In 2002, Mariane Pearl's husband, journalist Daniel Pearl, was murdered by Islamic extremists. Since then, she's tried to teach their son, Adam, there is hope for a better world. “In Search of Hope: The Global Diaries of Mariane Pearl” introduces readers to people around the world trying to make a difference, even if it means their lives may be in danger. Here's an excerpt:
Justice gets a voice
lydia cacho | mexico | august 2006
When I first heard about Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho and the kind of work she’s been doing, I started to wonder whether reporters were becoming an endangered species.
Across the world, the kidnapping and murder of journalists has escalated since Danny’s death in 2002. Iraq has been especially dangerous, with more than 100 media professionals dying within its borders since the war began.
In Asia, more than 500 journalists have been attacked or threatened. Many people are unaware that Mexico is the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the Western Hemisphere. More than a dozen journalists have died in the past few years for writing about the country’s drug trade and other criminal activities.
Despite the grave risk involved, Lydia created an international uproar in 2005 after she wrote a book claiming that local power brokers were tied to a pedophile ring in the popular resort town of Cancún. I wanted to meet with her, but she (and I) had a problem: Many people wanted her dead. For the past two decades, this beautiful 43-year-old has given a voice to Mexico’s women, children and victims of abuse. She has written about everything from domestic violence to organized crime to political corruption. As a result, she has been jailed once and constantly threatened with death. Now she travels with bodyguards almost everywhere she goes.
I thought about this as I sat in my apartment in Paris one evening and watched my four-and-a-half-year-old son, Adam, play by my side. He was wearing a Superman cape on top of a Zorro outfit and chasing bad guys with his water gun. If only water guns would do it, I thought. He had already lost one parent who was following an important story. Like any journalist, especially those with kids, I had to consider my choices. I thought of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006 in a suspected contract killing, most likely because of her critical reporting on President Vladimir Putin’s war in Chechnya. I met Anna once and will never forget what she said to me. A mother of two, Anna understood the risks of her work, but she also knew the consequences of stopping. “If I don’t go to Chechnya,” she said, “who will? Who will tell that story?” I understood. The same thing that kept me going after Danny’s murder made Anna pursue her investigations: the conviction that you cannot be defeated or defined by the threats of others. With that in mind, I decided to go to Mexico.
For safety reasons, Lydia and I agree not to meet in her home base of Cancún, but in Mexico City, which was in the midst of its own ordeal during my visit. Following the country’s recent presidential elections, thousands of protesters have transformed the city’s main avenue into a vast camping site. People demanding a recount of the votes have come together to shout slogans, wave signs or gather signatures. Everywhere I walk, I feel men’s eyes upon me. Some of the stares are harmless, but others are lecherous, making me feel like one of those scary sex dolls with a round mouth. Such a testosterone-filled atmosphere makes me
appreciate why Lydia has focused her work on women.
When we meet, Lydia strikes me as incredibly composed for someone who is forced to consider that every morning might be her last. I sit by her side as our car inches along the busy streets of Mexico City, taking us to a quiet suburb. Lydia talks constantly on her cell phone. Each time she hangs up, the phone rings again, and she must reassure the worried people on the other end that she is fine.
She begins to tell me how she got her start in this business. “At first,” she says, smiling, “I wasn’t sure my writing could make a difference.” In fact, when she moved to Cancún in her early twenties, Lydia didn’t intend to change the world in any major way. “I am a melancholic at heart,” she says half-jokingly. “I pictured myself living by the sea, writing novels and painting.” But Lydia comes from a family of strong women who were feminists before the term became trendy. Her French grandmother opposed the Nazis in Europe during World War II, then married a Portuguese man and eventually moved to Mexico. Lydia’s mother, who grew up in Mexico, became an activist for women’s rights. She felt strongly that it was better to expose her children to the world than to protect them from it, and so the family lived in a poor neighborhood, even though they could afford better. Lydia’s mother used to tell her, “Once you have witnessed something, you bear a responsibility for it.”
No wonder that soon after Lydia moved to Cancún — a paradise of lush beach resorts — she began to feel a sense of unease. “This was a man-made heaven built solely to make money,” she tells me. “It was a city without a heart. Nobody had bothered to think much about schools or social services or even culture.” Her journalistic instincts began to kick in, and she set out to find local residents who had been displaced by the builders. She discovered a handful of them in an impoverished community two hours from the tourist zone. “There was no running water. No food. I saw a malnourished woman whose baby had just died of hunger,” she says. She decided to write a column about it for a local news-paper. “The reaction was extraordinary,” Lydia tells me. Readers were so moved that they donated supplies and medicine. Thus she changed the course of her own life for good, and began to change the lives of others as well.
When Lydia and I finally make it out of the traffic jam in Mexico City, I realize that there are no bodyguards following us. “I lost them!” she says with a childlike smile, and for a moment we feel silly, free, and far away from the world’s problems, as if we are characters in one of my favorite movies, Thelma and Louise.
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Later, as we walk together along the suburb’s cobblestone streets, an old man on crutches approaches me. “Is that Lydia Cacho?” he asks. I nod. “Please tell her to be careful,” he whispers. “There are evil people chasing her.”
Lydia continues to tell me her story, explaining how she made waves again early in her career by writing about the proliferation of HIV in the Cancún area. The local governor called her at 11 on the night the story ran, she says. He told her, “There is no AIDS in my province.” She replied, “In yours maybe not, but in mine, yes!” The next day she appeared on a radio show and talked about the call. This very public act surprised her fellow journalists. “Even my colleagues didn’t understand me,” Lydia says. “Sadly, many Mexican journalists are easy to buy. Some of my counterparts live on bribe money, and those who won’t give in to bribes usually get killed.”
Lydia kept writing, mainly about government corruption and domestic violence, and soon she began receiving phone calls threatening her life. In 1998 she was brutally beaten and raped in the bathroom of a bus station. Despite suffering a concussion and broken ribs, she got herself to a hospital. Lydia doesn’t know whether the attack was related to her work, but the experience made her even more determined to stand up for women.
At the same time, Lydia decided that reporting wasn’t enough. So she raised money to build a center for battered women. “Women had no rights, and if they stood up for themselves they could be beaten or killed,” she tells me. Women now come to the shelter from all walks of life: wives of drug dealers and farmers, as well as American girls who get assaulted on spring break. The center provides health care and schooling for children.
Lydia set off the biggest firestorm of her career with her book about the pedophile ring in Cancún, Los Demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden). She was arrested on libel charges in 2005; under Mexican law, Lydia explains, reporters have to prove that they didn’t intend to damage the reputation of their subject. She says she was driven by police to a jail 20 hours from Cancún. During the drive, the officers hinted at a plan to rape her, but ultimately she was released unharmed.
Then, in February 2006, the media got hold of a tape on which a businessman named in her book appeared to be plotting with a Mexican governor to have her arrested and raped. (The men dispute the legality of the tape.) Amnesty International filed protests on her behalf, and Lydia talked about it on shows such as ABC’s Nightline. “This is my strategy,” she says. “Each time someone threatens me, I talk about it publicly.”
Lydia, who still faces some libel charges, tells me that Mexico’s Supreme Court is investigating whether her civil rights were violated during her arrest. She is continuing to work as a reporter while also teaching journalism workshops. “Reporters are not world-peace missionaries,” she says. “But by conveying people’s struggles, we create awareness, which is the first step to bringing about change.”
When I leave Mexico City, I fear for Lydia’s life, but I also feel inspired by everything she stands for. I understand her humble sense of triumph. Knowledge and responsibility bring hope, while ignorance feeds fear. If Lydia were to stop now, she would be like someone who sees light at the end of a tunnel but chooses to remain in the dark.
Back in Paris with my little boy, I think about what I would say to him if he ever wanted to become a reporter. I would tell him that journalism — the search for what is true about our world, whether good or bad — was the cement of my relationship with his father. I so believe in the importance of this profession that I could never oppose the same ambition in my child.
As we are having dinner one night, Adam asks me about my trip to Mexico. He wants to know if I caught any bad guys. “No,” I answer.
“But wait a few years and I’ll tell you about a woman named Lydia.”
Excerpted from “In Search of Hope: The Global Diaries of Mariane Pearl” by Mariane Pearl. Copyright © 2007 Mariane Pearl. Excerpted by permission of PowerHouse Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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