Lydia Cacho is notably one of the world’s most prominent defenders of human rights in the world, known for her involvement against human trafficking, slavery and exploitation of children. She has founded the Centro Integral de Atención a la Mujer, a safe haven for victims with several facilities in Mexico. Here is the story of how one woman’s bravery exposed the existence of networks of pornography, child abuse and child slavery in Mexico.
By Scott Corrales
In recent years, the Spanish-speaking world has witnessed the rise of the genre known as periodismo de impacto (impact journalism): reporter-powered stories involving controversial subjects of a political or social nature. These stories often involve the use of a hidden camera in television documentaries that support the work in print.
It has only been a few years since Antonio Salas shocked readers and viewers in Spain and Latin America with his dramatic exposé of the rising tide of neo-fascism in the Iberian Peninsula, which was aided and abetted by certain sports team owners and business people. Skinheads and suedeheads were used as the shock troops for more intellectual and contemptuous exponents of reactionary viewpoints. Spain had not quite recovered from the blow when Salas emerged with another exposé—this time on the harsh realities of prostitution and the drug trade, which have turned Eastern Europe, Africa and Spain into a single, long corridor of human degradation and misery.
Out of Mexico, a country where journalists have known for decades to avoid controversial subjects, has come a truly remarkable investigative work. Lydia Cacho’s Los Demonios del Edén seeks to tear the dark veil that offers official protection to one of the most reprehensible endeavors known to humanity: child pornography. In the past it was common for Mexican writers covering controversial subjects to be given a tap on the shoulder in the form of a surreptitious drive-by shooting; but Lydia Cacho has paid for her boldness with outright imprisonment by Mexican authorities. The preface to the second edition of Los Demonios del Edén is, in fact, a retelling of the author’s arrest, abuse and detention at the hands of officials who were clearly displeased with her revelations.
“To write or read a book on the abuse and trafficking of minors,” she writes, “is neither easy nor pleasant. However, it is more perilous to remain silent on the matter.” This statement leads the reader on a dizzying journey through a landscape of abject misery and pain, and the realization that vast, uncaring forces are at work to protect criminal wrongdoings and silence the few brave enough—or foolish enough—to try and make these abuses known to the wider world.
But who is Lydia Cacho, and why has her professional activities and her writing been perceived as a thorn in the side of certain vested interests in Mexico? Born in 1963 in Mexico City, Cacho has become well known as a feminist author and journalist, as well as a TV personality with her own show, Esta Boca es Mía: Apuntes de Equidad y Género. (This Mouth is Mine: Notes of Equity and Kind). Her novel Las Provincias del Alma (The Provinces of the Soul) was published by Demac in 2003. Cacho’s strong commitment to women’s issues in Mexico, such as gender discrimination and domestic violence, is reflected in dozens of newspaper articles and columns throughout the Mexican press, and in her position as a representative for the United Nations Agency for Women’s Affairs (UNIFEM) in her native country.
Perhaps more important than all of these distinctions is Ms. Cacho’s co-founding of a nationwide system of shelters for abused women called the “Red Nacional de refugios para mujeres que viven en violencia,” as well as being the hands-on Director of one of the centers situated in Cancún, Mexico’s paradise by the sea—the Eden of the book’s title.
Cacho kicks off her journey into hell with a sociopolitical analysis of the artificial nature of Cancún, which was brought into being by presidential edict in 1969. She points out that Cancún shares certain characteristics with the old “wild west” and, indeed, any frontier community; including sexual imbalances that lead to androcentrism; opportunities for all manner of con artists; and sudden wealth for a landed gentry that had been relegated to obscure provincial status for generations.
Every paradise must have its serpent, and Cacho finds Cancún’s in the figure of Jean Succar Kuri, a successful hotelier of Lebanese extraction whose financial clout and political connections gave him enough power and influence to allow him to abuse over one hundred boys and girls for two decades without law enforcement agencies daring to intervene.
Described by a former domestic employee as “ambitious, fascinated by money and despising of women,” Succar arrived in Mexico as a teenager to stay with successful relatives in northern Mexico. Achieving financial success as a go-between and dealmaker in Acapulco, he relocated to Cancún in the mid-1980s, where many who came in contact with him were startled by his vulgar treatment of women and his unconcealed interest in young girls.
The Drama Begins
In 2003, a young woman named “Emma” (pseudonym) emerged as the lead witness in the legal proceedings against Succar; and it was more than a case of her word against that of the magnate. “Emma” had a videotape in which the hotelier admitted his enjoyment of sex with girls as young as five. The unwilling protagonist tells the story of how the older man would employ a mixture of coercion and blandishments to obtain sexual favors from girls of different ages and social backgrounds, videotaping them engaged in forced lesbian activity, and threatening to release the images to their parents if they so much as breathed a word of what was going on.
“Uncle Johnny,” as the girls called him, salved his conscience through largesse; expensive watches, handbags and clothing were doled out to the girls with abandon. In a statement to agents of Mexico’s Office of the Prosecutor, the lead witness added: “It’s a fact that Jean Succar Kuri is also in contact with other girls in the United States in order to swap them” with other wealthy businessmen whose complicity in these crimes would later emerge. Allegedly tipped off by a deputy prosecutor who owed him a favor, the hotelier fled to the safety of the U.S.
In a work of fiction, this would have been the denouement, but at this point, Cacho’s book becomes a fractured tale of government agencies and officials working against each other; thus causing witnesses to slant their stories one way or another; child welfare advocates to understate figures on the numbers of abused children; and the political establishment and the wealthy to collude with each other. As the sordid story reached the media, “Emma” and the other girls who had fallen into Succar’s web of deception were doubly victimized, this time by news reports suggesting their willing participation in debauchery. They were hounded out of school and into nervous breakdowns.
As the story grew and the apparent “good guys” turned out to have their own agendas, the press became more interested in the political ramifications that emerged from the child pornography accusations. The names of congressional representatives, state senators and members of the Mexican prosecutor’s office emerged not only as supporters of the disgraced hotelier, but also as having deeper connections with organized crime.
In early 2004, Succar was apprehended in Chandler, Arizona, but his extradition to Los Angeles for subsequent delivery to Mexican agents was interrupted when an Arizona judge expressed his “mistrust of Mexican authorities.” The case ceased to be a strictly Mexican affair as journalists and federal agents began investigations into the hotelier’s dealings on U.S. territory. It would seem that there is good reason for mistrust on the part of the Arizona judge, as an anonymous agent for the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones is quoted as saying:
The names involved [in this case] have a lot of weight. Organized crime in Mexico is heavily impregnated with political power. The truth is that this could not be otherwise. I think that if he [Succar] is protected, our work will have been in vain. One of two things will happen: he’ll either be killed in jail in Albuquerque, where we’re told he’s already been sexually assaulted by inmates, or documents will be lost so that extradition won’t take place. Within a year, after things cool down, the gringos will say “we can’t process him here” and as we say, “the name and man will be lost” in the dead file. All of this depends on how much politicians want to save him or damn him.
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter in the Los Demonios del Edén is the one containing the transcript of a conversation between Succar and “Emma” at a restaurant. Despite the clarity of the images and the sound quality, this evidence was deemed insufficient to apprehend the child molester. During the exchange, the older man tells the girl, astonishingly, that he believes young girls “try to ensare him” because he is “such a good father figure.”
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
In a work of fiction, unmasking the villain usually results in plaudits or some positive recognition or outcome for the hero or heroine. Not so in the harsh reality of Mexico, where Lydia Cacho’s efforts in bringing Jean Succar Kuri to justice resulted in the enmity of the governor of the State of Puebla, separated from Mexico City by the majestic Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl volcanoes.
On December 16, 2005, seven months after the first edition of Cacho’s book appeared in stores throughout Mexico, a squad of policías judiciales apprehended her at her Centro Integral de Atención a la Mujer (CIAM) in Cancún. The officers presented her with an arrest warrant issued by a judge in Puebla, allegedly grounded on a lawsuit for libel and defamation of character brought by one Kamel Nacif Borge, a crony of Jean Succar Kuri. Nacif, also known as Mexico’s “denim king” for his involvement in the textile industry, is mentioned as Succar’s protector in the pages of Los Demonios del Edén. Typically, a civil case would not merit an arrest in another jurisdiction (Cancún, in the state of Quintana Roo, is over a thousand kilometers distant from Puebla).
Whisked into a waiting car by burly agents, the writer and activist, suffering from poor health at the time, was taken to Puebla on the long, tortuous roads that separate the Yucatán Peninsula from the Mexican Highlands. Throughout the harsh journey, her captors taunted her with rumors of a nameless party in Torreón who “wanted to kill her,” asking her if she knew how to swim, because “people have been known to drown” on the way to Puebla, and other menacing remarks. Cacho’s requests for food and restroom stops were ignored. The activist writes:
The irregular nature of my apprehension and subsequent imprisonment made sense when it became evident, over the following days, that my capture and the corresponding trial had been negotiated between the plaintiff and the government of Puebla, long before I was even able to present evidence to defend myself against the libel claim! The arrogance and custom of making use of the law for purposes of repression is such that these bureaucrats overlooked the separation of powers and legality. Furthermore, they paraded it before the press. (Demonios, p.11)
While the Office of the Prosecutor in Puebla publicly acknowledged the irregularities in Lydia Cacho’s arrest, it argued that it was necessary to resort to such measures to keep Cacho from “raising a fuss” during the arrest. The Reforma newspaper reported that Kamel Nacif had made no secret of the backing he had received from Mario Marín, governor of state of Puebla, in securing the arrest warrant against the activist. “I asked the governor [to help me] as this lady was libeling me, just like that, and he told me: nobody gets libeled here, and zoom! The arrest warrant was issued.”
The denim king then added that “the lady” (Cacho) had allegedly stated on a television program that he, Nacif, had one hundred outstanding sexual harassment claims presented by his seamstresses. He was appalled that anyone should think he had such poor taste in women.
A string of telephone messages between Cacho’s adversaries has been transcribed and posted to www.lydiacacho.net, making evident their desire to visit physical harm on the activist, rather than seek redress for a perceived wrong. In these telephone conversations, Nacif recommended that Cacho be incarcerated “with madwomen and lesbians” to insure her rape during her stay behind bars. Cacho describes this humiliating and terrifying situation:
As soon as I entered Cereso [the Puebla prison] I was transferred to an inspection area. A young female prison guard ordered me to strip naked. It was very humiliating, as there was no door and only a piece of plastic separated us from where the police were. It was very cold and I began to sneeze. Suddenly, the young warder told me: ‘You’re the one from the TV, right? Please be very careful, because they’re going to rape you.’
In horror, Cacho only managed to ask, “How?” and the warder took her question literally: “Well, with a stick.” The activist’s physical integrity was preserved in the end by the concerted efforts of the prison warders and the infirmary staff.
Perhaps the greatest positive result from Lydia Cacho’s work and suffering can be seen in an open letter to the Mexican government at lydiacacho.net. The letter bears the signatures of scores of journalists and activists from all over the world, and was published in the Mexican press:
We exhort the male and female ministers of the Supreme Court to restore to all Mexican citizens our right to trust in the courts. Up to now, the repercussions suffered by the victims of [Jean] Succar and the persecution against Lydia Cacho appeared to confirm the beliefs of eight out of ten Mexican citizens, who believe reporting a crime futile because the State’s institutions will not afford them protection. If the authorities of Puebla are exempted from their liability, if the obvious existence of networks of pornography, child abuse and child slavery in Mexico is not acknowledged, it will be very hard for any other citizen—male or female—to challenge in court these men who corrupt society and foster crime in Mexico, through the use of public authority.
Among the most notable signatories to this open letter are Charlize Theron, Ashley Judd, Benicio del Toro and Susan Sarandon.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of State recognized Cacho’s role as one of the most prominent defenders of human rights in the world, for her involvement against human trafficking and slavery, according to the Mexican News Agency, NOTIMEX. The 2007 Report on Human Trafficking features nine such human rights advocates—seven women and two men—including Argentina’s Sara del Valle and Ecuador’s Lucy Blacio.
The State Department paper underscores that Cacho’s Centro Integral de Atención a la Mujer is considered “one of the safest and complete facilities in the country to offer help to victims of human trafficking and sexual violence.” It goes on to describe Cacho as “one of the most active critics of the sexual exploitation of women and children in Mexico, whose work has generated considerable pressure and regular threats against her to desist from her efforts.”
Freedom of the press may be constitutionally guaranteed in many countries, but in some of them, shining a spotlight into the dark corners, where wealth and political privilege allow grave and inhumane misdeeds to occur, can result in physical harm or death for the idealistic journalist or social activist. The symbiotic relationship between money and power, between the political patron and the elected official, is a thorn in the side of democracy as a whole.
©2007 Scott Corrales. Scott is a writer and translator of UFO and paranormal subjects in Latin America and Spain. His work has appeared in magazines in the U.S., U.K., Japan, Spain and Italy. He is also the author of Chupacabras and Other Mysteries (Greenleaf, 1997), Flashpoint: High Strangeness in Puerto Rico (Amarna, 1998) and Forbidden Mexico (1999). He lives in Pennsylvania, where he edits Inexplicata: The Journal of Hispanic UFOlogy. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Los Demonios del Edén, by Lydia Cacho, is published in Spanish only (so far) by Editorial Grijalbo, Mexico, 2005. It is available at amazon.com. To read more about Lydia Cacho, go to www.lydiacacho.net. For English, simply search Lydia Cacho on Google and click “translate this page.”
From “This Mouth Is Mine” (translated from Spanish, www.lydiacacho.net)
By Lydia Cacho
In December 2005 police took prey to me, to have written a book in which I narrate the brave history that children told me; children who were snatched of their infantile happiness by a pederast named Succar Kuri. It was in December that I spent hours in the hands of those police, who tortured me and took me, with hints to invade my body by force; they invited to me to swim in the sea, my family never would find my body.
And after just leaving the jail I dedicated myself to defend, as if I had nothing else in this life than to say the truth, point-blank. And so occupied in demanding my right to human life and dignity, declared to newspaper before my colleagues and journalists, as if it had already passed the duel of the lived terror. But there was no past: I in the lights; they operating in the dark to avoid justice at all costs.
I spent the days and weeks explaining all the possible forms that I have been the victim of a system that punishes who says the truth; a system that gives by fact that victims lie, and which gives the victimarios reason to operate in so violent ways. But I had a finding days ago.
Eight hours before criminologist and victimóloga, which they made me relive every second of that dark arrest, crossing five states of the Mexican Republic, with a persistent idea at what time they were going to kill to me and where my body would be left. I understood because I have survived the cruelty of those police, that followed orders of an industrialist and a governor who enjoyed ordering a good lesson to shut my mouth, and any other journalist who questions his crimes. I understood how it was that I could sleep during so many nights that the demons were wide awake.