Today’s #100PENMember is the truly inspirational Mexican journalist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro.
Cacho is famous for investigating violence against women and children, informed by her feminism and her desire to make Mexico a better, safer place to live.
Her work is enormously dangerous, often operating at the intersections between Mexican politics and big business and the exploitative power of the cartels, which reach beyond the drugs wars into political corruption, people trafficking and even paedophilia.
Her first book Los Demonios del Eden (Demons of Eden, 2005) uncovered a child pornography and prostitution ring in Puebla, involving high-ranking local politicians and businessmen. After its release, police drove miles from Puebla to Cancun to arrest her for defamation and hinted at a plan to rape her whilst in custody. Local police colluded with politicians involved in the case in an attempt to silence and intimidate Robeiro with a series of arrests and even an attempt on her life as she awaited her call to testify at the trial of the men involved. She was advised by the UN Human Rights Council to leave Mexico for her own safety.
PEN America wrote to the Mexican government in 2009 to express their concern about harassment of Cacho by armed men parked outside her home. They demanded that crimes of harassment against journalists be made a federal offence and that Cacho’s case be fully investigated. In the same year, the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights also intervened, asking the Mexican government to take precautionary measures to protect her. According to Article 19, insufficient action was taken by the Mexican authorities to address either of these concerns.
Undeterred by continuous threats to her life and freedom, Cacho continued to investigate and to publish other stories, from the hundreds of femicides in Ciudad Juárez to child slavery and prostitution involving some of Mexico’s most powerful politicians and business leaders.
In a piece for PEN International’s website in 2019, Cacho wrote that ‘I write for others, I write for myself, I write to record that life counts. I don’t want to lose my head.’
In the piece, she speaks of her daily life, as she deals with the constant threats to her life from powerful people whose misdeeds she has exposed. She speaks about her kidnap and torture, about her therapy and the coping techniques she has developed in a life under constant threat: ‘That’s what I do each time a new death threat arrives. I denounce and then I continue my life, ratcheting up my defences, and I continue writing, which is the same as to continue living.’
Writing for PEN Transmissions of the death of her friend and colleague Rubén Espinosa, she writes: ‘Only those who live under death threats know how the clock marks the hours differently. Not only does it imply living with fear, but it also goads the spirit of self-censorship that makes us ask: Is it worth it? Is exposing yet another atrocity in a country of despicable leaders really worth the risk? I can only answer that it is always worth telling the truth, always worth fighting against ignominy and trying to build a country in which it is worth growing up, living, loving.’
Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with 100 journalists murdered between 2000-18. Leopoldo Maldonado, deputy director of Article 19 in Mexico described the Mexican state as ‘like a mafia, which acts to protect its own, to persecute those telling the truth, to persecute those who search for justice and to defend human rights through journalism.’
PEN are also active in defending journalists and in liaising with the Mexican authorities on their behalf. Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International and former President of PEN Mexico, made it her top priority when in charge of PEN Mexico. She explained that: ‘the problem is that nobody who has killed a journalist is in jail for killing a journalist. This is a terrible problem. The other problem is that to kill a journalist continues to be a state crime. That must be changed to a federal crime, because criminal organizations have infiltrated the local governments, which makes it very hard for the local governments to police themselves. Killing a journalist has to be a federal crime so that it’s a more serious crime.’
Cacho is the co-founder of the Network of Journalists from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean as well as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2012 she contributed to PEN’s Write Against Impunity Campaign. She received the 2008 Tucholsky Prize from Swedish PEN and the 2009 One Humanity Award from Canadian PEN and is an honorary member of Scottish PEN.
In recognition of her bravery and the importance of her work, she has been awarded the Don Sergio Méndez Arceo National Human Rights Prize, Amnesty International’s Ginetta Sagann Prize, UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano Prize for freedom of Expression and the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.