Inspiring Women Series, Volume One:
Note to the Reader: I will never forget the first time I read about Lydia Cacho. I was having breakfast in the courtyard of a hotel in Merida, Mexico ~ & there was a small article about her in the local paper. It told of a female Mexican journalist who had been kidnapped from her home in Cancun, driven with her captors over 20 hours, tortured, & yet somehow: was released. The reason for the kidnapping was that she had just exposed a pedophilia ring run not only by Mexican drug cartels ~ but by high officials within the Mexican government.
In other words: she had messed with the wrong people.
And where is she today? She is still a journalist, & she is still messing with the wrong people.
There was something about her story that captured my full attention: I got chills reading about her & her work. I thought, Now this woman ~ she is truly heroic. Threatened with death by the cartels & the government of her own country, simply for doing her work: to continue on in spite of that, to me, was the essence of true bravery.
And in reading that one article, the idea for this series was born: the Inspiring Women Series. For everywhere I travel, I meet women ~ I read stories & histories about women, that inspire me deeply. Women are often the unsung heroes of our history. And I want to shine a greater light on them, in the hope that they inspire hundreds, if not thousands of other women in every corner of the globe.
Inspiring Women Series, Lydia Cacho
“I suddenly had a clearer understanding than ever, of the power that journalism has to give a voice to those who have been silenced by the crushing weight of violence.”
– Lydia Cacho, Journalist, Mexico
“They want to erase journalists in Mexico.”
– from The Observer, Mexico, April 11, 2015
Who is Lydia Cacho?
Lydia Cacho is one of Mexico’s most well-known journalists, as well as human rights campaigner. After attending university in Paris, around the age of 23 she began to work as a journalist for newspapers in Cancun, covering arts & entertainment. But she soon gravitated towards weightier topics, with a focus on violence perpetrated against women & children. Her recent work has taken her on a five-year journey around the world, where she sought to understand how human trafficking works: how its tentacles reach from Mexico & other poor countries in Central America, to the United States, Thailand, Vietnam, & beyond.
While on assignment, Cacho has gone under cover both as a nun & as a prostitute, in order to infiltrate places that would otherwise be off-limits to her as a journalist. She pretended she was a pole-dancer in the Far East, in order to listen to conversations of unsuspecting male “clients,” who may or may not realize that the girl they’re paying for is 15, & was taken from home at the age of 12. She has interviewed immigration officials, government officials, CEO’s of pornography companies ~ all in the hopes of understanding how the sex & trafficking industries work, & how they are often so interrelated.
But she says that she has learned the most about actual international trafficking routes by interviewing the children themselves. She shadowed the routes of a few young American girls, to what their parents thought was a legitimate academy in Japan ~ which turned out to be a front for a sophisticated brothel. Because the girls are so young, they often don’t know any better. They’re told that money is being sent back home to their families, which makes them feel good. They’re shown pornography on a regular basis to desensitize them to sex, & to normalize the behavior that traffickers want them to engage in.
Because Cacho’s work often exposes those in power, from immigration officials all the way up to the highest levels of government, who have so much money wrapped up in the trafficking trade (some estimates say in the billions): it has made Lydia Cacho a prime target for death threats, assault, & assassination attempts.
In other words: they want her silenced.
Attack on Lydia Cacho
In December 2005, Cacho was abducted by Mexican police one morning as she walked into her Cancun office. She was then driven more than 20 hours & 900 miles from Cancun to Puebla, a town in Central Mexico. During this 20-hour drive, she was assaulted, sexually violated, threatened with death and “disappearance.”
About ten hours into the drive though, a call came through to one of her captors, ordering them “not to kill her.” They needed Cacho brought in alive to Puebla. Why? Apparently, the media had already been alerted of her disappearance, & because she was so well-known throughout Mexico ~ it wouldn’t look good if she was murdered.
Watch Cacho’s own words of the kidnapping here, courtesy of The Washington Post.
Why Did the Police Do This?
Cacho had just published a book called, “The Demons of Eden,” or “Los Demonios del Eden.” In this book, she revealed a sex-trafficking, pedophilia ring led by a Cancun hotelier named Jean Succar Kuri. In his later trial, Kuri admitted to having sex with girls as young as five years old. Over the course of several years, Kuri abused over one hundred young girls & boys in Cancun, without any involvement from Mexican police.
How could this have gone on for so long without anyone knowing? What Cacho uncovered was truly disturbing: she found congressional representatives, state senators, members of the prosecutor’s office, as well as other hoteliers & members of organized crime, who ALL KNEW. And to top it off, they were being protected by the governor of the Puebla state; hence the reason for Cacho being “transported” to Puebla, where the government intended to charge her with libel.
But instead of waiting to take her to court ~ they simply kidnapped her instead.
Welcome to Mexico.
Journalism in Mexico
Mexico is, in fact, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Lydia Cacho is just one of many journalists who have experienced serious consequences simply for doing their job. And though it sounds odd, Cacho is lucky ~ because she’s still alive. Other journalists have been killed, tortured, decapitated, or simply just “disappeared,” for their work in exposing the drug cartels and the corruption of the state. And often, there is no boundary between the two: meaning, the cartels & the state are working together. Which makes standing up to them a very dangerous game.
“Every time my mobile rings and I see the name of a colleague ~ I fear the worst: assassination, kidnapping, or forced disappearance. I was arrested ten years ago…but still live under tremendous pressure from corrupt politicians and traffickers who want me either dead or exiled or silenced.”
Mexico’s current President, Pena Nieto, instead of encouraging free speech, has taken things in the other direction: towards silence. Cacho’s friend, & one of Mexico’s most prominent broadcasters, Carmen Aristegui, worked with Cacho at the time of her kidnapping to clear the charges of libel against her. He was able to do this by using phone tap evidence of the very government officials she had accused of trafficking and other crimes.
Not long after, Carmen Aristegui was fired for investigating the President and his wife. What had Aristegui uncovered? Only that the infamous Juarez Cartel had set up various shell corporations in order to fund Nieto’s presidential campaign (if you’ve watched Narcos or are familiar with Colombian history, this may sound familiar to you). Nieto then went on to allow the cartels use of government programs for the purpose of laundering money.
“Pena Nieto’s advisors are obsessed with protecting his image at all costs. It seems they want us back in the 1980’s, when nobody dared to investigate the President and his ministers. If this is happening to us, the visible [reporters] ~ can you imagine what local reporters are going through in the provinces, where rule of law is almost non-existent?”
The decapitated body of freelance reporter, Moises Sanchez, represents just one of many reporters who have either disappeared or been murdered, in the Mexican province of Veracruz. Sanchez disappeared from the town of Medellin de Bravo, and he is just one of at least 13 attacks in Veracruz alone.
“When Pena Nieto was Governor of State for Mexico, the femicide rate went up by 185%. Young women were being assassinated relentlessly. Some were taken by the cartels for sex trafficking, others, particularly under the age of 15, were exploited as slaves in the opium and marijuana fields. Pena Nieto denied everything; on his way to the Presidency, he could have been the hero, approving gender equality laws, forcing the justice system to act as law requires. Instead, he ordered journalists to be quiet, his team bought some off, and the honest ones had to flee the region, or were threatened, or killed.”
– Lydia Cacho
Attacks on Mexican Journalists, By the Numbers
- Number of attacks on the press is nearly double under Pena Nieto than under predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
- 97 Mexican reporters were killed between 2011-2015.
- During the first years of the 21st century, Mexico is considered the #1 most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism, according to National Human Rights Commission, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists. In response to this, anonymous blogs such as “Blog Del Narco” have taken up where journalists are too afraid to report out in the open.
- There have been 22 “disappearances” and 433 registered attacks on reporters since 2005, when the current drug cartel war began.
- The U.S. State Department says that forced labor in Mexico (largely of migrants coming from the south, such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala) is larger than the numbers for forced prostitution.
- The U.S. Justice Department considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the single “greatest organized crime threat to the United States.”
- Mexican & Colombian drug cartels launder and remove approximately $18-39 billion from the U.S. economy every year. (Laundering suspected through both Wachovia and HSBC banks to the tune of $7 billion in cash moved from Mexico to the United States.)
Why Cacho’s Voice Inspires
“These are dark times for our country. The free media is becoming smaller day by day; narco lords rule some states and provinces. Journalism is essential in a country that lives in a silenced war, a masked war. They can erase us journalists from the mainstream media, and they can eliminate us physically. What they will never be able to do is deny the true stories, snatch away my voice, our voices and our words. As long as we are alive, we will continue to write, and what we have written will keep us alive.”
I can’t read these last two lines of Cacho’s without getting the chills.
What they will never be able to do is deny the true stories, snatch away my voice, our voices and our words. As long as we are alive, we will continue to write, and what we have written will keep us alive.”
If Mexico’s cartels were threatening you or your family with death ~ what would you do? Or how about your own government? It’s my belief that most of us, likely myself included, would back down. We would stay silent. Because it’s easier. Because it’s safer. And surely there is nothing necessarily wrong with this ~ for ensuring the safety of ourselves & those we love is a primary human need.
But this is what makes Lydia Cacho so fascinating to me: she didn’t stay silent. She would not stay silent. She refused to back down to forces which, on the surface, appear to be much greater than herself. Forces that are unafraid to threaten, torture, decapitate, & dismember their enemies.
How many people do you know who would stand up to that kind of intimidation & violence?
What is it about Lydia Cacho, and other journalists like her, who continue to speak up, in the face of very real attacks against them? It was this question that I wanted answered. It was this question that I found absolutely fascinating ~ a question that held my attention for weeks after reading about her.
And I believe it’s her unflinching willingness to speak up, & to keep going ~ though down a very dangerous path; it’s the ability to call a “spade a spade” when everybody else is sticking their head in the sand, trying to maintain ignorance; it’s the thought that, if she does not speak up ~ for her fellow journalists & for all the little girls & boys she’s met, who are modern-day slaves ~ then who else will? I believe it’s these combination of traits that make her different from virtually everybody else on the planet. They are what make her truly brave.
If you ask Cacho why she continues to speak up, she doesn’t answer the question directly. She instead talks about other journalists in Mexico who are “going through hell,” just trying to do their job. They are her colleagues. They are her friends. And many of them are now dead.
I think she has seen too much to stop. Talked to too many little girls that have been taken from their homes & sold, like slaves. She knows too much. She has too much specific, detailed knowledge that nobody else has ~ & so she must continue. Her & a precious few other journalists like her.
Anthony Bourdain’s Mexico
Reading about Lydia Cacho reminded me of an Anthony Bourdain episode I’d watched with a friend back in Portland. In it, he interviewed a woman named Annabel Hernandez, another Mexican journalist who wrote a 2010 book called “Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers.”
This wasn’t typical, Anthony Bourdain food fare: he was interviewing Hernandez in an undisclosed location, somewhere in Mexico. Since writing the book, she’d been unable to live a normal life, afraid that the Mexican cartels would find her & murder her ~ in the same way they had murdered her father.
Something about this interview stuck with me, in much the same way Cacho’s words stuck with me, long after reading them. There was something about both these women, about their work, that I found deeply inspiring. They were like modern-day Nancy Drew’s come to life, somewhere in the shadows of Mexico. They both faced grave danger, and yet ~ they both kept speaking up. They both kept writing. They would not be silenced ~ no matter the consequences.
As Hernandez says in the interview,
“They have already taken my father. What else can they do to me?”
Bravery, to me, means to continue on a path you know is right, in spite of the consequences that may beset you. And the consequences these women have paid are grave ones. They may not be at war as we know it, with machine guns & artillery ~ but they are very much involved in a silent war, that is being waged in Mexico as we speak: the war against free speech. The war against women and journalists. The war against human & child trafficking. The war that keeps those in power in power ~ and those suppressed, suppressed.
It made me wonder, as a modern-day American, who enjoys more freedom than most people in the world: what would I be willing to die for? What principles, ideas, or people mean that much to me, that I’d be willing to die fighting for them? And let me pose the same question to you: what means so much to you, that you’d be willing to die for it?
Because that is what these women represent to me: the willingness to carry on a fight that could very easily result in death, for a cause much larger than themselves ~ that has the potential to affect thousands, if not millions of people, in countries all over the world. They are fighting for people, some that they know ~ but many thousands of others that they do not.
They are pioneers. They are heroines.
Awards Cacho Has Received
Awards Cacho Has Received for Her Work
- Winner of the 2007 Courage in Journalism Award, given by the International Women’s Media Foundation
- Winner of the 2011 Civil Courage Prize
- Winner of the 2009 Wallenberg Medal, given by the University of Michigan
- Winner of the 2011 Olaf Palme Prize
- Winner of 2010 World Press Freedom Hero, awarded by the International Press Institute
- 2007 Ginetta Sagan Award for Women’s and Children’s Rights, awarded by Amnesty International
- Ambassador for the Blue Heart Campaign against sex trafficking, appointed by Spanish government
Listen to Cacho Speak with NPR
Where is Cacho Now?
Today, Lydia Cacho is an internationally renowned keynote speaker at conferences around the world, speaking on issues of human rights, freedom of expression, & strategies for peace. She leads workshops on how to successfully recognize & help trafficking victims, & not to further re-victimize them. She is still a writer & a journalist. And in 2000, she founded a high-security shelter for women & children affected by violence in Cancun, which is one of the few places women can go & be taken seriously on issues such as these, in Mexico.
Cacho also gives more inspirational talks on why we should not give up hope, even in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds. One such bright spot was the phone call she received from the judge who ended up passing the sentence on Jean Succar Kuri, the Cancun hotelier at the head of the pedophilia ring. The judge, like Cacho, had been called & threatened by Kuri’s associates, warning him that if he didn’t let Kuri off, there would be grave consequences.
And what did he do? He sentenced Kuri to 112 years in prison, for the sexual abuse of more than 100 young people. And Lydia Cacho says, this is why she does what she does, & will continue to do it: because there is still hope. There are still other brave people out there, unwilling to be threatened into silence.
My purpose in writing this article is not to scare you into never traveling to Mexico. As Lydia has proved, trafficking & other such “scary things” happen all over the world.
My main purpose in writing this article was to shine greater light onto the work of Lydia Cacho ~ a woman whom I’d never heard of prior to my time in Mexico. I thought, how is it possible that I’ve never heard of this woman? She is incredibly brave; she’s doing ground-breaking, dangerous work ~ & yet, I’ve never heard of her? How sad that is. We shine so much light on the atrocities of the world & yet, so little on the pioneers who are actually trying to change it.
And Lydia Cacho is indeed one of those women. I have loved writing this article, & I’ve loved researching her ~ reading her words, watching videos of her speak (where I received most of my knowledge for this piece). I believe that in reading about & studying pioneering women like Cacho, we in turn receive some of their wisdom. Some of their toughness. That is my wish for everyone reading this article. And it’s why I plan to continue this “Inspiring Women Series.”
Which great women have inspired you? Who are your true heroines? Let me know in the comments below, what you think of Lydia Cacho & if you’d heard of her prior to this article. Then let me know who you’d like me to profile next in this ongoing series about inspiring women.