, live by the ocean and have a quiet life.
Then at 23 I moved to Cancun, I fell in love with the Caribbean and the jungle. Once year later I ended up writing a piece for the newspaper Novedades
on art galleries and female painters in Cancun. Six months later I went to the Mayan zone and interviewed a group of women. I wanted to ask them about the tourism industry and their economy, however all they wanted to talk was about domestic violence and child abuse. I learned my greatest lesson in journalism: editors do not always know where the important story is and what it is about. A reporter must learn to listen, to read the needs of the community, to go where the story leads you, not where your needs take you.
Along the years, I worked for several newspapers, had a community radio program for six years and a TV Human Rights weekly program for five. Battered women would come to the radio and television stations asking for help. We would send them to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, but they were turned away. The authorities said that there was nothing they could do because the law stated that wife-beating was not a crime if the wounds healed in a 15-day period. So they would go back to the radio station and complain about how they were mistreated by the public prosecutors. We decided to work on transforming those laws so that violence against women would be classified as a crime. We developed legislation and campaigned for it, but it took over 10 years to get congressmen and women to consider the law. Not until mid 2007 was the General Law for the Access of Women to a Life Free of Violence passed in the state of Quintana Roo. Given the lack of any government or social work institutions where they could go for help, the victims of domestic violence would come to us based on what they read in the press and saw on television. Finally, one afternoon when we were talking to those women, we decided to create a formal facility for the protection of victims.
Ever since the beginning, I developed skills and tools for what we now call peace journalism or Human Rights journalism. The time demanded for us to record and document what was going on. Some of us understood that and kept going.
I'm also curious how you developed some of your techniques as an investigative reporter — like going undercover and posing as a nun to see inside Mexico's sex-trafficking underground.
Well, twenty years ago, when I began investigating organized crime with the femicides in Ciudad Juarez, I discovered every time a female reporter gets into the investigation she can be seen as a potential victim. I kept asking senior fellow male reporters and correspondents how they did it. The answer was always the same: “I just get in there and mix up with the villains and the criminals, they do not know better, they will never suspect I am a reporter if I play it right." I spent many nights thinking about it…the only way I could be unseen would be to pose as an insider.
I read Gunter Wallraff's undercover investigations published in the 1980s and asked myself, "why not?" So I did. I plan every trip and investigation at length, prepare networks of local colleagues and activists who I contact and meet previously, never leave anything to chance when it comes to infiltrating mafias.
For my book Slavery Inc,
I dressed up as a nun because they where the only ones that could walk along the La Merced pimping neighborhood without being threatened or even killed. And in many countries, I dressed as a pole dancer and learned how to do it in order to infiltrate in areas where they had enslaved teenagers. It was quite exhausting but the only way to document exact numbers, faces and mafia operations. Traveling around the world, spending time with women in sex commerce made it quite clear to me: this is a multimillion dollar industry that feeds off of old cultural values of patriarchy. It’s all about money, the products are human beings and the buyers are people that believe free trade has no boundaries. I needed to demonstrate that with facts and figures.
You initially left Mexico in 2012 because of the threats and violence. Can you tell me about that decision and whether it was difficult to leave the country where you'd been fighting to expose injustice?
I still live in Mexico, near Cancun actually where I built my house a long time ago. I have been forced to leave many times, six months was the longest, because of death threats. I always denounce them and investigate them. In some cases I have been able to demonstrate it has been hit-men paid by some of the mobsters that were prosecuted thanks to my work. Others are just the same politicians that want me to live in fear and stop doing my work.
It costs money to leave, but I decided to take those times of running away to work – in conferences, workshops and in journalistic trainings. That makes a huge difference because instead of feeling persecuted and fearful I feel useful and empowered. The purpose of the death threats – aside of making you suffer before killing you – is to push you towards self-censorship. I was fortunate enough to find the strength and the solidarity networks all over the world in order to stay inspired and strong.
I'm interested in your thoughts on the state of journalism in Mexico – how threats against journalists and violence perpetrated against reporters has led to an information blackout in some parts of the country.
It’s a tremendous problem, in some states, especially those taken by the criminal cartels. Most media, especially newspapers, live under perpetual fear. They get messages from the narcos to let them know what they should or should not publish. For hundreds of journalists, self-censorship is a life preserving strategy, and the result is a false portrayal of reality. In some places narco-politicians are forcing media to stay away from covering real violence, in others the organized criminals are creating a terrorist effect so communities do not engage in justice movements. Civil society feels paralyzed and fearful.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.