Catholic Nun At Center Of Mexico's Drug War

Sister Consuelo Morales puts her faith into action in a very dangerous place. She heads a human rights group in Monterrey, Mexico, where she pressures authorities to investigate killings, disappearances and other drug-related violence. She and Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch speak with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we dig into our mailbag to hear from you about stories and conversations we've had recently. BackTalk is in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Tomorrow, Mexico will inaugurate a new president. One of the big issues he will face is the persistence of drug-related violence in his country. It's a challenge that Sister Consuelo Morales knows all too well. She is a Catholic nun in Monterrey, Mexico. As drug-related violence and disappearances have surged in Mexico, Sister Consuelo has been working with families there to pressure authorities to investigate complaints of killings, disappearances and other abuses.

Sister Consuelo heads the human rights group Citizens in Support of Human Rights, or CADHAC. We caught up with her when she traveled to the U.S. to accept an award from Human Rights Watch. Also with us is Nik Steinberg. He follows events in Mexico for Human Rights Watch.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

NIK STEINBERG: Thank you, Michel.

CONSUELO MORALES: Thank you for inviting me and to give me this opportunity to share these moments with you.

MARTIN: Sister Consuelo, I'm going to start with you because you were doing human rights work for many years, working with, you know, street children, working with indigenous communities and so forth and, at some point, working with families who have been hurt by drug violence became kind of the focus of your work. How did that start?

MORALES: Well, on 2007 in Monterrey, that was abrasive city. We start looking - a big change where violence were increasing since then to now. And one of the worst things that we kept (unintelligible) is the disappearances because behind this name are very painful stories where mothers, sisters are looking for loved ones and they don't find any answer. So we decide that we have to help them to get justice and truth.

MARTIN: Who is believed to be behind these disappearances? I mean, are these - is this believed to be the security forces themselves or is this believed to be the work of the drug cartels or both?

MORALES: The cases that we are documented - we find that the violence that we are living is generated by both the cartel, but also the state.

MARTIN: Nik Steinberg, could you talk a little bit more about the situation in Monterrey?

STEINBERG: Sure. To your question, I think one of the things that we've seen in Monterrey and actually across Mexico with the drug violence is that the line that we imagine existing between state actors, the police, the military, prosecutors and organized crime has basically disappeared to the point where, in places like Monterrey where Consuelo is working, you have entire police forces that are co-opted by organized crime. So, when abuses are committed, when families have a member disappear and they say that police are responsible, in all likelihood, we have a pretty sinister nexus between the cartels and the state.

MARTIN: What can somebody like Sister Consuelo actually do in a situation like that?

STEINBERG: The most common experience of families who go to authorities to say, you know, my brother was disappeared is that prosecutors say that, you know, if something bad happened to him, it's because he was involved in something. And then they don't investigate. Or, even worse, they say, you know, it's not in your interest to look any further into this.

And what CADHAC can do is to go back to those same authorities and say, we're demanding that you do your job. Find out what happened to these people and bring those responsible to justice.

MARTIN: Sister Consuelo, it's been well reported that there have been just absolutely gruesome killings. People have been tortured and it's just a situation of just real terror. In a situation like that, how do you persuade people to demand justice?

MORALES: Well, the only thing that I think that push families to go through is the love they have for their loved ones. They need to know where they are and they need to know what happened to them.

MARTIN: So it requires great courage on the part of the families.

MORALES: Yes. Because families, when this happens to them, are afraid that may happen to them, too, so they leave them alone. So we accompany them with the legal process. Also, we help them to be strong enough to face all the obstacles and go through.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and we're having our weekly Faith Matters conversation. We're speaking with Sister Consuelo Morales. She is a Catholic nun. She's recently been honored by Human Rights Watch for her efforts to assist families who've been victimized by drug violence in Mexico and people who've experienced human rights abuses, whether by the drug cartels or by the security forces in Mexico.

Nik Steinberg, I think it might be surprising to many Americans to even hear that somebody like Sister Consuelo even exists. Can you offer us some insights as to how it is that she's able to continue to function?

STEINBERG: I think the risk faced by anyone who, in Mexico now, is brave enough to speak openly about the situation as it is - their risk - it's impossible to overestimate that. You know, human rights defenders have been targeted. Journalists who write about this have been targeted. Politicians - the few that are brave enough to take a position on this and speak out have been targeted.

Until now, you know, we've very fortunate that Consuelo is doing this work. The fact is that, you know, she's extremely isolated in the north of Mexico because you have states, such as Tamaulipas or Zacatecas, incredibly violent states where organizations like CADHAC have had to close their doors because of threats. So the states we know about, the piece of the picture that we have, we have from very few individuals who are still doing this work, but many others are not doing the work anymore.

MARTIN: So, Sister Consuelo, do you mind if I ask how it is that you are able to keep going in the face of a really difficult situation? How do you keep going?

MORALES: Well, I think it's because I strongly believe that we are all brothers and sisters and we in CADHAC cannot close our eyes to the suffering that we cannot understand. We are small. We try to do our best. This is something that - we have to do it. There is no question.

MARTIN: And, before we let you go, I just wanted to ask. We mentioned that Sister Consuelo is in the U.S. to receive this award from Human Rights Watch and I was wondering whether this information has gotten any acknowledgement in the Mexican press.

STEINBERG: Consuelo is well enough known in Monterrey that it's gotten to the place where, when victims go to place a formal complaint at the prosecutor's office, they actually just send them to Consuelo. Consuelo's work is well recognized and I think that provides some degree of protection for her. I think that the challenge for CADHAC and for the government is to take back some of the work that civil organizations like CADHAC have taken on and really start to reconstruct a social fabric and some justice in Mexico, which is the work that they have ahead of them and that is there for the incoming president of Mexico.

MARTIN: Has her group achieved any convictions? Has anyone been held accountable for their behavior?

STEINBERG: Actually, the process is beginning to bear fruit. In Nuevo Leon, we have seen the first people being charged in these cases of disappearances and, you know, while there are just a few cases in a country where the general statistic is that two percent of investigations that are opened and in convictions, that is a huge achievement.

MARTIN: Nik Steinberg covers Mexico for Human Rights Watch. He joined us from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. With us from there, Sister Consuelo Morales. She heads the human rights group, Citizens in Support of Human Rights. That's in Monterrey, Mexico. She was recently honored by Human Rights Watch for her work with the families of people who have suffered human rights abuses in that area.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us. And, Sister Consuelo, thank you so much for your work and congratulations to you on this honor.

MORALES: I thank you.

STEINBERG: Thank you.

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