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Shooting the messengers: Women investigating sex-trafficking in Mexico

September 20, 2016


Over a decade after she was abducted, tortured and threatened with murder in retaliation for exposing a paedophile ring, Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico’s most respected journalists, may finally be about to receive a shred of justice. In an open letter published in April, Cacho revealed that her alleged tormenter, a member of the Puebla state police force, is soon to go on trial. I hope hes convicted,she wrote, so no one else will ever have to go through what I went through for telling the truth, for exercising their freedom of expression and defending human rights.

Cacho may feel some relief if her alleged torturer is finally convicted, but recent cases have shown it remains just as risky for Mexican journalists to investigate such issues today.

Mexico is home to a vast and lucrative sex-trafficking industry, with an estimated 800,000 women and 20,000 children trafficked for sexual exploitation every year. Several of Mexicos most respected female journalists have delved into this dark and disturbing world in recent years, only to discover that the criminal gangs that ruthlessly exploit young women often benefit from strong political connections. Publishing such investigations can entail serious risk.

Sanjuana Martínez, another reporter who has focused heavily on sex-trafficking throughout her career, is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over her investigation into a Mexico City strip club where 46 sexual slaves were discovered in 2012. The following year, Martínez published interviews with women and underage girls who said they were drugged, beaten, tortured and raped at the club on a daily basis.

One of the victims named Jesús Ortega, the former leader of the Democratic Revolution Party which has governed Mexicos capital since 2000as a regular client. Ortega denied the accusations, which he described as flagrant lies, and responded by suing Martínez for defamation.

Martínez was later told the lawsuit had been dropped because the case file had been lost, but it went ahead without her knowledge and in February a judge in Mexico City ruled that she must compensate the plaintiff. Martínez claims she was never notified throughout the trial a violation of her right to a defenceand was only made aware of the verdict when Ortega publicly announced his victory two months later, by which time it was too late to appeal.

The problem at the heart of all this is that the drug cartels that profit from trafficking women and children in Mexico all have links to politicians, public officials, police officers and businessmen, Martínez told Index on Censorship.

Theres a judicial and police-led persecution in this country,she added. If they dont threaten you to kill you then they criminalise you. In order to defend freedom of expression we must protect our journalists, not shoot the messengers.

Within days of the ruling, over 26,000 people signed a petition demanding that it be overturned. Mexicos National Network of Human Rights Defenders called the ruling a barrier for female victims of violence in the pursuit of justice. Instead of persecuting journalists, the network urged Mexicos authorities to investigate the allegations raised in Martínezs reporting, which reflect the high level of violence against women, the collusion between authorities and business-owners, the absence of investigations to determine the facts, and the prevailing impunity.

Implicating influential figures can also put reportersjobs at risk. In 2014, an undercover investigation by a team of journalists led by Carmen Aristegui, another of Mexicos most respected reporters, unearthed evidence that Cuauhtémoc Gutiérrez, the president of the Mexico City chapter of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, had been using public funds to run a prostitution network out of his office.

Local authorities eventually decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Gutiérrez, while Mexicos MVS radio network fired Aristegui and her entire team within a matter of months. The journalists suspect the government pressured MVS into dismissing them in retaliation for a series of damaging stories they had broken, including the prostitution case and a subsequent property scandal involving president Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife. A lot of people are being silently censored,Aristeguis colleague Rafael Cabrera told Index. How strange that its only happening to those who do this kind of work.

The level of risk appears to be rising, with Article 19 documenting 356 acts of aggression, including threats, harassment, espionage, invasions of privacy, murders and disappearances, against female journalists in Mexico the past seven years. There were 84 incidents in 2015, the worst year yet. This context makes self-censorship inevitable. Shaila Rosagel, a reporter who specialises in human rights, told Index she has been threatened while close colleagues have been murdered or disappeared. When things like this happen you start to become very cautious in your work, knowing that in Mexico there are people you cant mess with because theyll kill you or make you disappear.

Last year Rosagel authored a series of investigations into activists who claim to support victims of sex-trafficking but appear to exploit the victims in order to boost their own media profiles and political ambitions. Nonetheless, she remains wary of delving too deeply into issues that typically involve individuals with links to organised crime or the political elite.These things obligate journalists to decide not to cover certain issues. When youre deciding what issues to investigate in Mexico, you have to evaluate who might kill you for it or what they might do to you,Rosagel admitted. Were totally defenceless. No one protects us, theres complete impunity.

Mexico is ranked 8th in the Committee to Protect Journalists2015 Global Impunity Index, with 19 out of 23 murders that were directly linked to reporterswork in the last decade going unpunished.

A conviction in Cachos case would be a step in the right direction. Her 2004 book The Demons of Eden exposed a child pornography and prostitution network involving several prominent business leaders and politicians. Presenting an updated edition of the book at a recent literature festival, Cacho lamented that Mexico still doesnt want to protect freedom of expression or the right to information. Yet she does believe civil society has become better organised over the past decade, while the press has started paying greater attention to violence against women. Were in a slow process of change,Cacho said of the state of freedom of expression. It wont happen in three or six years, but I think that in 50 years things will be different.

As for the immediate future, a federal judge has since intervened in Martínezs case, temporarily suspending the ruling against her, but there is uncertainty over what happens next. This is a lawsuit that attempts to inhibit journalistic work, not just for me but for everyone,Martínez told Index. We want a retrial so I can have a fair trial with due process. If its not possible well appeal to international bodies because this would set a very grave precedent for all journalists.

The Lydia Cacho case

In her 2004 book, The Demons of Eden, Lydia Cacho exposed a child pornography and prostitution network involving several prominent business leaders and politicians. The following year, she was illegally detained by Puebla state police in Cancún, 900 miles outside their jurisdiction. The police tortured Cacho, put a gun in her mouth and threatened to rape her during a harrowing 20-hour car journey to Puebla, before charging her with libel and defamation on behalf of a wealthy textile baron whom she had identified as a key member of the paedophile ring.

The charges were eventually dropped. Months later, recordings circulated of the magnate and the Puebla governor boasting of beating Cacho and congratulating each other over her arrest. Cacho sued her aggressors for violating her civil rights, including her freedom of speech, but Mexicos Supreme Court ruled against her.

This paper has been published in Index on Censorship, Vol.45, Issue 2 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. ©

Mexico drug war fuels private security boom

September 6, 2016
Seguritec’s Guadalajara headquarters. Seguritec is one of 1,168 private security firms with federal permission to operate in Mexico [Google Street View]

Seguritec’s Guadalajara headquarters. Seguritec is one of 1,168 private security firms with federal permission to operate in Mexico [Photo via Google Street View]

Having spent the morning rumbling through downtown Guadalajara in their impenetrable armoured van, the three Seguritec employees entrusted with collecting cash from local businesses stopped to receive one last payment. Two of them got out to collect the money, but upon returning to their vehicle they realised their colleague had fled with about $800,000 in local currency.

It was an embarrassing setback for Seguritec, a private security firm with the slogan: “Security and trust in transporting valuables”.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a problem of this kind,” Rafael Torres, Seguritec’s local representative, told Al Jazeera. “The money belonged to our clients, who are mostly local banks, but it should be insured. We’ll be carrying out our own investigation and aiding the authorities however we can.”

Guadalajara police chief Salvador Caro says that he has reassigned hundreds of police officers to protect citizens and not just the city’s elite.

Guadalajara police chief Salvador Caro says that he has reassigned hundreds of police officers to protect citizens and not just the city’s elite.

Federal police caught the alleged culprit with suitcases full of cash just five days later, but the heist on July 29 added to the growing list of controversies involving Mexico’s thriving private security industry.

Business has been booming since Felipe Calderon, who was president at that time, declared war on organised crime in December 2006, yet insiders and security experts warn that the industry is rife with corruption and that its rapid growth risks exacerbating security inequality by encouraging authorities to neglect public security…

Click here to read this feature in full at Al Jazeera English.

This Guadalajara restaurant has raised Mexico’s burger and craft beer game

August 24, 2016
The maple burger is the jewel in the Pig's Pearls' crown. All photos by Ulises Ruíz Basurto.

The maple burger is the jewel in the Pig’s Pearls’ crown. All photos by Ulises Ruíz Basurto.

Like most visitors, when I first moved to Mexico in 2009 I was endlessly fascinated by the diversity, the complexity, and the incredibly bold flavors of the local cuisine. But after a few months away from home, you sometimes just want a nice meaty burger and a crisp pint of ale. That proved hard to find, with most places merely offering thin, tasteless patties with plastic cheese squares in overly sweet or crumbly buns, alongside bottles of commercial lager. Mexico’s burger game was lacking.

Two years later I found salvation in a former bookshop on a quiet street corner in Guadalajara’s trendy Americana neighborhood. Sensing an opportunity to broaden the city’s culinary horizons, Carlos Barba and his cousin Oscar “Iguano” Martín had just opened their own burger joint and crammed six or seven tables into this tiny space. It was called Pig’s Pearls and they served the best burgers I’d ever tried. They were also among the city’s first advocates of Mexico’s nascent craft beer scene.

The restaurant was so popular it soon expanded to a converted warehouse.

The restaurant was so popular it soon expanded to a converted warehouse.

Now celebrating it’s fifth anniversary, Pig’s Pearls has established itself as a local institution and helped usher in a gourmet burger boom. It constantly flits between first and fifth in TripAdvisor’s ranking of the top 816 restaurants in Guadalajara and was recently named the city’s best burger joint in a survey of 21 chefs, critics, and food bloggers…

Click here to read this piece in full at Munchies. 

Authorities confirm one of El Chapo’s sons has been kidnapped

August 16, 2016
Leaked CCTV footage shows the moment cartel gunmen burst into the restaurant.

Leaked CCTV footage shows the moment cartel gunmen burst into the restaurant.

Jesús Alfredo Guzmán, a son of the jailed Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is among a group of men abducted at gunpoint from a swanky restaurant in the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta early on Monday.

Eduardo Almaguer, the attorney general for the western state of Jalisco, named the 29-year-old Guzmán among the four victims he said the authorities have been able to identify so far with the help of footage from cameras around La Leche restaurant, testimony from witnesses, and evidence found in the luxury cars left behind.

Almaguer did not give any information about the other two men also missing after around seven gunmen went into the restaurant and broke up a birthday celebration that also included nine women who, he said, were not harmed…

Click here to read this article in full at VICE News.

Cartel gunmen abducted 12 people from a high-end restaurant in Puerto Vallarta

August 15, 2016
The men were dining in La Leche restaurant when they were abducted.

The men were dining in Puerto Vallarta’s La Leche restaurant when they were abducted.

Mexican authorities say gunmen abducted between 10 and 12 people from a high-end restaurant in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta, with initial investigations suggesting they belonged to a rival drug cartel.

Eduardo Almaguer, the attorney general in the western state of Jalisco, said about five armed men entered the gourmet La Leche restaurant in the resort’s hotel zone at about 1am on Monday morning.

He said they rounded up the men who appeared to belong to a criminal gang and drove them away in a Toyota Tacoma and a Chevrolet Suburban, leaving four female witnesses behind unharmed…

Click here to read this story in full at VICE News. 

Pollution turned this Mexican river into a toxic hell

August 2, 2016
The pollution at El Salto. Photo by IMCINE-Tecolote Films-PIANO.

Industrial pollution creates clouds of toxic waste at El Salto. Photo by IMCINE-Tecolote Films-PIANO.

El Salto de Juanacatlán was once a majestic waterfall where locals would fish, bathe, and play. Today the air stinks of sulphur, yellow-tinged water cascades over the rocks, and clouds of bright white foam collect at the foot of the falls before drifting downstream.

After years of watching the authorities fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, desperate locals are now intensifying their calls for action. They claim it is already too late for 628 locals who they say the pollution has killed in the last eight years. That includes 72 deaths in 2015, the worst year to date.

“My mother and two sisters died of cancer,” said Samuel Álvarez, a pensioner with white stubble and few teeth, as he ambled down the town’s uneven streets on his morning walk. “We used to live right next to the river and I think it was caused by them inhaling the industrial fumes every night.”

Environmental activists from El Salto demand solutions.

Environmental activists from El Salto demand that the government find a solution.

The devastation of El Salto began in the 1970s as industries began to congregate in the now decrepit town located on the southeastern outskirts of Guadalajara, the second-largest city in Mexico and the capital of the state of Jalisco…

Click here to read this feature in full at VICE News.

How a six-month spell in Mexico set Pep Guardiola on the road to coaching greatness

July 30, 2016
Guardiola used to eat at José Luis Bracamontes' restaurant  La Cocinita del Medio after training everyday.

Guardiola used to eat at José Luis Bracamontes’ restaurant La Cocinita del Medio after training everyday.

The city of Culiacán in north-west Mexico, best known as the bastion of the notorious Sinaloa cartel fronted by the billionaire drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was an unlikely place for Manchester City’s new manager, Pep Guardiola, to begin the process that would culminate in him becoming the world’s most sought-after coach.

Baseball, not football, has long been the most popular sport here and the newly founded local side Dorados de Sinaloa were minnows locked in a desperate relegation struggle when Guardiola, who turned 35 that month, arrived in January 2006.

It was hardly the typical destination for a veteran footballer looking for one last pay cheque but, having won more than a dozen trophies at Barcelona and made a fortune playing in the Qatar Stars League, the Olympic gold medallist and European Cup winner did not make the move in search of further financial reward or another trophy to add to his collection.

Instead it was here, under the tutelage of his old friend Juan Manuel Lillo, who had taken over at Dorados the previous summer, that Guardiola began to prepare for what has proved one of the most spectacular managerial careers in modern football history.

“We were in our second year in the top division and we’d just brought in Juan Manuel Lillo as our coach,” recalls the Dorados founder and former president, Juan Antonio García. “He told me there was a real possibility that we could sign Pep, who’d just reached the end of his contract in Qatar. Pep was already taking his coaching badges and the objective of playing in Mexico was above all to be close to Juan Manuel.”

Click here to read this feature in full at The Guardian.