Human Rights

Child Pornography and Human Trafficking: Cancun's Dark Side

A conversation with human rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro on the coastal city's violence and abuses -- and her lifelong mission to combat them.
In many of Mexico's states, violence against women is still not considered a crime, and freedom of the press remains elusive. Journalists are often targeted and killed simply for telling the truth. Last year alone, Mexico saw the deaths of 10 journalists, according to the World Press. And Lydia Cacho Ribeiro knows that, any day, she could be one of them.

Cacho, one of Mexico's leading defenders of women's and children's rights, often risks her own life to tell the stories of those who cannot speak out for themselves. An investigative journalist and gender-based violence specialist, Cacho runs a crisis center and shelter in Cancun, a spring break hotspot where white, sandy beaches and breathtaking coastal views give way to a harsher reality -- one of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, human trafficking and child pornography. Her 2005 book, "The Demons of Eden," exposes Cancun as a destination for child sex tourism.

Throughout her 20-plus years of investigative and advocacy work, Cacho has received innumerable death threats, and in 1999, was raped in an attempt to silence her. But those attempts, she says, have only made her stronger and more sensitive to the needs of victims of violence. Cacho was the 2007 recipient of the Ginetta Sagan Human Rights Award from Amnesty International USA. Her next book on trafficking will be released in 2008.

AlterNet spoke with Cacho via telephone.

Heather Gehlert: You live in a country where journalists don't enjoy many protections and often risk their lives just for writing the truth. What made you want to become a journalist, and how long have you been doing this?

Lydia Cacho Ribeiro: Well, actually, I guess I started my career path when I was a little girl. My mom was a feminist and a psychologist. She used to work in Mexico City, and she would take us with her -- me and my sisters and brothers -- to play with the kids while she talked to the women and worked with them in the human rights and stuff like that. I learned very early in life that a lot of the kids my age were -- would probably never be able to write their names or tell their stories, and I kept asking my mother, "How come they cannot do that?" And her answer was always that I was lucky enough to get an education, and I had a responsibility to these people who might never have one.

HG: So your main interest has pretty much always been human rights?

LCR: I guess so. I mean, that's how they call them now. I just call it being a good person.

HG: In your most recent book, "The Demons of Eden," you expose a ring of child prostitution and pornography in Cancun. How did you become aware that this was happening?

LCR: There was this young woman that went to the police and told them she had been raped since she was 13, and now she knew that the guy who used her also for child pornography was still doing that to other kids, including her little sister and her neighbor. So, as with what happens in many, many cases in Mexico, the police leaked this information -- the words of the kid -- to some of the local press in Cancun. So, I learned about the case in the local press first, and I started writing about it -- talking about the rights of the victim. And pretty soon this young woman looked for me and she asked me for help as a journalist. She said she wanted somebody to tell her side of the story because the press was distorting the story and saying that the kids were provoking this pedophile. I never, ever thought I was gonna write a book about that. I've been working as a journalist for many years, and I almost never write about the victims unless they tell me they want to share their stories.

HG: When you were arrested in 2005, after the book was published, the police drove you to a jail about 20 hours from your home. What was going through your mind at the time? What were these people telling you on the way?

LCR: I thought they were going to kill me. I was sure they were abducting me illegally even though they are policemen. I've been a journalist for 20 years and I was born in Mexico 44 years ago, so we tend to not trust police just because we have enough evidence of a lot of police selling their services to private persons to just kill people or abduct people or things like that. So I thought they were doing that. They did not give me enough information -- everything was very irregular. The way they arrested me was a big group of policemen with guns -- I mean, they really arrested me like I was a drug dealer. So, I thought they were going to kill me -- they kept telling me so. They told me they were going to drop me in the middle of the ocean, and they kept asking me if I knew how to swim. They said they were going to rape me and all sorts of things during 20 hours. Every minute was like the hardest minute.

HG: But you were not hurt. How were you able to avoid being raped and beaten in that situation?

LCR: This female guard from the jail, she said everything is arranged inside the jail so you can be raped, and some people are going to beat you badly, and I just kept asking her to protect me, and she said, "Don't worry, we will." And she and another guard took me to the infirmary, and I stayed there for hours until the judge called me.

HG: So now you have federal agents protecting you. How many of them?

LCR: Three of them. I was already protected by federal agents. When they arrested me, they had been with me for 10 months. And what happened was, they let me go. They called their boss and the boss said, "Oh, yeah, let her go." So they let me go even though I yelled at them. I mean, they were pretty far away. I just yelled -- "You have to follow me; don't let me go alone." And they just did. They are now all supposedly being investigated by the police, but nothing will happen.

HG: What kind of precautions do you have to take when you travel?

LCR: I travel everywhere in Mexico in an armored vehicle. It's a #7 armor, which is -- I think 9 is like the top armor. It means I cannot open the windows of the car because they are too heavy and the doors and everything. They have to open them for me. So that's how I go about in my country.

HG: How long can you live like that? It sounds really incredibly difficult.

LCR: It is, it is. Sometimes I just get really frustrated with people taking my privacy away practically completely.

HG: Do you ever get to go out on your own?

LCR: Well, very few times. Sometimes I just do it for mental health, but my true freedom is when I travel abroad because they are not with me.

HG: But your loss of personal freedom isn't just because of this book. You've been running a crisis center and shelter in Cancun for years. Could you talk about how this began and what kind of work you do there?

LCR: Well, actually, it has been going for a long, long time, and it's just progressive work. We started a lot of work with women like 20 years ago, when I arrived in Cancun practically. My mom used to go there with my sister who's also a psychologist, and we started doing workshops with women. Then we formed a local group of feminists in Cancun and we started talking about violence, and a lot of women told us they needed something else and something more than talking about it. They needed action. Violence against women was not a crime in Mexico until almost five years ago or so, and it's still not a crime in many of the states of Mexico, so we started helping women on a very personal level. We would hide them in a hotel or in a house and some women would get away and try to get a divorce, and we thought it was very dangerous, but that was the answer.

HG: What types of violence are these women escaping? Is it primarily violence within their homes, or is it also coming from the outside?

LCR: They're primarily victims of family violence -- let's say like 60 and 70 percent. Then others are victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse. Or some of them are victims of trafficking. And that is more difficult.

HG: About how many women come to the shelter every month?

LCR: About 300 -- but it all depends. Violence works in cycles in every society. It's very strange. For example, in Cancun, when the low season of tourism starts, it means that a lot of hotels and restaurants, they fire their waitress and waiters and people like that, and then the men exercise more violence toward their wives or living partners. That's how they get rid of their anger. Violence also increases when the kids are going to begin school and the woman start asking for money to pay for things like books and uniforms.

We do not believe mediation is very effective in most family violence cases. The men, because they believe they are the owners of the wife or partners, it just doesn't make sense to do mediation when you have someone that has power and someone that has not power, not money, or no way to negotiate anything.

HG: Is that different from other battered women's shelters in Mexico?

LCR: Well yes, first of all, the model is based on the feminist point of view, which means we are not like sisters of charity doing work for poor women who are suffering. What we are, is we empower women against issues of violence, and we believe that every woman who comes to us -- rich and poor -- they have the way to develop the tools to change their lives. So we do not underestimate women; we do not treat them like kids or order them around; we help them become empowered survivors. And our model is based not on our project, but on each woman, which means that they are the center of the model, and it means that the experts on violence are the victims, not us. So every victim knows how to get out of that, but we are able to help them draw the map of their possibilities and that's what we do. We help them take the kids to school. We help them to get another job. We do not promote this traditional female work like other shelters do. Like if a woman comes from the lower or middle class, they try to get them jobs as like maids or cleaning woman. We do not do that. We try to get them better jobs. So yes, our philosophy is very different.

HG: Are there ever any American tourists who come to the center?

LCR: Oh, yes, absolutely. For 10 years, I have been the only expert that works for the general district attorney in Cancun, for free of course, to translate for all young women tourists who are raped because not only do the police do a terrible translation, they do not help them. They do not believe them. They just change what they say.

HG: How do you keep from getting discouraged? What makes this type of work worth the risk for you?

LCR: Well, I don't know, sometimes we do get a little discouraged. The thing is that there are always a lot more good and happy stories than the bad ones. And you see these children going to schools for peace and changing the way they see life or changing the way they see their father and understanding that there are good men too, and they can become good men too and not batterers like their fathers. We see happy ending stories every day, and that is what keeps us going.

Editor's Note: Each year, the Ginetta Sagan Fund awards one woman human rights defender $10,000 to assist women who are working to protect the liberty and lives of women and children in areas where human rights violations are widespread. You can help keep this fund alive by making a donation at //
Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.