Wallenberg Medal goes to Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro
A Mexican journalist and human rights activist whose life is threatened repeatedly in the course of her work will be awarded this year's University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal.
Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, journalist, author and founder of Ciam Cancun, a shelter for battered women and children, will deliver the Wallenberg Lecture following the medal presentation Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium.
"My goal is for people to understand that what happens to other people, to other citizens and human beings around the globe, is what is happening to all of us," the Cancun-based journalist of over two decades said in an interview with AnnArbor.com Wednesday.
Cacho is the 19th recipient of the award, established in 1985 to commemorate Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who placed 15,000 Jews into 31 safe houses during a 1944 rescue mission in Budapest, Hungary. Wallenberg's death remains a mystery. He vanished after reporting to Soviet headquarters in Budapest on Jan. 17, 1945, and investigations into his whereabouts were inconclusive, though the Russians say he died in 1947.
The path to tell stories of Mexican citizens in peril has itself been fraught with danger. The journalist (who uses Lydia Cacho professionally) wrote the 2005 book "Los Demonios del EdÃ©n" ("Demons of Eden"), an investigative work on a pedophilia ring and child pornography in Cancun. After it was published, armed gunmen forced Cacho into a van and drove her 20 hours from her home. She was arrested and tortured while held briefly in jail.
It was later revealed her arrest was part of an illegal plot to silence her, which caused a media firestorm. Cacho later became the first women to take a case to the Mexican Supreme Court, which decriminalized defamation and ruled the book was truthful.
While she lives with a constant stream of death threats and says her life is far from normal - just recently there was a gunman outside of her apartment - Cacho says she chooses not to live in fear.
"Everyday I wake up and the first choice I make is to be happy and not to fear the monsters. I choose not to live in fear. I choose not to live with anger."
While the book was a high point in her career, Cacho's body of work encompasses much more, said John Godfrey, assistant dean of Rackham Graduate School and chair of the committee that selects the Wallenberg recipient each year. The committee considers outstanding humanitarians from all over the world for the honor.
"She is outspoken on every front about corruption and violations of human rights in Mexico," Godfrey said. "The book that she wrote about child prostitution ring in Cancun received a lot of attention, but she is much more than just that. She is really remarkable."
Godfrey called Cacho relentless in her work to protect human rights, noting the journalist's work reporting on the unsolved murders of many dozens of women in Ciudad Juarez and on the drug wars and corruption associated with the Merida Initiative, under which Mexico is being provided with $400 million from the U.S. to fight drug trafficking and money laundering.
Currently, she writes a column twice a week for El Universal, the most widely read newspaper in Latin America. Her reporting specialties are human rights - in particular, the rights of women.
She recently took on Colombian author and literary legend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A column critical of the move to make the 2004 book "Memories of Melancholy Whores" into a movie received 45,000 hits this past Monday. The book's plot involves a 90-year old man who decides he deserves a night of "wild love" with an adolescent girl; Cacho says it promotes child prostitution.
People do care, and they are talking, she said, about the abuses of women and children in Latin America. Her yet-to-be-titled book on the worldwide trafficking of women and children is nearly complete.
Cacho was born in Mexico City in 1963, the daughter of a French feminist with a Portuguese background and a Mexican father. She has published hundreds of articles, several books of essays on human rights, a book of poetry, and speaks four languages.
According to the press freedom organization Reporters without Borders, Mexico is the most dangerous place in the western hemisphere to be a journalist. Fifty-five reporters have been murdered since 2000 and eight have disappeared, according to a Sept. 28 report. Most recently, a radio reporter who blamed local deaths on the Juarez Cartel was shot to death by three hooded men in his office. Two days prior, a freelance photographer was stabbed to death in the state of Chihuahua.
The 2008 recipient of the Wallenberg medal was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For a full list, visit the U-M's Wallenberg Endowment Web site.
The event is free and open to the public.