By Michael Lettieri
As Mexico launches itself into the most heated presidential campaign season in the country’s history, controversial issues of the past will loom large.
It is a certainty that voters will reject any candidate who seems to embody the excesses symbolized by the 71-year legacy of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s authoritarianism which was toppled by an electoral golpe in 2000, with the election of President Fox. Yet in the heartland of Mexico, ominous echoes of past human rights violations are leaving a spreading stigmata on the Fox administration’s claim of progress when it comes to affording basic guarantees to all of its citizens.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s political underbelly is still rife with political and judicial malfeasance, impunity, and venality, as is being revealed in the pages of Mexico City dailies El Universal, La Jornada and elsewhere in the Mexican press. Lydia Cacho, an investigative journalist, and the director of a highly regarded women’s rights center in Cancún, is currently being prosecuted on charges of libel stemming from her published denunciations of a prominent and well connected Puebla businessman’s links to pedophilia rings.
The charges against her are totally without substance, and reveal the sad fact that Mexico has not yet fully exorcised the historical plague of judicial corruption, privilege and bullying.
Cacho, who gained international acclaim as a doughty defender of women’s and children’s rights in Cancún, has long been the victim of death threats and harassment, many of which have been fostered under the protection of corrupt government and police officials. Recent events, however, have far surpassed the harassment category, and now have moved her fate into the realm of officially-sanctioned legal persecution.
The charges against Cacho resulted from claims made in her 2005 book, Los demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden), which detailed the operations of a Cancún-based pedophilia ring allegedly run by Lebanese-born businessman Jean Succar Kuri. Her work portrayed a mafia-esque cabal of politicians, drug traffickers and businessmen who supported and protected the operations, among them Puebla textile mogul José Kamel Nacif Borge. Although Cacho did not level any specific charges against Nacif, in naming him as a friend of Succar, she implied that he too might be involved in the criminal activities.
Nacif, whose wealth confers wide-reaching influence on his person and who has been labeled “a model businessman” by President Fox, has been able, up to now, to carry out his retribution relatively free of personal consequences. Some have suggested that Nacif is acting as Succar’s proxy against Cacho by means of those who have been described as morally neutered and reprehensible politicians, namely Puebla governor Mario Marín Torres, and Puebla attorney general Blanca Laura Villeda. These two were only too willing to push for prosecution of Cacho on the vague charges of libel and slander, accusations which lack substantive heft, but are a common form of retaliation against investigative journalists in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
Cacho, who had refused to respond to the accusations, was arrested (although her seizure effectively amounted to a kidnapping) on December 16 in her home in Cancún and transported to a Puebla jail. The questionable legality of her detention (which was carried out by Puebla policemen outside of their home state) created national outrage. However, neither Marín nor Laura Villeda have been much deterred by the scandal, and the charges remain in effect.
Although Cacho posted bail after being detained for 48 hours and is now free, she still faces prosecution. During her detention, she was denied access to medical attention or legal recourse, underscoring the arrest’s dubious legality.
Recently, however, it appears as though the tide may be turning, as the court agreed with Cacho to toss out the slander charge brought by Laura Villeda (she had faced slander as well as libel charges), and she succeeded in having her trial transferred to Cancún.
On February 14, La Jornada published transcripts of tapes revealing conversations between Marín and Nacif, which clearly illustrated a collaborative effort to intimidate and threaten Cacho.
The tapes included a suggestion that Cacho be imprisoned with “lesbians and crazies,” in order to arrange either her rape or murder. Furthermore, the tapes include Nacif’s discussion of a proposed bribe of the judge handling the case of $13,300. Marín has declined comment on the tapes, noting only that he doesn’t read “gossip.”
Meanwhile, the scandal could become a campaign issue, as all three major candidates have been asked about the tapes. The former Mexico City mayor, left-wing candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador has called for Marín’s resignation, a move echoed by Felipe Calderón, of the ruling National Action party, who called the Cacho case a “barbarity.” The PRI’s old-style presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, however, breezily dismissed the tapes, saying that he doesn’t believe them.
Other events in Puebla have further darkened the prospects for justice and inviolability due to the cloud cast by the Cacho case. Another journalist and prominent human rights activist, Martín Barrios Hernández, an advocate for the rights of textile workers in the state, who was also investigating the operations of the pedophilia ring, was charged with attempting to blackmail a local textile factory owner, Lucio Gil Zárate. Barrios was arrested and held for two weeks before being released on January 12 after Gil Zárate “pardoned” him. Amnesty International has noted that Barrios may need to go on fearing for his life, as his human rights work over the years has provoked a number of death threats, and the apparent impunity with which wealthy businessmen have been able to exact their vengeance in the Mexican system of justice is deeply troubling.
Both the Cacho and Barrios cases illustrate that in many parts of Mexico corruption and impunity are fixed parts of the landscape, with the much lauded arrival of democracy less a reality than an illusion.
While Fox can attempt to stake his legacy on the small changes in the Mexican political system he has been able to institutionalize, his inability to root out deeply entrenched venality in the power elite has further stained his mainly failed presidency. While attacking the problem head on is not all that easy, Fox has not even made a good-faith effort to attempt it. Through his inaction, Fox has pathetically surrendered to the worst elements of Mexico’s quasi-authoritarian tradition, doing grave damage to his historical standing and his country’s national honor.
Michael Lettieri is a Fellow at The Council on Hemispheric Affairs an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization COHA Research (www.coha.org).