Michael Busch Jon Sack Adam Shapiro

Since the 1980s, lawyer and activist Lucha Castro has been one of Mexico’s most prominent human rights defenders. In a country where violence against women has soared to unprecedented heights Castro’s work on behalf of women and communities at risk—along with that of her colleagues—has attracted international attention and acclaim, not to mention threats against her life.  Her organization, Centro de Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres, offers support and advocacy on behalf of women victims of violence, and has been a leading force in bringing state-sponsored human rights violations to the attention of international monitoring bodies.  

Castro is the focus of a new graphic novel just out from Verso Books and Front Line Defenders.  La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico—the first iteration in a multimedia project designed to bring the stories of human rights defenders to life—bears witness to  the terrifying risks taken by those seeking to end impunity for human rights violations, and the personal loss of loved ones many have endured. In vivid black-and-white renderings, La Lucha offers a series of first-person testimonials of life, death, and struggle in Chihuahua, and the border city of Juarez—in recent years, one of most dangerous places on earth to be a woman.  

Warscapes recently spoke with Jon Sack and Adam Shapiro, the authors of La Lucha, about the various factors that contribute to endemic femicide in Mexico, the extraordinary work of human rights defenders there, and the advantages of the comics medium in telling their stories.   

Michael Busch: Let’s start by talking about Front Line Defenders, the human rights organization sponsoring this project along with Verso Books.

Adam Shapiro: Front Line Defenders is an Irish international human rights organization that has a specific mandate to protect human rights defenders at risk. What we try to do is provide rapid, practical support; that is, we offer financial resources that help organizations take practical measures for physical protection, whether it be in the home or office with the exception of armed body guards or anything that involves weapons. We take a very holistic view of security and well-being. So if someone is stressed out, say, because of the nature of the work, they aren’t directly in jeopardy, but we can offer rest and respite fellowships, which provides another angle on security. 

We also do temporary relocations, whether in-country or outside, for those in danger, and we do trainings in both physical security and digital security, which is of increasing concern. There’s also a long-term advocacy dimension to the work, which is done at the European Union level and with individual governments. And finally there is campaigning, which is my area. Campaigning came about at the request of human rights defenders who felt that one other way to enhance their protection is to build up their visibility and public profile. And so we look to come up with creative ways to bring attention to the work and generate both the impression that these people have international support, therefore rendering them less likely to be targeted—and here I mean primarily targeted by governments—and creating some sort of cost to the international reputation to those governments targeting human rights defenders. 

There’s also this idea among human rights defenders that they aren’t very well understood, or that governments and others are trying to defame them and their work. Often defamation can lead to criminalization, or worse. Once people are targeted, it is often the case that governments and other actors believe they can get away with more aggressive actions against the defenders. So many human rights defenders have thought that publicity could help build up not just international attention, but local support for them, as well, and make it harder for governments and other opponents to target them.  

MB: Why render the story of Lucha Castro and her work in graphic novel format?

AS: So, I had been brainstorming different ways, things that hadn’t been tried before, hadn’t been exploited as tactics for unique storytelling using the defenders’ work, trying to present them to new audiences beyond the typical human rights-interested audience, and trying to figure out—using new media and traditional media—ways of getting these stories out there. The graphic novel has been one of the tactics. Strategically, it is a different way of presenting human rights defenders’ stories in ways that are accessible, accessible to people, even, who are not fully literate which is important in many of the countries in which literacy rates are low. 
The graphic novel format is also a good way to reach younger audiences, and it is something that can be easily shared. And it catches people off guard! Certainly the reactions so far, in the human rights community at least, have been really fascinating. The book gets an almost child-like response. Maybe it’s the format—I don’t know—but people do get excited by having this book in their hand. It resonates in a different way that just reading a human rights report. 

MB: Jon, how did you come to be involved in the project?

Jon Sack: I’ve done a couple of comics prior to this project. One was on the flotilla that tried to reach Gaza in 2010. A friend who was on one of the boats wrote a book in Poland about her experience, and I did a comic based on the afterword of that book. Adam’s wife, actually, appears in that book. Adam, through our mutual friend, saw the comic, and approached me a few years ago to ask see if I was interested in the project. He described the graphic novel part as one prong of a multimedia project to bring awareness to various human rights issues, and the plights of those defending human rights. I immediately signed up, and came on board. 

Originally, Adam had ideas for projects that involved a number of different regions of the world—Front Line Defenders works in five regions around the world—but he also gave me some space to think about topics or regions I might be interested in. I had already been thinking of doing a book on Mexico. I’ve been following the drug wars there for some time. At the time, I was living in London, and had been thinking about the idea of contacting members of the Mexican diaspora, and seeing if they would be willing to share their stories with me. Shortly after, I approached Adam with the idea of doing something on Mexico, and he really liked it. 

MB: And Lucha? How did she come to be the focus for this book?

AS: The reason we chose Lucha for this first book has to do, one, with the longstanding relationship we’ve had with her. We hold a program every two years called the Dublin Platform. Lucha first came to that in 2010, I believe. We’re familiar with her organization, and have provided security and advocacy support for them. The kind of issues they face, whether official corruption, impunity, narcotrafficking in the area and the violence associated with that, the problem with femicide, and violence against human rights defenders, not to mention women’s rights, indigenous rights—she works on pretty much the entire spectrum of human rights issues. In that sense, she and her colleagues are a kind of the model for human rights workers across the region. The kinds of threats they face resonate with other defenders in the country and in the Americas more broadly.

The Americas, while there has been some progress towards having democratic governments and therefore a greater respect for civilians, also happens to be the region with the highest incidence of killings of civilians. In that sense, doing the type of work that Lucha does is very threatening, and she and her colleagues operate in very dangerous roles in society. It’s not just the criminal elements they have to worry about, but also the government—they are targeted from all sides. We thought that telling Lucha’s stories, and those of her colleagues, would be something that—while specific to their work in Chihuahua and Juarez—would resonate beyond the borders of Mexico. Many defenders see their own stories in the book.

To be honest, though, we also had a slight commercial consideration. I know lots of great stories of defenders doing amazing work from all over the world, from Kyrgyzstan to Mauritania, but trying to tell stories from those places—at least before people knew who we were or what the series was about—stories from places many people have never even heard about, didn’t seem like the best way to open the series. And the format, too, was a consideration. Although the graphic novel has a long history, and you have people like Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi and others who have done reportage and first-person story-telling, using it in the human rights context is still somewhat new. We needed to show that we could create something that had viability beyond a narrow audience of readers. It was something we had to do, so it became a consideration.  

MB: What’s your sense about the advantages of the comics form in reporting on human rights?

JS: I think there are two advantages. One would has to do with reach. Using a comic book form for representing political or human rights issues allows one to reach broader audiences than would a gallery, say, even if you are quite well-connected in the art world. Over time, I’ve thought about what type of audience I’d like to reach, and it has gradually evolved to using this format. Comics cut across a lot of boundaries, in terms of accessibility. 

Another advantage is that comics allow you, on a very limited budget I should add, to portray things that would be almost impossible through other media, such as photography or film without considerable expense. My first experience with politics and comics was, like most other people I imagine, through Joe Sacco, and in reading Palestine. I had a difficult time assimilating that experience into what I was used to because it was much more personal and immersive than what I was expecting. The combination of being able to illustrate situations without necessarily having to be personally present is powerful. So for example, talking with someone who has been in jail and who describes it in great detail—you can then go there, illustrate it, and really flesh out the person’s story.

MB: Femicide is endemic throughout Mexico, but is particularly pronounced in the north of the country. Can you give us a sense of the scope and scale of violence against women, and why so much of it is concentrated along the borderlands between Mexico and the United States?

AS: In terms of violence against women in border regions. One, and Lucha says this in all her presentations, it is Mexico, it’s part of the culture. Not killing women, of course, but looking at women as secondary citizens. The machismo, the attitude goes largely unchecked broadly speaking. So there is this foundation in which it is very easy to slide into situations of domestic and criminal violence. 

Also, the number of women killed over the past decade or so is around 27,000. Those are numbers are numbers usually associated with warzones. No one refers to Mexico, really, as a war zone. I mean, there’s the “war on drugs,” but there isn’t anything resembling the situation in Syria, the troubles in Yemen, or what has been happening in Libya. Still, the reality is that the military and security forces are deployed throughout this region, for a host of reasons. You have the narcotraffickers, the migration routes to the north, and you have lots of armed people, including from the government and criminal sides who are very much engaged in a battle for territory. There is no respect for civilians. 

And you are already talking about communities where men of a certain age were largely absent. Absent because they had left for the United States or other parts of Mexico for labor purposes. Women were primarily the ones who stayed back. Absent because they had joined up with gangs or were in jail and prison. And so women and children make up the majority of the populations that you find along these borderlands. On top of that, you have the effects of NAFTA. The pull of maquiladoras that were created by NAFTA draws labor from not just within Mexico, but Central America as well. You have a lot of women who come to Mexico unaccompanied to find jobs, and who therefore become easy targets because they don’t have communities to protect them. 

As Lucha always remarks, beyond the drug trade and the violence it brings, you also have the United States exporting weapons and security policy. Mexico produces the bodies for a trade in which the United States consumes around 60 percent of drugs produced worldwide while only comprising 5 percent of the world’s populations. That isn’t to say that there aren’t local causes that are driving the violence, there are. But it is to point out that international factors play a part, as well.  

MB: What, if anything, is the government doing about the problem?

AS: Well, you have the military, of course, which has been on the front lines in battling the criminal gangs, but which—at least in parts—has become a criminal gang, as well. There has been a lot of evidence presented of military figures becoming narcotraffickers. So, there’s that element. And then you have local police forces, which are completely overwhelmed by the weapons and the manpower that the criminal gangs have at their disposal, which far surpass the police who are underpaid and underequipped. Not surprisingly, then, they are often also on the take, or working both sides, but they are also being targeted by the drug traffickers. It is a very dangerous profession, as well.

Local prosecutors have also been targeted and assassinated at high rates, which translates into low incentive for the judicial side of things to investigate and carry out proper cases, much less lead the fight against impunity. Finally—and this has been an increasingly evident trend in the north—you have the corporate side of things. As the pacification process in the north has been underway, commercial interests have become more apparent. After NAFTA had ushered in maquiladoras along the border, there were clear commercial interests in making sure those factories were viable. Now, as those jobs are leaving to where labor is cheaper, there are efforts to make places like Ciudad Juarez more tourist friendly, and bring in money that way.

As a result, you get official denial of the problem in its essence. Just recently, the mayor of Juarez came out in the media and said that femicide was a fabrication, and that people like Lucha and her colleagues are making up lies. He defamed her, just a week after the book was released. So you have everything from state complicity in the drug trade and violence, to official denials that there are even problems to be tackled.    

MB: Adam, how did you approach telling Lucha’s story in the book?

AS: I from I come from a filmmaking background, and so I approached the book almost as I would a documentary film.  Of course, Jon has had experience using this format. We didn’t have a specific story ahead of time. We knew Lucha’s story, obviously, but we went down to Mexico with the intent of engaging in participant observation, meeting her colleagues, meeting victims of human rights abuses. We had a very open mind with respect to the process, and wanted things to unfold naturally. We filmed everything. Though the book is complete and is out, the print copy is the first stage of what will be a bigger plan, which will include an online version, as well, which will be interactive. The book stands alone, but will also serve as a portal for going deeper. Readers will be able to access interviews with Lucha and her colleagues, to learn more, and to see more. From the outset, that was an idea we had—the book would be the initial iteration, but it would expand out into a more dynamic, interactive entity.

MB: Jon, I’m curious about your method, as well. There’s a difference between communicating events that you have yourself witnessed, and conveying stories that other people are telling you. Is what we see in the book your impression of events and the way you understood the stories being told to you, or did you approach depicting the histories told to you by the human rights defenders in a different manner, if that makes sense as a question?

JS: It makes perfect sense. It is a very bizarre way of storytelling, because I am creating fictions in order to convey things that have actually happened. At the same time, there’s a lot more validity, or truth to the images, in what I’ve drawn than if I had relied on photographs. The process involved a lot of interviews, followed by the transcribing of those interviews, and them editing them…this is what I would have to do for each story. I would have to tease out the main narrative. For example, one of the stories, told by Juan about his mom Marisela…Juan tells it in a very A to B fashion. I think this is born of probably his having told the story a lot. For each page, I did own my research in terms of verifying the facts of the stories. So, for Saul’s story, for example, I had to read a lot of Mexican news websites and blogs, because there were gaps in his narrative that I had to shore up. 

I would make an archive of images for each page. For each one, there would be fifty or sixty images that I would compile. Some of these would be my own images from the areas we were. Others would be images I had culled from things like Google Street Maps. There was a page in Saul’s story, for instance, where he’s describing the murder of his sister Josefina. I had read a news item that included a tiny, tiny image of the barbecue where she worked. I knew it was on “Highway 2”in Juarez running eastward. And so I got on Google Street Maps and went along that street for about an hour and a half until I found it, this little barbecue joint. I was jumping for joy when I found this thing, and I took loads of screen shots of every angle I could find. Then I spent quite a bit of time finding other news sites to verify this location to make sure that I had it right. A lot of visual research goes into every page. Ideally, in the future, I think I would like to rely more on my own photographs. I’ve learned a lot from this process. It’s much, much better, in hindsight, and overabundance of photographs rather than be shortchanged in the image department. 

MB: You have both mentioned Joe Sacco, and his influence. It seems to me that Sacco’s approach is in many ways different, though. He’s sort of the central organizing principle of his reporting whereas the two of you are almost completely absent in La Lucha. Is this intentional, or a natural consequence of the nature of the project, or what? 

JS: I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, actually. Given that this project is a collaboration between myself and Front Line Defenders, I don’t want my presence in the story to be a distraction. I greatly admire Joe Sacco’s inclusion in his stories. But I think in this case, there are two longer stories in the book that involved a retelling of events that had already happened, which obviously I didn’t factor into myself. But moving forward into subsequent books, I think we will have to see. It may transpire that the stories we are telling are more in real time than a rehashing of things that have occurred in the past to human rights defenders. It won’t be either/or, but it may tip a little more in the balance of describing the living and working conditions and political atmosphere in the places where the stories take place which would probably include myself. But as I say, I don’t want to be a distraction, and in fact, I like being on the sort of periphery. I included Adam in this story as well, because we were together in Mexico following Lucha around for days and days!

MB: Do you ever feel frustrated by the comics medium in telling human rights stories? What are its limitations?

JS: I think one of the limitations is text, and the inability to rely too heavily on text to describe what’s going on. Finding a harmony between the things I’m illustrating and the accompanying text can be difficult. Early on, it was noticed by Adam and the editors that I was writing things I was actually depicting in the drawings, and so I made a conscious effort to minimize that to allow for an interplay where one wasn’t necessarily describing the other. In terms of writing, it is quite challenging. It is almost like telling stories in tweets. You have small chunks of text, and you are forced to make up the balance with the illustrations. 

Some of the stories in the book are quite complicated, especially Saul’s story which includes so many family members. I am now in the process of rereading the book, and looking at it a bit more critically, and I’m finding that there are moments—and they’re small—where it can be a little confusing to keep all the characters straight, especially when new characters are introduced. But I would say that the chief frustration lies in distilling a complicated story into a minimum of text. That proved quite challenging, at times.

MB: I’m interested in the depictions of violence in La Lucha. Reporting on Mexico often sensationalizes the violence there, almost eagerly so at times. Still, it is the case that violence has saturated the fabric of social life in parts of the country in recent years. In the book, though, there is very little violence shown even as the stories almost all revolve around grisly murders and violence. Can you talk about how you chose to represent violence in the stories to the extent that these decisions were deliberate?

JS: It is definitely something I was conscious of while making the book. I wanted to create more of an atmosphere of violence rather than depicting it directly. So in the stories, the moments of murder are brief. I didn’t want that to be a focus. I was also very conscious of the fact that I was depicting the murder of people who were loved by their families, and conscious of the fact that they would likely be reading this book. So I definitely didn’t want to dwell on the more gory aspects of this type of heinous violence in which their loved ones had been killed. 

When we were there, we were going back and forth quite a bit between Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez. I had been to Juarez quite a few times before, and it was strange. We kept hearing about violence, but we wouldn’t see it. Every morning we would wake up—we were staying in the house of one of Lucha’s sisters—we would have breakfast, and get an update on the local gun battles that had happened a few blocks away, the policemen that had been killed. One day, Gabino—on his way to pick me up in Juarez—passed a guy who had been shot dead and left on the side of the road…there was this menacing aura where you knew things going on, but it was never in your face. Another time, I was driving through town with a guy to photograph images of Juarez, and we got stuck where suddenly we were surrounded by guys with machine guns who had blocked off the streets. We sort of sailed through slowly all these people who were being held at gunpoint with no idea what was going on. I read the next day in the paper that it was the federal police, but no one was in uniform. Again, all of this contributed to this heavy atmosphere.

“Is there a war in Mexico?” This is a question we asked a lot of people while we were there. “Do you consider this a war?” And a lot of people said yes, they did consider it a war. Other people remarked that it was actually a lot worse a few years ago, when the army was in the streets, sticking guns in your face, and there were shootings happening everywhere. All of that has disappeared a bit. It’s a war, but it’s not a war. No one knows who the enemy is, there’s a constant instability. It was that kind of aura of instability and violence that I wanted to seep through the pages in the book. 

MB: Before we wrap up, can you give us a sense of what’s likely to be next in the series?

AS: Yeah, sure! The next books, there are two, are going to be produced at the same time. They will be more thematic rather than country-focused. The first will be looking at LGTBQ defenders in a few different countries around the world, who are leading the fight for LGTBQ rights, and coming up against all sorts of harassment and violence. What will be interesting about that, I think, is that we will find some trends, whether it is legislation designed to criminalize LGTBQ people, or certain types of violence and stigmatization. The narrative will center around the global struggle for LGTBQ rights, and then will focus in on specific instances, and specific people, who are battling on the front lines. The second book will look at environmental activism, specifically defenders dealing with extractive industries. This work takes into account indigenous rights, land rights, labor issues, and a whole host of other things. At this point that’s what we’re looking to do with the next two books.   

Jon Sack is an American artists based in London. He is the author of the comic books Iraqi Oil for Beginners and Prisoners of Love: A Story of the Freedom Flotilla.

Adam Shapiro is the Head of Campaigns for the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin and known as Front Line Defenders. Adam is also a Palestinian rights activist and documentary filmmaker. He lives in Massachusetts. 

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch