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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mexico nun is crusader for rights amid drug violence

“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. (Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times)

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

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.

The year was 1992, and she didn't think she could make the sacrifice necessary to help a stranger as one would help a brother, as the Bible commands. With reflection, meditation and counsel from trusted advisors, she eventually came to the conclusion that she was indeed up to the task. The following year, she founded Cadhac.

"Working in human rights allows me to confirm my faith, every single day," she says. "Human rights is the way I can confirm I believe in God."

Sister Consuelo was in Los Angeles to receive an award from the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a ceremony Tuesday night. The Alison Des Forges Award "celebrates the valor of individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others," according to Human Rights Watch.

Though the honor was made public several weeks ago, it has attracted very little attention in Mexico. Clearly, the kind of things Sister Consuelo talks about discomfit the powerful.

"We are doing what we have to do," she says. "No more, no less."

Though she has faced nothing so grave as the dead-cat incident (which occurred during protests over the treatment of prisoners and prompted half the staff to quit), threats continue.

Last year, Sister Consuelo and her staff took up the cause of environmentalists who were fighting the construction of a resort and golf course in the middle of La Huasteca nature preserve near Monterrey. There were menacing phone calls, and members of the staff were sure they were being followed.

"Any time you touch an interest, be it political or economic, there is a reaction," Sister Consuelo says.

In the case of La Huasteca, the environmentalists won, and the project was scrapped.

She has not felt threatened by the military. "I think they are too busy to realize what we are doing," she says.

In an interview with The Times two years ago, Sister Consuelo bemoaned the lack of public activism in Mexico and complained that citizens failed to protest, make demands, participate in civic life. Now, she says, people seem to be getting more involved, even if most of those speaking out are victims of violence and their families.

"If the victim speaks, it attracts more attention. And then the victim feels accompanied. They are not alone," Sister Consuelo says. "But I still see fear when they participate. We have a very, very long road ahead."


  1. Maby she needs to summon Mother Mary to keep the druggie criminals from RAPING the entire Country. The Catholic Church needs to Quit taking huge payments from the dope shits, fat chance that will not happen.

  2. What an excellent story, Borderland Beat. She is quite a wonderful human being. God bless.

  3. Just what Mexico needs, more weak leftists...

  4. She should do some research on the CATHOLIC and NATURAL right to possess the means to defend oneself and one's family. Until the Catholic Church in Mexico stops supporting the socialism in Mexico it will continue to be hell

    A Conservative Catholic

  5. UNCONFIRMED: Omar Elizalde Coronel Alias,"Guero Maguiver" the second most important,in la "Limpia Mazatleca",El Chapo Isidros right hand man,Omar Elizalde according to the goverment of Sinaloa,had even more power and influence then the Gonzales brothers,the Gonzales brothers are presumed to be el chapo isidros main armed wings Nacho,Chuy Gonzales.

    Apparently he died during a gunbattle with members of the rival CDS faction led by El Cholo Ivan,in the limits between Guasave and Guamuchil.

    For those that knew who he was,if his death is true, knew this guy was huge.This guy was one of Beltran Leyvas close friend and in charge of distributing drugs to the North,he was a pilot ,involved almost exclusively in drug trafficking.

    His association/loyalty with El Chapo Isidro/the Beltran Leyvas was probably the biggest answer to why he was murdered.

  6. @ November 17, 2011 8:19 AM.So if we don't agree with soft motherfuckers like you,we are brainless?That makes sense,are you in the USA,whining about human rights?Have you got the threat of being kidnapped,raped,murdered,tortured,beheaded?Get the picture,we need radical measures,not soft idealist bullshit,from idiots like you.Idiots like you are what is to blame for political correctness and the truth being gagged,if we upset someone with the truth,we cannot tell the truth.I tend to think it is you who are in the minority,forcing your silly idealistic ideas on everyone else.I bet you are sitting comfortably in the USA ,and you are telling Mexicans about their human rights,you fuckin clown,go back to your PC,and stop looking at little boys,it's bad for you-your brain might explode.

  7. I am a conservative
    I am a Catholic albeit not one aligned strictly within its doctrine
    I am ashamed of those who use the excuse of being both to refrain from human rights advocacy.
    I would give up being either if it means I could not dedicate my life working for the rights of others.
    The church has made some egregious errors in its history, but one should know these crusaders get little or no money from the Catholic Church NOR cartels. Yes, there have been donations by cartels to churches of ALL faiths in forms of monuments and perhaps buildings, I think it is wrong, but it has not encompass all churches and NEVER have they contributed to the human rights of people. To the contrary humanitarians such as these are targets for death. Those priests and nuns who operate Casa Migrantes, rehabs and shelters etc
    I know, I work with them and their selfless work humbles and has given me, once again, a great pride in the basic principles of being a Catholic Christian.
    Shame on you! Taking away from this hero is a disgusting act of intolerance & bigotry.
    I wonder how your God fells about your behavior

    Ove thank you for this story about an amazing, beautiful hero.

  8. CONFIRMADO: mataron el Guero Magiver hace dos semanas en el Burrion. Hubo balacera y su misma gente lo mato-lo confundieron por CDS.

  9. @November 17, 2011 8:51 AM,Ye man,i hearing that,it seems he is definitely dead,Omar Elizalde Coronel Alias,"Guero Maguiver",i cant remember for sure,but i think authorities have his body.


  11. @Buela Chivis said..blah,blah,blah.Who cares if you are a catholic,god does not solve shit.I don't have a problem with good people,far from it.But i have a problem,when people say love conquers all,when it patently does not.Good on this lady for trying to make a change,but just because some imaginary god is thrown into the mix,please spare us that bullshit.As for god fuck him and the pony he rode in on,he's doing a real sterling job,not.Another one who who calls people names,like bigot,what does that mean oh learned one,fuck outta here.

  12. @November 17th 10:07,

    AGREE!!!!!!! People need to realize that a precious puff of smoke isn't going to save them. It takes courage and strength to overcome problems, not sitting and waiting for some imaginary force to "smite all evil"

  13. November 17 10:03AM

    Sir, I did not share with you my thoughts or exp to change your viewpoint or temper your bigotry, my motivation was simplistic, I was exercising my right to state my POV and have no issue with you stating yours and demonstrating what a complete idiot you are.

  14. November 17, 2011 10:07 AM I don't think you know Buela Chivis, she is a good person, and she does a lot more good for others than most of the people here.

  15. Since when is a conservative catholic nun considered a leftist socialist?
    epic fail on both a political and ideological level.

  16. Why does this have to turn into a political debate, its a story about a good person who is standing up against abuses commited by the military and police against those that have no voice. I understand the need to use excessive force against the cartels but isnt it also clear that there are human rights abuses committed as a result of innocent people being caught up in the violence.
    @11:35 you say it takes courage and strength to solve Mexico's problems, what do you call this woman who has stood up in the face of death threats to continue volunteering her time to help those that have no voice and cannot help themselves.

  17. @ November 18 8:56,

    I wasn't speaking of this woman. She has it down. I was speaking of people with the mindset that all they're problems will be solved by 'god' alone. It takes more than simply prayer to take care of business. If you want results you need to put yourself out there just like this brave woman has. She has found a medium between religion and being realistic. Although I am what most people call atheist I suppose when your in a situation like most people in Mexico find themselves it helps to have something you can believe in.

  18. wow - what a shame!. A shame that I bothered to read these (mostly) ugly, disparaging comments.
    What a good story. What a good woman. I support what she does. If you do not support and or agree, can you just say so nicely?


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