Concerned Citizens Take a Stand Against Human Trafficking in Cancun, Mexico

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Human trafficking is the third most lucrative crime on the planet.  Thriving not just in the shadows of third-world countries, but in plain sight in some of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Mexico is the number one supplier of trafficked victims globally.  And Cancun, a city which took in over five million visitors last year, ranks third in the country as a supplier of sex slaves to the United States, Europe, and Canada.  It’s considered a “transient” drop off for victims.

And while human trafficking is a federal crime in Mexico, it’s one that typically goes unpunished for a variety of reasons; corrupt police who look the other way, anti-trafficking laws caught in the tangles of red tape, and journalists who fail to report on the issue.  Either because of confusion of its definition, or fear of exposing the powerful people who continue to profit from it.

But there are those making a difference in Mexico.  Concerned citizens determined to save lives by fighting on the front lines every day.  Making themselves visible so others won’t disappear.

We met four such people while on assignment in Cancun.

Veronica Fajardo 

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Veronica Fajardo

A light rain was falling as we sat in the corner of a small, unremarkable café half-an-hour west of touristy Cancun.   Drinking our lukewarm coffee, we waited for Veronica Farjardo, a local journalist, who despite threats from profiteers and road blocks from her editors, continues to write trafficking and social interest stories for Novedades de Quintana Roo.  We met over the phone the evening before.  The concierge at the hotel helped us contact her newspaper.  And as luck would have it, Mrs. Fajardo answered the phone.

Stepping through the door, Veronica shook her umbrella dry and wiped her feet.  She spotted us immediately and made her way over for proper introductions.

We had a long list of questions.  And before we could start checking the boxes, Veronica began dishing out details in areas we were more than happy to have first-hand knowledge of.   The under-the-radar intricacies of how these crimes continue to thrive; local brothels disguised as massage parlors, and web sites allowing access for those “in the know” to trafficking victims.

“There are fake on-line travel agencies.”  She told us.  “Agencies where you can buy packages and get connected to luxury resorts offering ‘special services.’”

The “special services” she referenced were photobooks.  Catalogs where prospected buyers could browse through a collection of kids’ head shots – some as young as five years old – detailing age, weight, height, and cost.

“Some get passed around to as many as twenty people a day.”  Veronica told us.

She talked about bribery within local law enforcement, and corruption at the highest levels of government.  Trying my best to keep up, I flipped through my notebook in search of blank spaces to take down the details.

“Do you know any victims we can talk to about these things?”  We asked.

Some.”  She answered.  “I just don’t know if they will want to talk to you.  Many are afraid to go on record.  You might have better luck with NGO’s.”

NGO’s are non-governmental organizations.  Typically, nonprofit’s that are independent of governments. They’re usually funded by donations and run by volunteers.  They are grassroots.  They are boots-on-the ground.  And they’re the ones we really wanted to meet.

We finished our coffee and called it a night.  Agreeing to meet the following morning in a government building just around the corner.

“I’ll make some calls and see who we can talk to.”  Veronica promised, as she drove away.

The following morning our taxi dropped us off near the steps of the government building.  We were a half hour early, eager to start our day.  It was nearly 100 degrees, not a cloud in the sky or a hint of any breeze.  So, we stepped into a small patch of shade under the portico of the building and waited on a nearby bench.

Forty-five minutes later…no sign of Veronica.  Our texts, calls, and emails all went unanswered.  Just as we were about to call it quits, our phone rang.

“Sorry I’m late.  I was trying to get us an interview. I’m right here.”      

Breathing a sigh of relief, we looked up to see Veronica with a phone to her ear waving from the entryway.  Joining us on the bench in the shade of the portico, she spent the next ten minutes telling us about all the people she’d reached out to.  None of them willing to talk.

The disappointment was interrupted by a cheerful, musical chime that came from under the bench.  It was Veronica’s phone. Taking it out of her bag, she answered the call and quickly moved to the far corner of the entry way and into the glaring sun.  We tried reading her face for any hint of good news, but she remained expressionless throughout her conversation.

A few minutes later she came back.  “My friend will talk with you.  She runs a shelter.  But we must leave now.”

Squeezing ourselves into a small taxi, we drove through one nondescript neighborhood after another, in search of Veronica’s friend.

Paola Feregrino

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Paola Feregrino

In 2003, Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho wrote a series of articles about the sexual abuse of minors for Por Esto, a daily Mexican newspaper headquartered in the Yucatán.  With a main office in Cancún, and several other bureaus, Por Esto’s circulation was significant.

In one of the articles Cacho featured a story of a girl who came forward accusing a local businessman, Jean Succar Kuri, of abuse.  The following year, believing local police were failing to follow up on the girl’s accusations, Cacho wrote a book; Demons of Eden.  The book not only accused Succar Kuri of being involved in child pornography and prostitution, it named names.  Important names.  Prominent businessmen and high ranking politicians, who Cacho claimed, were protecting Succar Kuri.

Demons of Eden had spread fear to those unaware the crimes existed in their backyard.  And concern to those who were profiting from it.  In 2006, a tape emerged of a conversation between influential businessman Kamel Nacif Borge and Mario Plutarco Marín Torres, the governor of the state of Puebla.  On the tape, the two conspired to have Cacho beaten and raped for her reporting.

Cacho’s efforts to fight against sex trafficking and violence against women has earned her the distinction, according to Amnesty International, of being, Mexico’s most famous investigative journalist and women’s rights advocate.”  Her reporting has made her famous.  It’s also made her a target.  There have been multiple attempts on her life, and the United Nations Human Rights Council advised she leave the country and seek political asylum elsewhere.  But Lydia Cacho fights on.  In Mexico.

One of Cacho’s earliest achievements was the creation of a shelter called, CIAM – El Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (The Integral Center for Women’s Care).  The Cancún-based organization supports women and children who have been victims of violence, and it’s where Veronica set up our first meeting.

“We’re meeting Paola Feregrino. She took over the shelter from her mentor, Lydia Cacho.”  Veronica said, as we climbed out of the taxi and made our way towards a thick concrete door.  Acknowledging herself to the security camera above, Veronica rang the doorbell and waited.  Seconds later, a buzzer sounded signaling our clearance.

Greeting us on the other side was Paola, the shelter’s Executive Director.  Warm, friendly, and just thirty years young, Paola began our tour of the facility.  Her passion for social causes resonating more and more with each story she told us.

At the end of the hallway was Paola’s office.  Opening the door, she invited us in, took a seat behind a small, black desk and began telling us about her work and the things she’s seen.

A good number of our survivors here have been victims of human trafficking.”  She told us.  “When the shelter started, we didn’t even know what human trafficking was.”

Those coming into the battered women’s shelter to escape physical and sexual violence were suddenly telling stories of being sold to perspective buyers.

“We’d never heard anything like this.”  Paola told us.

Majoring in Clinical Psychology, Paola was the first in her family to get a degree.  And despite the constant threat of physical threats, budget cuts and funding challenges, her approach to educating the community on violence prevention remains both creative and innovative.  One program teaches at-risk kids the importance of gender equality and conflict resolution.  While another, a campaign called, “Yo no estoy en venta!” (“I am not for sale”), teaches young kids to become advocates against human trafficking.

“I think I’ve always been an activist.”  She told us, as that familiar ring tone once again chimed from Veronica’s purse.  Taking the call, she stepped outside while Paola continued.  

Lydia Cacho taught me a lot of things…theoretical and technical.  But above all, she taught me how to develop leadership skills.  To help guide a team in unfavorable circumstances. She gave me confidence. I was afraid to become an Executive Director. I still feel afraid sometimes because it’s a big responsibility.  But this is not about me.  It’s about the lives we can save and the steps we can take to build a better world for all of us.”

Veronica came back into the room, dropped the phone into her purse, and smiled.

I found more people to talk to.”  She said, excitedly.  “They’re waiting for us now.” 

Rosa Maria Marquez & Marcos Basilio 

Saying goodbye to Paola, we exchanged emails, promising to keep in touch, and to look for ways to work together in the future.  Jumping into another taxi, our Amazing Race day continued.

“We’re going to see Rosa Maria, a social activist and her lawyer, Marcos.  He’s a commercial and family law attorney.”  Veronica said.

Neither Rosa Maria or Marcos were all that thrilled to sit down with us.  Veronica, a friend of theirs for nearly 20 years had talked them into it.  Promising to be present at the meeting.  Now, nearly ten minutes late, we wondered whether they’d even be there when we arrived.

It was mid-afternoon, and the restaurant was nearly empty.  Except for Rosa Maria and Marcos, who sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, directly under a slowly rotating fan.

“Traffic!”  Veronica exclaimed, waving in their direction.

We took a seat and ordered a pot of hot tea.  The coolness of the fan was a nice welcome.  As was the greeting from our two new friends.

Rosa Maria started the conversation – taking us back thirty years to when her journey began.  Earning a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), and a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, Rosa Maria had perfected the profession of a civil society activist.  Today, focusing on the defense and promotion of Human Rights causes, she is a pioneer in group organization and a leader of several causes; women in detention, people with disabilities, HIV positive individuals, and a variety of social causes for both younger and older adults.  She has a full plate.  One, which is refilled daily and without complaint.

Quietly sitting next to her was Marcos Basilio, her attorney, friend, and accompanying activist.  Marcos’s story was just as fascinating.  Having practiced law for the past ten years in Cancun, Marcos has carved a niche for himself representing Guatemalan women and children who are trafficked for labor exploitation, as opposed to sexual abuse.

“Human Trafficking isn’t only about sex.”  Marcos told us, shaking his head.  “People always make that mistake.  It also involves a complex web of other illegal activity.”  He continued.  “There is prostitution and gambling, drugs, organized crime, money laundering, and labor exploitation.”    

What impressed us most was not the stories these four had shared.  Rather, how their passion for justice powers them past their everyday occupations.  Continuously focusing their talents on delivering hope for their country and its citizens.  They work independently, yet each are intrinsically connected.  Intertwined in a cause greater than themselves.

Why would, Marcos, a commercial lawyer care so much about humanitarianism?  What makes someone like Rosa Maria dedicate half her life to do so much for so many?  Why would Veronica continue writing stories of human oppression, despite the threats of violence against her?  Any why would Paola put her life in danger – every day – to protect women and children she doesn’t know?

“Why do you do this?”  I asked each of them.

“Because these stories matter.”

“Because people matter.” 

“We do it…” Paola told us…” because someone has to.”

 

 

 

 


 

Signs, Sounds, & Thoughts From My Experience At The Women’s March in Washington D.C.

One Man’s Story: Why I Marched With Women on Trump’s First Day
By: Dan Beckmann/Orlando Sentinel
25 January 2017 

Last week, rather excitedly, I posted, what I thought was a fairly innocuous tweet; “Heading to D.C. for the March!”  I wrote.  So, I was surprised to read the first response.  Not because it arrived so quickly, I have nearly 10,000 followers.  Rather, because it came from a friend with an ambiguous quip. “Last I checked you were a man…is there something you’re not telling me?”  She wrote.  Surely my well-educated friend could not be so confused to think a Y chromosome would be a disqualification for taking part in a Women’s March?  Nonetheless, there it was.  That comment…hanging like a piñata, just waiting for me to crack it with a great big stick.

So, to my friend who wrote, what I’m sure she thought was a comment in jest, I guess there are some things I haven’t thought to tell you.  Allow me to fill you in on a few of them.

For 15-years, as a cameraman, writer, and producer with NBC News, I sat on the front line of many struggles.  This was the first time I would be at the epicenter of something of this magnitude as a participant.  I knew why I was marching because I had the checked boxes all filled out in my head; women’s rights, minority issues, climate change, education.  All the big ones.  But it wasn’t until I was nestled amongst a sea of pink hats and humanity that I realized why I was really there.  By the way, there were quite a few disqualified Y chromosome people marching with me.

Women, and those with minority voices, have always played crucial roles in my success.  They are too often underrepresented, undermined, and undervalued.  So, from what some might call my “privileged” seat in society, I felt it was even more important for me to walk out my allegiance to them.

I marched because Donald Trump promised to serve all people.  And so far, his immediate circle of influence lacks the diversity to make that possible.  Having him hear our voices from his new home on his first day in office was a great start. Not everyone who needed to be heard could be there, so I was marching for them…and for all the people who’ve made a difference in my life.

I marched for my mom, who as a single parent took odd jobs teaching tennis lessons, tending bar, and fixing lawnmowers.  Always making less than the guy next to her who did the exact same job.  My mom never failed to take a college course and never got a failing grade.  Receiving her doctorate 35 years after taking her first class.

I marched for, and alongside, my friends Kent and Caanan.  Showing up with my support to protect their right to stay married.

I marched for my daughter Lauren, and my friend Tiffany.  Each survivors of sexual assault who now must watch a man who’s bragged about assaulting women lead our country for the next four years.

I marched for those so confused that they now believe in “alternative facts.”

I marched for my friends who lost all hope, and got suckered by a manipulative liar who placed a large bet on their fears and won bigly.

I marched as a reminder to those “who won” that they cannot ignore those who didn’t.  And I marched as a reminder to our representatives in Washington that they are bound by an oath to represent all those in their districts.

I marched to promote a global community of diverse members. The outcry of values and priorities aren’t solely “American issues” with isolated consequences.  Millions of others, on all 7 continents, took part in over 670 solidarity events. Our leader may say, “America First”, but we cannot claim to be “America Only”.

And I marched for that friend of mine, the Twitter commenter.  Apparently, there were some things I didn’t tell you.  I’m glad I told you about them now so we can put down our phones and get to the business of building a brighter future for us all.  And that’s something worth tweeting and re-tweeting about.

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Inspiring Stories To Give You Hope After A Less Than Inspiring Year

 

We thought sharing NPR‘s favorite, most inspiring stories of 2016, would be a nice Christmas present.  Inspiring you to remain hopeful after the (insert catastrophic phrase of your own here) year we just shared together.  These stories certainly helped shape our New Year’s Resolution.  Not gym membership, seeing the doctor more often, or adding more travel commitments (although, we’ll do those things).  But also our determination to raise our voices a little louder…get involved just a little bit more.

So let’s all have ourselves a wonderful holiday season…and get some rest!  We’ve got work to do in 2017.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (Happier) New Year to all of those committed to Just DO Something…Anything! to make a difference.

Sincerely,
JDSA

Clockwise from upper left: Dr. Forster Amponsah; a Malick Sidbe photo taken in Mali; a global garden of radio; Chewa the TB-sniffing rat; another Sidbe photo; Olympic medalist Fu Yuanhui of China; the New Mexico cave where a superhero bacterium lived; poverty fighter Sir Fazle Hasan Abed; calligrapher Sughra Hussainy; activist Loyce Maturu.

Jason Beaubien/NPR, Courtesy of Malick Sidibe and Jack Shainman Gallery, Katherine Streeter for NPR, Maarten Boersema/APOPO, Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images, Courtesy of Max Wisshak, Courtesy of BRAC, Ben de la Cruz and Toya Sarno Jordan/NPR 

There was no shortage of sad news in 2016.

And because we’re a blog that covers global health and development, we covered a lot of those sobering stories: the toll of diseases like Zika, the bombing of hospitals in conflict zones, the suffering caused by poverty and by discrimination against women.

But we published a lot of hopeful stories as well. We asked our team at Goats and Soda to pick some of the stories from this year that inspired them the most. We hope you’re inspired too.

Of Periods And Bugs

My favorite inspiring story from this year was about the Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui who made headlines for telling the world she was on her period. I love that woman — breaking boundaries and taboos effortlessly.

My favorite story that I wrote was the hero bug story. We forget that to fight antibiotic resistance we need the help of the bacteria. —Michaeleen Doucleff

A Rat With A Nose For TB

My favorite piece on Goats and Soda in 2016 was “Chewa The Lab Rat Has A Great Job, Good Retirement Benefits.” African giant-pouched rats like Chewa are trained to detect TB — and they’re faster and cheaper than lab machines. You can tell from the photos that the lab technicians really love their helper rats. —Malaka Gharib

Unstoppable Women

I love watching the video of Sughra Hussainy creating calligraphy. When she was a kid in Afghanistan, girls couldn’t go to school. That didn’t stand in her way. Today she’s a gifted artist with big dreams: “I just want to work hard at this. And of course, become world famous.”

A favorite story I wrote was an interview with Loyce Maturu, a 24-year-old from Zimbabwe who was an orphan, HIV positive and abused by a relative. And she had TB. And tried to kill herself at a low point. As the headline says, “She almost gave up — but didn’t.” —Marc Silver

Dazzling Doctor

Dr. Forster Amponsah has star power. You can see it as he walks the halls of the Koforidua Regional Hospital in Ghana. Interns’ and patients’ eyes track his movement. Amponsah through sheer force of will and against incredible challenges has built up a surgical department in his public hospital. The surgeries he’s performing would be considered routine in a U.S. hospital but some days in Ghana they appear as small miracles. —Jason Beaubien

Irresistible Radio

Our story about Radio Garden, a website that lets you listen to stations around the world, was my favorite story. Just point your cursor at one of the thousands of green dots on a map of the globe. Listen to talk radio in Uganda, jazz in Morocco and punk rock in Hawaii. It’s a fun way to feel a connection to distant cultures. —Ben de la Cruz

A Photographer And A Poverty Fighter

This one is poignant given the extremism and political violence plaguing Mali, but I felt so uplifted reading Ofeibea Quist-Arcton’s tribute to the late Malian portrait photographer Malick Sidibe. His black and white images from the 1960s and ’70s captured dancing couples, pensive matriarchs and youngsters showing off their grooviest outfits — a reminder of a hopeful time when Mali was newly independent and, as Quist-Arcton put it, “relishing its freedom and having fun.”

One of my favorite interviews was with “the most influential poverty fighter you’ve never heard of” — Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and head of BRAC, the anti-poverty group. BRAC helped pioneer a program that gives extremely poor families an asset like a cow or a goat. It’s an approach that has likely improved the lives of millions. —Nurith Aizenman

And he is back, without binders that is……

The man who captivated crowds of 100,000 plus during rallies, skated across Hofstra University’s debate stage, reminding us of one, simple thing: “I’ve got this.”

Body language is telling, and the town hall format showed, not only the president at his most comfortable, it also showed he finally…finally…got his groove back.  Instead of being holed up behind a lectern, Obama strode, sometimes even seeming to glide, across the stage in a confident manner.  Mitt Romney skulked and plodded about, looking like a used car salesman trying to sell us an automobile he knows has far too many miles.

The president was laser focused, besting Romney in nearly every category.  From taxes to Bain Capital.  Even when Mitt tried cornering the president on Libya, staring him down in a defiant manner on the issue of terrorism, Romney was embarrassingly fact-checked on the spot by moderator Candy Crowley, and proven wrong.

But it wasn’t discussion of foreign policy or unemployment that caught my attention.  It was women’s rights.  There was not a single mention of women’s issues during the first debate.  So I was more than grateful to see it come up this time around.  Katherine Fenton, an undecided voter, asked the president, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

Obama mentioned the very first piece of legislation he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

How did Mitt Romney respond?

Well, he said he, “learned a great deal” about gender pay inequality while constructing his cabinet as Governor.  “And I—and I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the people for these jobs are—are all men.’ They said: ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’ And I said: ‘Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?’ And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Binders full of women?  Really?  I never knew it was possible to objectify and dehumanize women everywhere with so few words.  Even worse was this comment from Romney:

“I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said: ‘I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school.’ So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

I give Romney points for flexibility.  That’s certainly important.  But painting the picture of a woman who has to rush home to make dinner for her kids in this century, sounds as dated as someone who still carries around binders of any kind.

If Mitt Romney is elected President of the United States, I’ll tell my daughter not to worry about gender equality or equal pay, because her name will be in a big binder on Mitt Romney’s shelf should she ever need to find a job.  Somehow, I don’t believe that’ll give her much confidence, though.  Even less, I think, when she realizes she falls into that 47% category of his.

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