Lydia Cacho lives by this simple, direct motto: Tell the truth, no matter what.
For the Mexican journalist, telling the truth has led to death threats, abduction, torture, jail time, and years of court battles over her rights as a citizen and reporter. Yet Cacho continues to share her own story and those of victims of child pornography, trafficking, and abuse.
Cacho received the Tully Center for Free Speech Award Tuesday evening for her perseverance in fighting obstacles to free speech.
Cacho spoke candidly to a full audience in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at The Newhouse School, admitting that as a teenager living in Mexico City in the 1980s, she had wanted to write poetry.
“And then I just knew that I was too worried about reality and I had to do something about it,” Cacho said.
Her answer was to become a journalist, a job that later led her to a conversation with a victim of child pornography. After this encounter, Cacho uncovered a child pornography ring in which powerful Mexican officials were accused of participating. Despite death threats and lack of support from local police, Cacho published a book called Los Demonios del Eden: El Poder Que Protege a la Pornografia Infantil (The Demons of Eden: The Power that Protects Child Pornography) in 2005, exposing the child pornography ring and sharing the stories of young female victims.
Six months later, Cacho was abducted, threatened at gunpoint, and tortured by police, in an effort to make her say that everything published in her book was a lie. Throughout 20 hours of torture, she refused to do so. “People think it was a brave thing,” she said. “I just think it was a real thing. I kept seeing the faces of these little girls, and I just knew I couldn’t say no.”
Cacho was jailed and charged with defamation, a case which took her one year and five different lawyers to win.
“They thought that I was going to get out of jail and be quiet,” she said. “And guess what?”
Cacho is still investigating, writing, and telling the truth in a local Mexican newspaper, on her blog, and at events like the Tully Center for Free Speech awards ceremony. She told the audience that weekly therapy sessions, yoga, and a supportive family help her deal with the post-traumatic stress caused by her torture.
“Sometimes, I just have to swear a lot,” she said with a laugh.
Knowing that her work means something to her readers and the victims whose stories she shares helps Cacho get through the stress of the job. “Free speech and freedom of expression is the only way to create a peaceful world,” Cacho said. “It makes us better people.”
Cacho’s story made Michelle Wong, a sophomore in the Newhouse and Whitman schools, want to be a better person and to try to tell the truth.
“And to try to represent the people who don’t have a voice and to try to do the right thing -- even if it means risking your life,” Wong said. “If she can do it, we can do it too.”