Sunday, April 1, 2007
CANCUN, Mexico -- The bodyguards linger in the steakhouse foyer, conspicuous with their handguns in lumpy fanny packs. The bulletproof SUV sits in quick-getaway position outside.
And now Lydia Cacho Ribeiro's cellphone rings.
"Yes, I got in okay," Cacho says from an out-of-the-way table. "I'm fine."
Cacho sets the phone down, a weary smile forming beneath high cheekbones and dark, deep-set eyes.
"He was worried," she says of her longtime partner, the prominent Mexican editor and columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson. "This is my life."
A crusade against pedophiles has made Cacho, who will be in Washington tomorrow and Tuesday to be honored by Amnesty International, one of Mexico's most celebrated and imperiled journalists. She is a target in a country where at least 17 journalists have been killed in the past five years and that trailed only Iraq in media deaths during 2006. Do-gooders and victims want to meet her, want to share their stories. Bad guys -- well, they want her in a coffin.
In the spring of 2005, Cacho published a searing exposé of the child abuse and pornography rings flourishing amid the $500-a-night resorts and sugar-white beaches of Cancun. Her book "The Demons of Eden: The Power That Protects Child Pornography" chronicles in cringe-inducing detail the alleged habits of wealthy men whose sexual tastes run to 4-year-old girls.
But her book was just a middling seller, and her fight against child abusers was getting little attention until one afternoon in mid-December 2005 -- the afternoon the cops showed up.
On that day, seven months after her book was published, Cacho says, police officers from the far-off state of Puebla shoved her into a van outside the women's center she runs on a crumbling side street well removed from Cancun's gaudy hotel strip. They drove her 950 miles across Mexico, she says, jamming gun barrels into her face and taunting her for 20 hours with threats that she would be drowned, raped or murdered. The police have disputed her version of events, saying she was treated well.
Cacho found herself in police custody because Mexico's "Denim King," the textile magnate Kamel Nacif, had accused her of defamation, which at the time was a criminal offense under Mexican law. (Inspired by Cacho's case, the Mexican Congress recently passed a law decriminalizing defamation.) Cacho had written that Nacif used his influence to protect a suspected child molester, Cancun hotel owner Jean Succar Kuri, and that one of Succar's alleged victims was certain Nacif also abused underage girls.
Cacho's arrest set off a furious chain reaction. She had triggered her car alarm as she was being taken into custody, a predetermined signal to alert her staff to trouble. Friends suspected that the men in uniform were only posing as police. E-mails and phone calls zinged from Cancun to Mexico City, and from there to international human rights groups. While Cacho, who was recovering from pneumonia, tried unsuccessfully to persuade her captors to stop for medicine, her friends were panicking and demanding answers.
"There was so much fear," recalled Lucero Saldaña, then a Mexican senator. "We were thinking there might have been an attempt on her life, that she might have been kidnapped."