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Shooting the messengers: Women investigating sex-trafficking in Mexico

September 20, 2016

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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. ©

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dee Dee Camhi permalink
    September 20, 2016 16:35

    Thank you, Duncan, for keeping the English-speaking and -reading population here in Mexico informed. Your reports are always well researched and well documented. Hope you are here for a long time!

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