Her latest book, exposing international sex trafficking rings, is about to be published and she has made some powerful enemies.
At 49, Lydia Cacho has earned multiple international awards for her reporting on violence against women and children, and in 2010 the International Press Institute named her a World Press Freedom Hero. She has received numerous threats, and was once assaulted and raped in an apparent retaliation for her investigative work.
On August 3, Cacho, who has been living in Cancún (state of Quintana Roo) for the last 20 years, had to leave Mexico. Her sophisticated satellite radio had been compromised.
After talking to her lawyers and several foreign advisers specializing in rescuing kidnapped people she was told she had to leave. Urgently
The following interview by Alice Wyllie was conducted while Lydia was still in Mexico
It wouldn’t be safe. We arrange to talk via Skype instead, but our conversation is cancelled after Cacho received a death threat while working at home. She uses a hand-held receiver for emergencies and when it turned on by itself, she answered, thinking it might be a work colleague. Instead, a male voice warned her not to “mess with us” and threatened to send her home “in pieces”.
This is not the first death threat Cacho has received. In her work investigating the international sex trade, she has exposed links between sex trafficking and various mafia organisations. She has made some very powerful, very dangerous enemies.
Born and raised in Mexico, as a child she was warned by her mother to stay away from the “child snatcher,” an old woman in her neighbourhood who was known to steal girls. It was from her mother that she learned about social responsibility and grassroots activism, and after becoming an arts and entertainment journalist she began to report on child abuse and violence against women.
In 1999, she was assaulted and raped in an attack which she believes was linked to her investigations. In 2004, in her book Demons of Eden, she accused several prominent businessmen of conspiring to protect a paedophile ring, an accusation which saw her arrested and imprisoned for defamation. Two years later, a tape emerged of a conversation between businessman Kamel Nacif Borge and Mario Plutarco Marín Torres, governor of Puebla, in which they discussed having her beaten and raped for her writing.
Today her home, office and mobile phones are all tapped and she changes e-mail addresses constantly. But she is quick to point out that she is far from being the only journalist working in Mexico under constant threat of violence. Last year, her friend and colleague, April Regina Martinez, was assassinated in her home after investigating links between drug dealers and the local government. In the last six years, 47 journalists have been murdered in Mexico (where 98.5 per cent of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished) 13 have disappeared and there have been 40 attacks on newspaper buildings.
In her latest book, Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking Cacho makes links between drug cartels in Mexico and sex trafficking, and names several powerful traffickers. With a number of mobsters in her country wanting her dead, she can’t be too careful so we agree to talk via e-mail.
“I take the death threats seriously,” she writes, “especially after an unsuccessful attempted murder perpetrated when my case was all over the news. I intend to stay alive; yet if that were not the case, if the political mafias end up killing me in the name of the causes in which I believe, it is important to document the entire story of the powers that protect traffickers.”
Document it she does. Slavery Inc is based on five years of research which saw her getting under the skin of the global sex trafficking industry, which she describes as “one of the most serious problems of the 21st century”.
She uses interpreters and native stringers, assumes false identities and adopts disguises in order to tell the stories of the people she meets. She has coffee with a Philippine trafficker, interviews a mafia wife, and has to flee a Cambodian casino run by Chinese triads where girls under ten are bought and sold.
She dresses as a prostitute to infiltrate nightclubs and as a nun to walk through La Merced, a dangerous neighbourhood in Mexico City which is controlled by traffickers. Where a male journalist would be much less conspicuous, going undercover as a woman in a murky world operated by men was highly dangerous. “I was incredibly nervous,” she says, “but noticed men do not even suspect a nun or a prostitute, because they are two stereotypes of women that represent submission to men in different ways.”
“I felt truly unsafe in Japan when I tried to get into a nightclub full of ‘comfort’ women for really rich businessmen,” she adds, when I ask her about her most dangerous encounters. “The Yakuza mafia has so much entrepreneurial and political power that they do not even act as mafiosi but as regular businessmen. They belong to the system, so it is easier for them to harm a foreign reporter with no repercussions. In the north of Mexico, it was very stressful to infiltrate nightclubs. The cartels that run the trafficking networks have no boundaries and have policemen working for them. In a country with 60,000 assassinations, one more death means nothing to authorities.”
Despite living under the constant threat of violence, Cacho was spurred on to document the truth about trafficking by the stories of the victims she encountered. Trafficking has been documented in 175 nations and each year 1.39 million people – mostly women and girls – are subjected to sexual slavery.
In Slavery Inc, Cacho describes a number of encounters with women and girls who have been trafficked. Each story, she said, moved her deeply. There’s Sarah, an American who was sold as a high-class sex slave in Japan after applying for a job as a singer.
Drugged and kidnapped, she was raped by 40 Yakuzas over 24 hours before escaping. Then there’s Nan, from Burma, who was sold into slavery at 15. Trafficked to Thailand, she gave an interview to a Thai newspaper saying that it was a Burmese soldier who had sold her to a brothel. On her return to Burma she was arrested, accused of treason and had her eye gouged out with a bayonet by a soldier.
When I ask Cacho about memorable encounters, she describes one family in Bangladesh where the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter all work in sex commerce, under the ruling of a local mafia.
“Poverty and assimilation of prostitution as the only way to survive is their reality,” she writes. “They have no options, so there was no choice or freedom but rather, as Madhu, the eldest said, a ‘predestination, as that is the only way men will give us money for work in our town’.
On the other side of the street a German client with a smiling face assured me these women are there willingly. ‘I see no chains, do you?’ he said.
Poverty and sexism are invisible chains.”
Some of the victims Cacho meets are not necessarily being held against their will in an obvious, physical sense. However, traffickers use a number of techniques to ensure that their victims have no choice in the matter. They turn them into outcasts so that no-one except their captors appears to want them. Many cannot return to their parents, who would simply sell them back into slavery. At a shelter for victims of trafficking in Cambodia, Cacho learns that 43 per cent of the rescued girls said that their mothers sold them to traffickers.
The men who enslave them provoke disagreements and encourage rivalry between victims to prevent them from uniting, and favour and reward those who adopt “hypersexual, seductive and submissive personalities” and who accept their exploitation.
In one particularly barbaric story, Cacho hears from a young girl who describes an incident where one of the other girls in her brothel escapes. The rest of group is starved for days before being fed a curry which they all wolf down. When they finish eating they are told that they have just consumed the body of the escaped girl and that a similar fate will befall anyone who attempts to follow in her footsteps.
Cacho reveals links between trafficking and various other types of organised crime as well as direct and indirect links to pornography. She is firmly against legalised prostitution, she says, arguing that it is a requirement for trafficking and that legitimising it will favour the victimisers, not the? victims.
I ask her about the biggest generally-held misconception about the international sex trafficking industry, and she cites the “irresponsible line of reasoning that argues that legalising prostitution will get rid of trafficking and slavery”.
“People are still discussing prostitution and sexual freedom with the same arguments we did back in the 1960s, when I was a little girl,” she writes. “We are witnessing the comeback of misogyny reloaded, and organised crime gangs have got the formula to make big bucks out of buying and selling women, girls and boys as disposable objects to be used and abused. It is not even a matter of eroticism but a business of money and power. Capitalism has allowed us to normalise selling humans for profit.
“I have seen too much hatred and dismissal from both abolitionists and pro-legalisation groups. While they talk and theorise often from nice secure locations or well-off academic groups, millions are being unheard, slaved, raped, killed. We have to start talking about sexual politics, readdress inequality, traditional capitalism and poverty as the fuel that drives the happy mafias that enslave human beings.”
I think to a line on the final page of Slavery Inc. Cacho argues that the “pornification” of society, sexism, misogyny, the normalisation of prostitution and internet pornography are all fuel for sex trafficking. The desires and fantasies of many men are creating a demand for sexual slavery and those fantasies translate as very real nightmares for millions of women and children.
“Society’s ongoing task, she concludes, “is to reinvent love and eroticism without violence”.