Published in World Politics Review
David Agren | 08 Apr 2008
MEXICO CITY -- Muckraking journalist Lydia Cacho initially thought hit men working for narcotics trafficking gangs were going to kill her when she was apprehended outside of her Cancún office in December 2005. But the unidentified gunmen were actually police officers, who immediately transported her more than 900 miles to a prison cell in Puebla city, where she was jailed on defamation charges.
The cops allegedly taunted and assaulted her during the overnight trip, threatening her life and sticking a gun in her mouth. Their two-car convoy stopped while passing the Campeche Sound, Cacho says, and one of the gunmen asked: "Can you swim?"
Cacho would spend half a day in jail, during which time she was subjected to more mistreatment and learned of plans to have her raped from a sympathetic prison employee, who had the journalist moved to the infirmary.
She later discovered that Puebla state Gov. Mario Marín, acting at the behest of an influential businessman who was mentioned in a book she had recently written, ordered her apprehension. Friends in the state urged her to run and to steer clear of Marín. They advised: "Don't mess with him."
But Cacho, who gained fame as a crusading activist for women's and children's rights and for her exposés of pedophile rings in Cancún, refused to back down. And more than two years after her apprehension and imprisonment, her case still provokes outrage in Mexico. It reminds a jaded population of the rampant impunity, institutional weakness and unseemly political alliances that are still openly operating in the country -- even after the old one-party system was voted out of power on the federal level.
It has also cast an unfavorable spotlight on some of the country's most prominent institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission, the presidency and the Supreme Court, which ruled in late November that Cacho's rights had not been "egregiously violated."
"It's good against evil," Cacho said of her case during a January interview in Mexico City, where she was working with lawyers on presenting her case in several international courts.
"It's the clearest human rights case that we have ever had in Mexico. It's so clear that the human rights of children were violated and the human rights of the journalist that wrote about it were violated -- not only by organized crime, but by the political system."
The case also has vaulted Cacho, a striking 44-year-old famed for her flowing black hair and casual attire of jeans and low-cut shirts, into national prominence -- a role she expressed some discomfort with.
"Fame is overstated," she said.
"People tend to think that because I look how I look, I'm a soap opera star and they tend to treat me like star, which is just ridiculous."
Her appearance masks a tough-as-nails disposition and sharp intellect. Cacho, who speaks four languages and was educated at the Sorbonne, has long worked as an investigative reporter in Cancún, where she runs a shelter for abused women and children. She also survived being raped in a bus station washroom in 1999 -- an attack she was told could have been revenge for her work and which left her with broken bones.
Her most recent travails stemmed from her 2005 book "The Demons of Eden," an exposé of Cancún pedophile rings and the influential figures she alleges have allowed them to operate. The book named Kamel Nacif, a Puebla businessman known as the "denim king," as a protector of Jean Succar Kuri, an accused pedophile, who was recently extradited back to Mexico after being detained in the United States. (Succar Kuri has not been convicted and maintains his innocence. Nacif has never denied knowing Succar Kuri.)
Nacif objected to being named in Cacho's book. Cacho would later learn that Nacif pressured Marín, who represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to file charges for defamation -- which was then a criminal offense in Mexico, even if the information was true. (Defamation was recently decriminalized due to Cacho's case.)
Next Page: 'A beautiful bottle of cognac' . . .
The entire affair might have blown over, but a telephone recording of a conversation between Nacif and the governor was leaked on Valentine's Day 2006. Cacho suspects the recording was made by Nacif's wife. The profanity-laced recording featured the men scheming to punish Cacho. Nacif also promised Marín, "a beautiful bottle of cognac," for railroading the journalist.
Calls were made for Marín's head, but all elected Mexican politicians enjoy immunity from prosecution. The federal government can strip politicians of their immunity, but President Felipe Calderón, who narrowly won power in the 2006 federal election, depends on Marín's PRI for passing his legislative agenda. The PRI, which stumbled in the last federal election, but maintains substantial strength on the state level, refuses to allow a governor to fall.
The National Human Rights Commission later intervened, but details of Cacho's case were leaked to government officials in Puebla. A computer containing her case files was found in a trash can in the state.
Her case finally went to the Supreme Court, which launched an investigation.
"The investigation is amazing," Cacho recalled.
"It could prove that 23 people were involved in my arrest by the order of the governor and how they chose a certain judge so she could give me time in jail and how they chose the policemen to pick me up in Cancún so they would be able to torture me without any moral problems."
But the court, by a six-to-four decision in late November, opted against recommending action on her file. The two female justices on the high court changed their minds after issuing a preliminary ruling that appeared to favor Cacho. The judges based part of their final ruling on a statute barring taped telephone conversations as evidence in Mexican trials. Court President Guillermo Ortiz Mayagoitia later said the ruling did not absolve Marín of responsibility.
Cacho rejected the explanation, saying the court president's own investigation largely ignored Marín and that six of the judges made a "political decision." Additionally, Nacif acknowledged that his voice was on the inadmissible taped telephone conversation. Marín also admitted being a party to the conversation, but said the tape had been edited.
Protesters responded to the ruling by pelting the Supreme Court building with eggs and smashing bottles of cognac on the front steps.
Veteran political observer and pollster Dan Lund described the decision and general lack of action on Cacho's case as "the quintessence of impunity and the failure of the institutions to work . . . the executive branch, the ministry of justice and the Supreme Court.
"Lydia Cacho is still in a situation of threat -- both formal and informal -- and Marín, the governor, is enjoying all the perks of power," added Lund, president of the Mund Group, a Mexico City market research firm.
Marín's party overwhelmingly won the Nov. 11, 2007, municipal and legislative elections in Puebla, which were rife with allegations of vote buying and violence. Nacif's company recently landed a large contract with a state government in Southeastern Mexico, according to Cacho, who travels with security guards and frequently changes cellular phone numbers due to unexplained service disruptions during foreign calls.
It was also revealed last month that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, had advised Cacho to leave the country because the journalist's safety and rights could not be guaranteed in Mexico. Cacho said she would stay put, although she's preparing to present her case in several international courts and recently released a new book.
The international attention would reflect badly on Mexico, according to Lund, but it could prod the government of an image-conscious country into action on human rights and institutional reforms, which have been happening only gradually over the past 20 years.
"You get a feeling in the society that things are changing, or could change or have changed, and then something like this happens," Lund said.
"It feels like nothing has changed."
David Agren, a Canadian journalist based in Mexico City, has covered Mexico since 2005 for a number of publications.