Lucy Popescu worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. She co-edited the PEN anthology Another Sky published by Profile Books in 2007. The Good Tourist, her book about human rights and ethical travel, was published by Arcadia Books in 2008. She is the editor of A Country of Refuge, an anthology of writing on asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers, published by Unbound in 2016. Six hundred and fifty copies were recently presented to British MPs to read over the Christmas recess.
We are all afraid. They fear losing the power they have won through oppression, economic violence and lies. We fear losing lives – our own and our loved ones’– for daring to rebel, to riddle our profession with coherence, for being honest in a country seduced by the illusion of magical realism that hides the tragedy of planned inequality, of systematic racism of dehumanising capitalism and structural sexism. Lydia Cacho from ‘Fragments from a Reporter’s Journal’ translated by Megan McDowell, published in The Sorrows of Mexico, Maclehose Press 2016
For two decades, Lydia Cacho, a Mexican author of twelve books and a women’s rights activist, has been persecuted and intimidated for her investigative journalism. During that time, she has been forced “to look over my shoulder every time I turn a corner, to smell danger like someone sniffing red roses on an April afternoon.”
Following the 2005 publication of Los demonios del Edén (The demons of Eden), an exposé of a Mexican child pornography ring in the popular resort of Cancún, she was abducted, tortured, judicially harassed and suffered numerous death threats. A businessman, José Kamel Nacif Borge, known as the King of Denim, because of his jeans factories in Puebla, accused Cacho of libel. He is cited in the book as having ties with Jean Succar Kuri, the owner of a hotel in Cancún. Kuri was already detained at the time, charged with heading the child pornography and prostitution network. Nacif did not deny knowing him but claimed that his reputation had suffered as a result of Cacho’s book.
On 16 December 2005, Cacho was arrested at gunpoint by Puebla state officials. She endured a twenty-hour car journey from her home in Cancún to Puebla, where she was physically threatened. Upon arrival she was charged with ‘defamation’ and calumny and faced up to four years in prison if found guilty. The man who had ordered her arrest was Mario Marín, the governor of Puebla.
In February 2006, taped telephone conversations between Nacif and Marín, were released to the local media. They revealed the extent to which Marín had been involved in Cacho’s arrest and detention. Nacif offered the governor “two beautiful bottles of cognac” as a token of appreciation for his part in the arrest of Cacho. After the tapes came to light, Cacho filed a countersuit for corruption and violation of her human rights. Following a year-long battle, during which she suffered repeated death threats, the defamation charges were dismissed. However, her acquittal was only the result of her case being transferred to another state where defamation is no longer considered a criminal offence.
Astonishingly, this did not deter Cacho from continuing to write about the complicity of business men and other powerful people in criminal activities. In 2010, Cacho published Esclavas del poder, in which she revealed the names of people in Mexico she alleges are involved in the trafficking of women and girls. The English translation, Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, was published in September 2012 by Portobello Books. Such are the dangers of investigating this appalling global trade in human beings that Cacho was forced undercover. She carried fake ID and dressed as a prostitute in order to infiltrate various nightclubs; on one occasion, she adopted a nun’s habit to enter La Merced, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
Cacho’s research took her to Burma, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand and Turkey as well as Latin America. Cacho argues that the exploitation of women and children occurs because of their vulnerability – whether because of poverty or their subservient role in a male-dominated society – and because of weak sanctions against their mistreatment. Victims are often “enslaved by the cultural values of violence against women” or conditioned to believe that they have no alternatives. It is the clients who create the markets, Cacho argues, and men’s increasing willingness to pay for sex with trafficked victims is part of the backlash against women’s liberation. Even more devastating is the burgeoning trade in children and virgins. Cacho sees this as a means for men to exert control emotionally and mentally as well as physically; the younger the victim, the more compliant he or she is likely to be.
Cacho believes that those who defend prostitution as “part of a liberal philosophy” ignore “the connection between trafficking and prostitution”, and argues that those who are enslaved, either through poverty or coercion, are not willing participants. Her courageous book comes with an introduction by Roberto Saviano who wrote a best-selling exposé of the Camorra Mafia in Naples. Both writers have faced terrible consequences for daring to point the finger at powerful men. In June 2011, shortly after taking part in an event in Chihuahua state in northern Mexico, Cacho received further death threats by phone and email that made direct reference to her journalism. She believes that they were issued in retaliation for her having revealed the names of alleged traffickers.
On 29 July 2012, Cacho received a call on her hand-held transceiver, used only for emergencies. An unknown male voice referred to her by name and said: “We have already warned you, bitch, don’t mess with us. It is clear you didn’t learn with the small trip you were given. What is coming next for you will be in pieces, that is how we will send you home.”
Cacho has endured numerous death threats over the years and has been forced to flee Mexico five times. “I will not leave forever.” she writes, “Just long enough for them to know that I will not give up, not even with a contract out on my life.” I first met Cacho at the Guadalajara International Book Fair and then the following year at a PEN conference in Oslo. In 2012, I chaired an event at Free Word in London with Cacho and the late Helen Bamber talking about sex trafficking. Despite the restrictions on her daily life and the constant fear under which she lives, Cacho is remarkably composed. She is also an eloquent, impassioned speaker who refuses to be silenced in the face of injustice of any kind.
Most recently, Cacho contributed ‘Fragments from A Reporter’s Journal’ to The Sorrows of Mexico, a timely collection of writings from seven of the country’s leading journalists. Her reportage underlines the long history of state controlled media in Mexico, self-censorship, the dangers faced by outspoken students, writers and journalists and the crimes against free expression which continue to be committed with impunity. Cacho has repeatedly risked her life in order to report the truth. But as she quietly observes “no one kills the truth by killing journalists.”
Lydia Cacho is an honorary member of Scottish and English PEN.
Photo: Lydia Cacho appearing at Free Word event in 2012, used with permission by Lucy Popescu.