In 2007, Lydia Cacho, Mexican writer and feminist activist, was awarded the Ginetta Sagan prize by Amnesty International USA. Her struggle against censorship has led to a change in Mexico’s federal law, decriminalizing defamation, though the change still has to be ratified on the state level. The following speech was given at an Amnesty event honoring her.
I represent Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers. Together with PEN American Center, we nominated Lydia Cacho for the Ginetta Sagan prize because she exemplifies the writer’s obligation to seek out the truth and tell it, even when it is dangerous to do so. In any country where the government, mainstream media, and big business are in bed together, democracy itself depends on what Doris Lessing has called “the small personal voice,” the courage of individual writers and journalists and activists who are clear-sighted enough to identify social problems and courageous enough to name them, sometimes against great odds.
And while any writer who tells unpleasant truths is likely to be attacked, these attacks are often especially vicious when the writer is female, for, in many parts of the world, people still believe that a woman, simply because she is a woman, should have no right to personal autonomy and no public voice. Though the Latin American feminist movement has fought this view of the natural subordination of women for the last thirty years, millions of poor women and children, some of whom cannot read or write or speak only indigenous languages, still have no social leverage, no public voice. A writer like Lydia thus performs an essential social service by bringing their injuries to light.
Women’s WORLD, which is an acronym for the Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature, and Development, formed in 1994 to protect people like Lydia because we felt that the world was changing in a way that particularly affected feminist writer-activists. Women have, in fact, become a central focus of the great dynamic conflict of our time, the conflict between globalized capitalist modernization, led by US free marketeers, and the nationalist, ethnic, and fundamentalist rightwing identity movements that burst from the ruins of the Cold War system. Today’s world is shaped by the conflict between globalization and these rightwing identity movements. Most of the defense work I have done has concerned writers who were threatened by fundamentalists, because control of women is central to their project, but Lydia is a clear case of a feminist writer under threat because of the forces of globalization. I want to talk about these aspects of Lydia’s case, and the way porn, child porn, and trafficking must be seen in terms of the unequal economic relationship between the US and Mexico and a culture of corruption and impunity on both sides of the border. Let us look at two of the chief bad guys in this case.
Jean Succar Kuri is a Cancun hotel owner, pedophile, and pornographer, who organized a prostitution ring that preyed on girls and boys between the ages of five and eighteen, seducing children from poor families who live in shantytowns on the outskirts of Cancún with promises of food, shelter and education. After having sex with these children, he would pass them on to other adults, photographing and videoing them having sex in order to sell the images to "clients" in the United States. When several of his child victims came forward to testify against him in 2003, however, he fled Mexico; he was arrested in Arizona in 2004 and extradited to Cancun in 2006, where he is now on trial.
Succar Kuri thought he did not have to worry about the law because he had such powerful friends. His main protector and patron is Jose Kamel Nacif Borg, a billionaire garment manufacturer known as the Denim King. Kamel Nacif is also a Las Vegas high roller linked with reputed mob figures. One report describes him as “a high-stakes gambler…the Nevada Gaming Control Board had claimed was associated with narcotics and firearms sales and money laundering.” He is also a friend of Mexican President Vincente Fox, through whom his company, California based Grupo Tarrant, received huge financial incentives to open a factory in Chiapas in 2002—despite the fact that he was known for defaulting on his debts and owed millions of dollars in taxes. Tarrant also had a factory in Ajalpan, in southern Mexico, opened in 1999; its customers included Levi’s, Limited Brands, Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Federated Department Stores. Soon reports began of verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, and paychecks of only $40-70 a week, with deductions for failing to meet unreasonably high quotas. When workers organized a union, Kamel Nacif fired hundreds, and the union appealed for international support.
In October, 2003, a coalition of anti-sweatshop groups including Sweatshop Watch, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, the Maquila Solidarity Network, United Students Against Sweatshops, and the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (U.S. LEAP), began a campaign which caused a number of US retailers first to pressure the company, then to withdraw their business. Rather than recognize the union, Kamel Nacif closed down all his Mexican factories in February, 2004, putting five thousand people out of work. I believe Tarrant group has moved its manufacturing to Asia.
In these two men we see the meeting place of organized crime, pedophilia, the sexual exploitation of women, and the economic exploitation of garment workers, most of whom are also women. All of these are now globalized industries that move people around the map like chips on a board. The people who run these industries see people, especially women, as commodities to be used and disposed of when no longer needed. Their worldview is shared by their friends in government, who pander to and protect the rich and lie to the poor. We cannot understand Lydia’s case purely in terms of free speech; we must look at the economic and social and gender themes behind these events. Lydia’s case also sheds light on the relationship between the US and Mexico, drawing attention to some of the same problems that are revealed by the current immigration crisis and also to the increasing convergence in the political cultures of the US and Mexico, in such areas as government corruption and clouded elections.
1) The economies of the US and Mexican, both legal and illegal, are profoundly intertwined: not only do Mexicans come here to work, but US companies exploit Mexicans in maquilladoras, and the US is the main market for Mexican child porn and women trafficked from Central America through Mexico.
2) US government policy is very vocal about sex trafficking and child porn, but silent about impunity, governmental corruption, censorship, and exploitative economic relations that drive people across borders.
3) A culture of violence against women characterizes the border area and it does not go just one way; many Mexicans believe the mass murders of women in Cuidad Juarez were committed by men who live in the US.
I want to end by quoting something Lydia wrote in 2004, when there was an international feminist protest march in Juarez to draw attention to the hundreds of women and girls who had been murdered or disappeared in that town, which is just across the border from El Paso.
“It is impossible not to ask why, with these assembly plants that produce millions of dollars for owners of companies with foreign names, there is no investment in public works, there are no parks or gardens, or schools, only barren places, ready for sowing of garbage and death, surrounding the transnational buildings. Who cares about Juárez City? The abandonment of the streets reflects the abandonment of its people, the myopia of its governments, the death of its women and children, the solitude of the forgotten border.”
The world is one place. The garment industry, the traffic in drugs and women and children reach from Cancun to LA to Tucson, all part of the same place. But Lydia and the people who supported the workers fired by Kamel Nacif and all the people in this room are also part of the same place and in that lies hope.