Hor­ror Story

Ly­dia Ca­cho’s Ex­posé of Pe­dophilia Has Her Crit­ics Up in Arms

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Manuel Roig-Franzia

CAN­CUN, Mex­ico — The body­guards linger in the steak­house foyer, con­spic­u­ous with their hand­guns in lumpy fanny packs. The bul­let­proof SUV sits in quick­get­away 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 to­mor- row 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.”

Saldaña, tak­ing no chances, was wait­ing when Ca­cho ar­rived at the jail in Pue­bla, a pic­turesque city east of Mex­ico City famed for its rich, chili-in­fused molé. Sh­e­scram­bled to ar­range bail. But even the pres­ence of a fired-up Mex­i­can sen­a­tor could not save Ca­cho from a hu­mil­i­at­ing strip search while a clutch of male of­fi­cers loi­tered on the other side of a thin plas­tic cur­tain.

Af­ter nearly half a day in jail, Ca­cho was free on bond, though rat­tled. She was soon to find out how highly placed her en­e­mies were.

Anony­mous Voices

Two months later, tapes started air­ing on Mex­i­can ra­dio sta­tions, crude male voices spew­ing ob­scen­i­ties out of car speak­ers in Mex­ico City’s per­pet­ual traf­fic jam and ev­ery­where else in the coun­try. It was clear the men were talk­ing about Ly­dia Ca­cho. The tapes had been de­liv­ered anony­mously to Mex­ico City news­pa­per and broad­cast re­porters, but no one knows who made the record­ings.

In one con­ver­sa­tion, pre­sum­ably recorded the day of Ca­cho’s ar­rest, an uniden­ti­fied voice tells Nacif to pay “a wo­man in the jail to rape her.”

“No, no, no,” Nacif re­sponds, “I’ve al­ready given the or­der. . . . She’s with the cra­zies and the les­bians.”

But the real block­buster was on an­other tape.

“My pre­cious gov­er­nor,” Nacif can be heard say­ing. “My hero,” an­other voice says. That sec­ond voice was un­mis­tak­able. It was Pue­bla Gov. Mario Marín, a stal­wart of the In­sti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion­ary Party, which dom­i­nated Mex­ico in au­thor­i­tar­ian style for seven decades be­fore los­ing its grip on the pres­i­dency in 2000.

“Well, yes­ter­day, I gave a [ex­ple­tive] whack on the head to that old bitch,” Marín tells Nacif.

Nacif thanks his “pre­cious gov­er­nor” for or­der­ing Ca­cho’s ar­rest and says he will send Marín “a beau­ti­ful bot­tle of co­gnac.”

Marín ac­knowl­edged to the press that the voice was his, but he said the record­ings were taken out of con­text. His re­but­tal had al­most no im­pact. In the court of pub­lic opin­ion, the ver­dict was clear: Ca­cho was the vic­tim of in­flu­ence ped­dling and a po­lit­i­cal vendetta.

Ca­cho has since per­suaded Mex­ico’s Supreme Court to hear a hu­man rights com­plaint — the first such case in­volv­ing a jour­nal­ist for a court that pre­vi­ously had only looked into hu­man rights cases from the dis­tant past. But in Mex­ico, where cor­rup­tion and vi­o­lence against women are ram­pant, there have been no reper­cus­sions for the cen­tral play­ers.

Still, with each new tape, com­men­ta­tors went wild, many call­ing for Marín’s res­ig­na­tion. Satirists went even wilder. Al­most overnight, per­for­mance artists were tak­ing to stages to mock the gov­er­nor, songs were be­ing com­posed and satiric co­gnac ads were be­ing posted on the In­ter­net.

“For that very spe­cial oc­ca­sion, to cel­e­brate among friends, ar­rives the com­mem­o­ra­tive co­gnac ‘My Pre­cious Gov­er­nor,’ be­gins one spoof ad­ver­tise­ment set to the newagey strains of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” “My Pre­cious Gov­er­nor. So that you can be­come a good pedophile.”

Sud­denly, Ca­cho was ev­ery­where: the evening news, talk shows, news­pa­per front pages. Nacif and Marín, un­wit­tingly, had made her a star.

Fem­i­nist From the Start

Ly­dia Ca­cho is 42 years old, but she looks younger. She keeps fit with a yoga reg­i­men and fa­vors tight jeans, spike-heel boots and plung­ing neck­lines. She’s a head-turner and she knows it.

She also knows she doesn’t fit the mold of a fem­i­nist ex­pected by the old-style, “machismo”-dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that she says in­fu­ri­ates her for ne­glect­ing women.

“They think we’re all ugly, fat, mus­ta­chioed fem­i­nists,” Ca­cho, who stud­ied hu­man­i­ties at the Sor­bonne and speaks four lan­guages, said one re­cent af­ter­noon over hibis­cus flower tea at a Can­cun cafe. “I don’t have to dress like a man to demon­strate that I am in­tel­li­gent. I am a wo­man. I dress like I want. If they have a prob­lem with my at­trac­tive­ness, with my sex­u­al­ity, that’s their prob­lem.”

Ca­cho’s fem­i­nism sprouted in the “lost cities” out­side Mex­ico City, the im­pov­er­ished squat­ters’ hells that de­vel­oped in the 1960s and 1970s with al­most no gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. She didn’t much like play­ing with dolls, she says, so she spent week­ends as a child in the lost cities work­ing on home­spun so­cial aid pro­grams with her mother, Paulette Ribeiro Mon­teiro, an early Mex­i­can fem­i­nist who died four years ago.

“Her pas­sion comes from her mother,” said Lucía La­gunes, di­rec­tor of a Mex­ico City news agency that fo­cuses on women’s is­sues. “Her mother taught her to have ideals and to fight for them.”

In more than two decades strad­dling ac­tivism and jour­nal­ism, those ideals have been tested. Ca­cho has run from an­gry drug deal­ers wav­ing AK-47s be­cause she shel­tered their bat­tered wives. She has been threat­ened too many times to count.

She’s got­ten used to death and says she doesn’t fear her own. Her grand­fa­ther, she says, died in her arms when she was 17. He was the first of 20 peo­ple who she says have breathed their last while she held them, most clients of an AIDS shel­ter she founded.

In 1999, she says, she was raped by a man in a bus sta­tion bath­room.

“He left me for dead and I walked out of the pub­lic bath­room at the bus sta­tion with frac­tured bones, but the adren­a­line of fear,” Ca­cho wrote in an e-mail. “As a jour­nal­ist be­fore, I kept writ­ing about the im­por­tance of fil­ing re­ports with the po­lice, and af­ter the rape I learned that the main thing is to re­cover and to be pro­tected and to be more sen­si­tive to vic­tims of vi­o­lent crimes.”

A friend in the pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice told her she was prob­a­bly at­tacked as re­venge for her so­cial work and her news­pa­per col­umns. But she de­cided not to pur­sue the case.

“I did not want to be news (ha ha),” she wrote. “I just wanted to keep go­ing.”

Dig­ging Deep

In 2004, a jour­nal­ist friend asked Ca­cho to co-write a book about a bur­geon­ing child abuse scan­dal in Can­cun. A young wo­man had ap­proached the au­thor­i­ties and said Suc­car, the mul­ti­mil­lion­aire Can­cun ho­tel owner, had be­gun abus­ing her when she was 13. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing her sis­ter and girls as young as 8, also had been mo­lested, the young wo­man said.

Ca­cho had hosted her own lo­cal ra­dio and television shows, as well as writ­ten news­pa­per col­umns for years, but this was to be her first at­tempt at a non­fic­tion book. Still, she spun an out­line in a mat­ter of days for a book that would not only al­lege Suc­car had abused more than 100 girls, but also ac­cuse him of laun­der­ing money for or­ga­nized crime and of be­ing pro­tected by pow­er­ful politi­cians.

“Are you crazy?” she re­calls her friend telling her.

The friend, whose name she keeps se­cret for fear of reper­cus­sions, quickly dropped out. Ca­cho started writ­ing.

“Demons of Eden” opens with a 13-yearold girl, whom Ca­cho calls “Cin­tia,” clutch­ing a stuffed an­i­mal as she tells a psy­chol­o­gist how Suc­car — the man she called “Un- cle Johnny” — mo­lested her at the age of 8. Af­ter­ward, Cin­tia says, he bran­dished a knife and threat­ened to cut her “into pieces.” Ca­cho quotes the girl say­ing, “He is the devil.”

In mus­cu­lar, sting­ing prose, Ca­cho writes that Suc­car’s vic­tims suf­fer as much af­ter they approach au­thor­i­ties as be­fore. A lo­cal pros­e­cu­tor calls a news con­fer­ence and dis­trib­utes pho­to­graphs of the girls, their ad­dresses, their par­ents’ names and even their cell­phone num­bers. A school “morals teacher” re­veals that she knew about Suc­car’s abuse for years but did noth­ing about it.

The re­porters fol­low­ing the case are de­picted as vile as well. Ca­cho writes of over­hear­ing a group of male jour­nal­ists spec­u­lat­ing in a smoke-filled room about whether a 12-year-old could en­joy sex and com­ment­ing that “old Suc­car likes young meat.”

A key mo­ment comes when Suc­car’s first ac­cuser, whom Ca­cho calls “Emma” in her book, lures Suc­car to a Can­cun restau­rant equipped with a hid­den cam­era set in place by law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. In the video, Suc­car de­scribes sex with 4-year-old girls as “my vice” and says he knows he is com­mit­ting a crime.

Armed with such damn­ing ev­i­dence, Ca­cho says, the au­thor­i­ties do noth­ing, ex­cept tip off Suc­car about the al­le­ga­tions. The heads-up gives him am­ple time in late 2003, she writes, to buy a first-class ticket to the United States, where he owns a Los An­ge­les man­sion.

Suc­car was ar­rested in Ari­zona in Fe­bru­ary 2004 and was ex­tra­dited last July to Mex­ico, where he is be­ing held in a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison while his case is ar­gued. José Wenceslao Cis­neros, Suc­car’s at­tor­ney, said in an in­ter­view that six of seven ac­cusers have sub­mit­ted signed af­fi­davits re­cant­ing their tes­ti­mony. He also says Emma was not a mi­nor when she had what he calls a con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ship with Suc­car.

“Suc­car Kuri never abused a mi­nor,” Wenceslao says. The tapes, he says, were doc­tored by law en­force­ment of­fi­cials, whom he ac­cuses of try­ing to ex­tort $1 mil­lion from his client. As for Ca­cho, he calls her “a lit­tle crazy one.”

Ca­cho says Suc­car bribed and pres­sured his ac­cusers to sign pa­pers re­cant­ing their al­le­ga­tions, adding that Emma, in par­tic­u­lar, suf­fers from Stock­holm syn­drome.

Emma didn’t want to sign, Ca­cho says, but her abuser still can dom­i­nate her.

‘Closed Off’

It’s night in Mex­ico City and Ca­cho has slipped away from her body­guards, a risky move, but one she un­der­takes for a brief and in­creas­ingly rare taste of free­dom. A waiter spreads shot glasses around the ta­ble at La Co­vadunga, the crowded and smoky hang­out of Mex­ico City in­tel­lec­tu­als where the clien­tele shouts to be heard over the slap of domi­noes on table­tops.

“When you toast with tequila, you have to look a per­son in the eye,” Ca­cho says as the glasses are raised. “If not, you have seven years of bad sex, which is worse than no sex.”

Ca­cho calls over the shoeshine man and lifts her boot dra­mat­i­cally to be pol­ished. Ev­ery­one is watch­ing. A man at a neigh­bor­ing ta­ble timidly asks her to au­to­graph his copy of her book, then races off, only to re­turn mo­ments later to show off a sheaf of pic­tures of Ca­cho.

The con­ver­sa­tion soon turns back to sex. Ca­cho likes the sub­ject. She once wrote a novel about a cou­ple strug­gling to re­pair their re­la­tion­ship af­ter the hus­band con­tracts HIV from a pros­ti­tute.

“I love sex, don’t you?” she asks, laugh­ing and toss­ing back her long mane of thick, black hair.

Some of Ca­cho’s rage at the pe­dophiles she has tracked so ob­ses­sively comes from her cer­tainty that they rob vic­tims of nor­mal sex lives as adults. She writes of Emma strug­gling with sob­bing fits when she tries to be in­ti­mate. Cin­tia, Ca­cho writes, wears four pairs of un­der­wear since be­ing mo­lested by Suc­car.

“Moved by fear,” Ca­cho writes, “her sex­u­al­ity had been closed off, her right to plea­sure.”

De­spite Ca­cho’s no­to­ri­ety, La­gunes, the news agency di­rec­tor, laments that child abuse still gets lit­tle at­ten­tion in Mex­ico. The me­dia here fo­cus on the po­lit­i­cal scan­dal spawned by her case rather than the abuse it­self in a coun­try where an es­ti­mated 20,000 chil­dren are abused each year. “It’s dis­grace­ful,” La­gunes says. Ca­cho writes in her epi­logue that “hun­dreds of Mex­i­can girls are and con­tinue to be tor­tured, vi­o­lated and trained by pow­er­ful men to be sold and pho­tographed.” But she has still more to say. Ca­cho is al­ready at work on a new book, this one fo­cused on the traf­fick­ing of women and girls. At La Co­vadunga, she whis­pers that to­mor­row she has a meet­ing with “a re­ally good source.” She raises her eye­brows in an­tic­i­pa­tion and rubs her hands to­gether.


Ly­dia Ca­cho Ribeiro’s book about child sex abuse, “Demons in Eden,” didn’t sell well — un­til politi­cians’ al­leged in­volve­ment in her 2005 ar­rest caused an up­roar in Mex­ico.


A body­guard keeps watch as Ly­dia Ca­cho, right, leaves the women’s shel­ter she runs in Can­cun. “This is my life,” she says.

At the shel­ter, Ca­cho ex­am­ines a wo­man hurt in a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in­ci­dent. Her mother, an early Mex­i­can fem­i­nist, helped in­spire her work.

Ca­cho’s work in Can­cun has also in­cluded es­tab­lish­ing a School of Peace, above left, for chil­dren who have been vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. The neigh­bor­hood, above right, that is home to the shel­ter is far from the city’s tourist strip.

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