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Mexico nun is crusader for rights amid drug violence

Sister Consuelo Morales is one of Mexico's most effective defenders of human rights. As the nation's drug war enters its sixth year, the fearless nun has her work cut out for her.

November 15, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Working in human rights allows me to confirm my faith, every single day, says Sister Consuelo Morales of Mexico, who is being honored by Human Rights Watch for her tireless efforts.
Working in human rights allows me to confirm my faith, every single day,… (Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Monterrey, Mexico — Even in a career full of threats and harassment, the day someone deposited four cats at her office door, all with their throats slit, stands out for Consuelo Morales.

"They were telling us to be quiet or we'd be next," she says.

That was 14 years ago, and she is still anything but quiet.

The 63-year-old Roman Catholic nun is one of Mexico's most indefatigable and effective defenders of human rights. As the country staggers into a sixth year of drug war violence, Sister Consuelo (as her colleagues call her) has more work than ever.

Mothers whose sons were last seen being hauled away by police seek her counsel. She leads marches and confronts state governors, prosecutors, detectives. She escorts victims past soldiers posted at government buildings and helps them file the kinds of complaints the authorities would rather not see: about the disappeared, the slain, the tortured, allegedly at the hands of police and soldiers.

Standing barely 5 feet tall, with a small silver cross hanging from her neck, Sister Consuelo is fearless and passionate. She is quick to smile warmly, but she might weep at a particularly gruesome story, such as the alleged gang rape of male detainees by soldiers she has just started investigating. After a distraught mother begged her to help her son, Sister Consuelo traveled over bumpy roads for hours to find the young man and hear his story.

Despite the barbarity of the allegations, she steels herself, shrugs and dives into the case with almost matter-of-fact determination.

"You just cannot turn your back," she says. "If we were not here, what would happen?"

Intimidation, imprisonment and even killing of human rights activists have been common occurrences in Mexico, according to groups such as Amnesty International. Dozens of rights advocates have gone into hiding or sought protection.

Remarkably, Sister Consuelo's efforts have led to the arrests of 15 people, including police and government officials, in the last four months. It is significant progress, she says, but it barely scratches the surface of human rights abuses that have been an ugly byproduct of the drug war.

"We are overwhelmed," she says, seated at the office she shares with her team of young lawyers in what was once an old mansion and then a gay disco. It's a drafty, rambling old building overlooking a park and across from a church called the Very Pure.

Nik Steinberg, who covers Mexico for Human Rights Watch and has worked with Sister Consuelo many times, says he has a hard time keeping up with her.

"She is amazing. She works tirelessly and is tireless," he says. "Her organization is the only human rights group working on abuses by security forces in a state where those abuses have gone through the roof. To spend a day in her office is to watch an endless flow of victims.

"She can be disarming to authority figures who are used to people fearing them. She could be their grandmother. It's a firmness and sincerity they have not heard before. But then she also has this gentleness and warmth with the victims and families."

Sister Consuelo was born in Monterrey, an industrial hub and Mexico's wealthiest city, which until recent years had escaped the worst of the drug war. But by 2009, the notorious Zetas gang had moved in and was fighting for territory.

Gun battles in broad daylight, roadblocks manned by cartel gunmen, people staying in their homes — these became the norm in the once-peaceful metropolis. The nadir, perhaps, was Aug. 25, when cartel henchmen set fire to a crowded casino where middle-aged women were playing bingo; 52 people were killed.

The federal government dispatched an additional 1,500 troops to Monterrey and the surrounding states in Operation Scorpion, a move welcomed by many businesspeople desperate to save Mexico's most important economic center but condemned by activists such as Sister Consuelo.

With an enhanced military presence, the violence has not stopped and reports of human rights violations have soared.

"It's a perverse game," Sister Consuelo says. "The more militares there are, the more the violence grows. They are trained to kill, not to police, nor to investigate, nor protect."

Not a day goes by, it seems, without another distraught family arriving at her office, Citizens in Support of Human Rights, or Cadhac, to report a missing relative or a killing by federal forces.

"I'd bet you that for every complaint we receive, there are seven more cases out there," she says. "People still do not want to come forward, to denounce."

Sister Consuelo knew from an early age that she wanted to be a nun. In her youth, it was one of the few options available to a woman who wanted to live a religious life. Yet it was a crisis of faith that drew her to the field of human rights.

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