International Women’s Day 2009: Women writers under attack in Latin America

As part of International PEN’s Freedom to write in the Americas campaign launched in February 2009, PEN centres throughout the world will be marking International Women’s Day (Sunday 8 March) by celebrating the work of four women writers under threat in the region. These are: Colombian playwright and activist Patricia Ariza, Peruvian student poet Melissa Patiño, and Mexican authors and journalists Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor. While none of the women are currently detained, they are facing harassment by state and non state actors that reflect on one hand the political polarisation affecting Latin America, and on the other, resistance to coverage of a topic that remains decidedly taboo in the region: sexual abuse.

From January to December 2008, PEN recorded attacks against 37 women writers in 11 countries in the Americas. The countries where attacks were most prevalent were: Mexico (10 of the 37 cases), Peru (9), Venezuela (6) and Colombia (4). Most of the female writers in question are journalists. The most common form of attack were death threats, which eleven women suffered, while other types of threats and harassment were also reported, accounting for seven and eight of the cases respectively. In addition, three women were briefly detained, five suffered physical attack – all in Venezuela – two were on trial, both in Peru, and one Brazilian journalist was given a suspended sentence. For an overview of all attacks on writers in the Americas, click here.

While these patterns are broadly representative of attacks against writers in the Americas in general, when looking at women writers currently under threat two themes stand out. On one hand, the cases of Ariza and Patiño who have been accused of terrorist affiliations on the basis of their alleged collaboration with leftwing political groups. On the other, a number of cases in Mexico, including those of Cacho and Martínez, where female authors have been targeted for harassment as a direct result of their exposés of sexual exploitation and paedophilia.


English PEN strongly protests the harassment of Patricia Ariza, Melissa Patiño, Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor and demands that they are allowed to live and work freely, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José, Costa Rica), to which Colombia, Mexico and Peru are signatories.

COLOMBIA AND PERU: Poets accused of terrorist affiliations 

Patricia Ariza is a renowned Colombian playwright, dramaturge, poet, actress and political and human rights activist. She has been subjected to a campaign of harassment since late 2008, including an alleged investigation seeking to link her to the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrilla group.

Ariza was reportedly named in a document produced by the antiterrorism division of the Public Prosecutor (Fiscalía General) as a promoter of the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia (Movimiento Bolivariano por la Nueva Colombia) and the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Colombiano Clandestino, PC3), which is allegedly linked to the FARC. The document, said to be based on police and army intelligence, lists Ariza’s past affiliations including her membership of the Communist Youth (Juventud Comunista, JUCO) group and of the Nadaísta poetry movement and a stint as a ‘hippy’. It goes on to allege that her current theatre activities and a project she runs with abandoned children, the elderly, young women and rappers could be related to ‘mass work’ for the PC3. Ariza has also reportedly received threatening letters.

Ariza acknowledges her past affiliations but has dismissed the allegations of collaborating with guerrilla groups. She suspects that her human rights work and leftwing views, including her activism for the opposition political party Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático), are behind the charges, and has stated: ‘They cannot take away my right to have an opinion and to be creative.’ Ariza’s lawyer has reportedly not been allowed full access to her file. Following public protests, in January 2009 the Public Prosecutor reportedly denied that there was an investigation into Ariza.


Melissa Patiño, a 21-year-old Peruvian poet and university student, is on trial for terrorism for her alleged involvement with a leftwing political organization. Patiño, who is a member of the ‘Círculo del sur’ poetry group and runs a poetry programme on radio and cultural activities for young people, was arrested along with six other individuals on 29 February 2008 as they were returning from Quito, where they had attended the second congress of the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator (Coordinadora Continental Boliviariana – CCB). All seven were charged with ‘affiliation and collaboration with terrorism’, apparently on the basis of their attendance at the meeting of the CCB, which the authorities claim is linked to the Peruvian Marxist rebel group Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA) and the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia, and were jailed. Two of the detained are said to be former MRTA members, however Patiño’s presence in the bus appears to have been circumstantial. She denies any involvement in political groups and says her main motivation for attending was the opportunity to travel to Ecuador.

On 8 May 2008, after almost two and a half months’ incarceration, Patiño was released on bail and allowed to return home pending trial. Peru’s antiterrorist prosecutor appealed against the decision to release her but this was rejected in early October 2008, meaning that Patiño should remain free on bail for the duration of her trial. She potentially faces 20 years in prison if convicted. To date no concrete evidence has been produced to back up the charges.

MEXICO: Authors targeted for exposing sexual exploitation

Lydia Cacho is an author, journalist and women’s rights activist, and winner of the 2008 Tucholsky prize from Swedish PEN and the 2007 Oxfam/Novib PEN Award for Free Expression. Following the publication of her book on child abuse and pornography rings in Cancún, Los Demonios del Edén: el poder detrás de la pornografía (The Demons of Eden: the power behind pornography) in 2005, Cacho was illegally arrested, detained, physically ill treated and threatened with rape and death. Her ordeal reportedly took place on the orders of Mario Marín, governor of the state of Puebla, in collusion with Kamel Nacif Borge, a Puebla businessman implicated in her book. Cacho was then subjected to a year-long criminal defamation lawsuit brought by Nacif Borge. She was cleared of all charges in 2007 but continues to be the target of threats for her writings.

On 29 November 2007, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice ruled that Cacho’s 2005 arrest and detention had not constituted a serious violation of her constitutional rights. Following this ruling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights advised Cacho to leave the country and offered her political asylum, legal assistance and access to international courts. In April 2008, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants for five public servants from Puebla allegedly involved in Cacho’s detention. These were said to include the former attorney general, a minister, a police commander and various criminal justice system officials, who allegedly falsified paperwork in order to facilitate her arrest. In June 2008, a court in Cacho’s home state of Quintana Roo ruled that although there was evidence of arbitrary detention and torture it could not accept her case for jurisdictional reasons and recommended that she take the case to Puebla. Her appeal was rejected in January 2009. Cacho alleges that her file has been altered and key information removed by the Attorney General’s office, weakening her case. She believes it impossible to get justice in Puebla given the role of the state authorities in her ordeal and is preparing to submit her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She received further threats on 24 February 2009.

Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor has reportedly suffered harassment, including death threats, since 2006 for writing about alleged links between child sexual abuse and the Catholic church in Mexico. The death threats, which began in September 2006, increased in December that year following the publication of her book El Manto Púrpura (Purple Cloak), which documents alleged abuses which had apparently been covered up by the Catholic Church authorities in Mexico and the United States. The threats continued in January 2007 while she was reporting on allegations of child sexual abuse by a Mexican Catholic priest. Martínez also reported being followed by cars without licence plates on several occasions. She says that she did not make an official complaint to the authorities because she did not trust them.

Harassment continues, albeit in more subtle ways. In March 2008, Martínez was fired from the Monterrey-based newspaper Milenio. Although the paper cited “restructuring”, the move reportedly followed Martínez’ publication of an article criticising the federal government’s handling of the death of a 72-year-old indigenous woman who allegedly died after being gang raped by Mexican soldiers. In September 2008 Martínez claimed that Samborns, one of Mexico’s most popular bookstore chains (owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man), had attempted to block the sale of two of her books, including Prueba de Fe (Test of Faith), which documents allegations of a pederast network with links to Catholic cardinals and bishops. As a result other bookstores reportedly also restricted sales of the book, on the grounds they were Catholic-based businesses.

Please send letters of appeal:

COLOMBIA: Patricia Ariza

Protesting the harassment of Patricia Ariza, particularly the Colombian State’s attempts to link her to terrorist groups, and calling on the authorities to allow her and other writers to pursue their legitimate writing and political activities in peace.

Señor Presidente Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Presidente de la República, Palacio de Nariño, Carrera 8 No.7-2, Bogotá, Colombia
Fax: 57 1 337 5890/ 57 1 342 0592
Salutation: Dear President Uribe/Excmo. Sr. Presidente Uribe

PERU: Melissa Patiño

Calling on the Peruvian authorities either to provide evidence to back up the charges of terrorism against Melissa Patiño, and to ensure she receives a free and fair trial; alternatively, to drop all charges against her.

Dr. Alan García Pérez
Presidente de la República del Perú
Jr. de la Unión S/N 1ra. Cuadra, Cercado de Lima, Lima, Peru
Fax: 51 1 311 3940
Email: messages can be sent via the following link:

Salutation: Su Excelencia/ Your Excellency


MEXICO: Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor

Protesting the ongoing harassment of Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor stemming from their writings on sexual exploitation; reminding the authorities of their obligation to protect them and other writers peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and to investigate any attacks against them.

Lic. Felipe De Jesús Calderón Hinojosa
Presidente de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos
Residencia Oficial de los Pinos Casa Miguel Alemán, Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, C.P. 11850, DISTRITO FEDERAL, México
Fax: ( 52 55) 5093 4901/ 5277 2376
Salutation: Señor Presidente/ Dear Mr President

Please copy appeals to the relevant diplomatic representative in your country.

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