Lydia Cacho is a Mexican journalist and author who is internationally renowned for her fearless opposition to organised crime. As a guest of the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, Cacho spoke about investigating some of Mexico’s most powerful and corrupt figures during a 25-year career that has taken her from working as an activist and journalist in Cancún, Mexico, to going undercover as a pole dancer in Uzbekistan to expose international sex trafficking networks.
When I met Cacho in Sydney, I wanted to know what motivated her to risk her life by exposing Mexico’s corrupt officials — people whose disdain for the rule of law is matched by their propensity for violence.
"I don’t feel I really had a choice. I’d become familiar with organised crime through women who had escaped brothels and pornography operators," she tells me.
What she doesn’t tell me is that she had herself been raped and left for dead in 1999, likely an act of revenge for her efforts to shelter abused women at Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres, a crisis centre in Cancún that she founded and still directs.
In October 2003, Cacho met "Emma" at the crisis centre, a young woman who was seeking protection after escaping from sex traffickers. While Emma was telling Cacho her story, one of Cancún’s wealthiest hotel owners, Jean Succar Kuri, appeared on television. "That’s him!" Emma said, recognising him as a man who had abused her. The young woman said she was prepared to speak out against Succar if Cacho promised to protect her. Cacho didn’t hesitate.
"This was very irresponsible — I couldn’t even protect myself — but what do you tell a girl who has escaped from sex traffickers? I knew then I was getting into something that I didn’t understand, but that I had to do."
Emma’s allegations led Cacho to an investigation into child sex and pornography that implicated some of Mexico’s most powerful businessmen and politicians. "The more I looked, the more I understood it was an international network. I didn’t know how to handle that," she tells me. Everyone warned her off exposing that network, including her newspaper editor and her publisher.
Encouragingly, she found many within the authorities — police and military included — who were frustrated by their forced complicity with organised crime. "This is the Mexico that doesn’t make the news. So many people want to help, to fight corruption."
"Once I had the information, I had to publish it," she says. Ignoring threats from various officials, Random House published The Demons of Eden: the power that protects child pornography, in April 2005. Despite its allegation that Kamel Nacif, Mexico’s wealthy "denim king", was involved in prostitution and child pornography rings, her book sold slowly.
Then, in December that year, Nacif brought criminal defamation charges against Cacho. (Mexico has since reformed its defamation laws to make it a civil, rather than a criminal, offence.) Without announcing charges, police "arrested" Cacho at her shelter. Then began a hellish 20-hour drive across Mexico during which she was threatened constantly with death and sexually harassed.
"When I heard them talking about Nacif and others, I was sure they were going to kill me," Cacho says. "I thought of my mother, my family. When they took me to the ocean, I begged them not to throw me in. I was horrified my family would not get my body."
Fortunately for Cacho, her network had sprung into action. Soon after she was kidnapped, phones were ringing in high places — including at the residence of the Spanish Ambassador. When she speaks at events such as the writers’ festival, Cacho gratefully reminds the audience that were it not for PEN and Amnesty International, who pressured high-ranking officials, she would be dead.
On some desolate seaside track, with Cacho refusing to get out of the car, her captors received a call. Soon after she was taken to a jail in Cancún, where she was soon released on bail.
Any doubts about the truth of Cacho’s allegations were lifted two months later when the media broadcast secretly recorded tapes of Nacif and the Governor of Puebla, Mario Marin Torres, in which they were heard planning to have Cacho beaten and raped in prison. The media went into overdrive; sales of her book soon cleared 40,000.
Once the silence was broken, public consciousness shifted. "For the first time we are seeing people in prison for sex trafficking — now an offence," says Cacho. "Child porn is a crime now, and pornographers have gone to prison."
Cacho says it’s hard to know if sex trafficking and child pornography have become more prevalent, or if we are just more aware of what has been happening for a long time. "These things thrive because we agree not to see them, especially in Mexico where to witness is to risk your life, your family’s life."
But the problem is not only a Mexican one. Since travelling across five continents to write her new book, Slaves of Power: a world map of sex traffickers, Cacho has detected changing attitudes to the porn and sex trade. "In the rich countries there is a big contradiction between liberal arguments for free speech and the moral outrage at child pornography and sex trafficking."
Ever since the internet-driven porn explosion of the 1990s, Cacho believes the level of violence in porn has escalated, with consensual sex now categorised as "soft". In the last 10 years especially, there has been an increase in the use of teenagers in mainstream porn.
"We need to openly discuss where we draw the line, to question the blithe acceptance of porn as simply a free speech issue. The same people will tell you they’re anti-trafficking, anti-child abuse, as if the two worlds never intersected, when we all know they are interdependent," says Cacho.
Certainly the issue is not about to go away. Human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal industry, according to the US State Department. According to UNICEF, one million children are sold into the sex trade each year. Cacho fears that Mexico is on track to become the Thailand of Latin America. "I think we are yet to see the worst. It’s why we need to work hard now, as journalists, and why they want to get rid of us."
Mexico is now one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, and Cacho has lost several friends and colleagues to violent crime. Most of the 26,000 assassinations in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon came to power in 2006 have been carried out by officials in the police and military. "The life of crime is becoming normalised as the only way to progress," she says.
In a system so corrupt, Cacho puts her faith in the power of public opinion. "If we don’t get a dictatorship — and the right is willing to go this way — I think the next generation, who are getting so angry, will invent a new way of being Mexican. I hope so."
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