On discovering corruption in human rights work
IN MEXICO CITY I woke up every morning and listened to the lament of the juice seller. As Mario made my pineapple, guava, and lime smoothie, he told me about life. “Kids these days don’t drink fresh squeezed juice. They drink Coke.” I sat on a stool at the empty juice bar and lamented with him, nodding my head as he sliced pineapples and limes. “They drink bottled juice full of sugar, and it costs twice as much as natural juice.”
- “Es una lástima,” I said in solidarity.
“They drink Fanta.”
“El mundo no es justo.”
“They drink beer. No wonder so many people are fat and have diabetes.”
“How is your marathon training?” I asked, and his unlined 60-year-old face turned intently, like a sunflower to the light. He had run hundreds of marathons, though his favorites were in New York City and Denver.
- “Running keeps me young and happy. I run down Reforma Avenue every night moving to the pulse of the city.”
I wanted to be closer to change, to understand what if felt like to participate in working for human rights at ground level. Perhaps I would find meaning in creating and working for change. So I moved to Mexico City to volunteer at a human rights organization. I had spent a lot of time in Mexico for my graduate studies and research on violence against women, but I’d never lived there for an extended period. I embarked on my voyage with nothing but my expectations, a few ragged clothes, and my running shoes. I wanted to depart in the spirit of one of my favorite Antonio Machado poems:
- And when I reached the day of the last voyage, come that moment
The ship of no return is set to cast the anchor free
You’ll find me boarded with the crew, with barely any luggage
My body bare beneath the sun like the children of the sea
I arrived and rented a cheap room in an old hotel on the seedy edge of the historic center of Mexico City.
The sunrise bloomed purple and orange, and I felt the joy of two days in a row of clear skies. Due to pollution, I rarely saw blue skies or the mountains that surround the city. From my sixth-floor window, I looked out on the historic downtown bathed in early morning light. The sunrise contrasted with the turquoise peeling paint on the side of my building, and I felt strangely happy.
I got into a routine of editing and translating reports at the human rights organization. My work was not well defined, and some days I wondered what I was doing. My boss was friendly, and I found it entertaining to listen to his language. He often exclaimed “perfectísimo” when he was happy or “que lata” when he understood that something was difficult. He was a flurry of activity, always rushing off to meetings or human rights classes.
I woke up and turned on the TV to find an infomercial for bust and butt enhancing cream. Women in thongs paraded around talking about how their new, curvier butts had improved their marriages. They showed before and after images of their breasts. A gynecologist in a lab coat appeared to testify that it was “medically important for women to look and feel womanly.”
At work I started editing a report on human rights abuses against women in prison. Reading through interviews with women, I found myself losing any sense of faith in the prison system. Many of the women were young and had experienced physical and psychological violence. Prostitutes were imprisoned for stealing their client’s cell phones. Wives were imprisoned for seeking an abortion, and rather than being given the corresponding three-year sentence, they were charged with homicide and jailed for 20 to 30 years.
My boss gave me my first independent project, and asked me to write a grant. At first, he wanted me to write a $10,000 grant to get funding to translate and publish a report on human rights abuses in English. I was full of enthusiasm to work on my first grant. Then my boss said, “No, ask for $25,000…or $50,000.”
“For what? The publication won’t cost that much.”
“I’ll send you a proposal, and translate that and submit it to the National Endowment for Democracy.” I received the proposal, and noticed that it was a project funded and completed in 2009.
I tiptoed into my boss’s office and asked, “Didn’t you already complete this project?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t matter. Just change the wording a little bit, and it will be good to submit. We will do more of the same work.” I felt uneasy, but I rationalized that the money would be used for human rights projects. I translated the document.
One day, I walked into my boss’s office, and I accidently stepped on his sunglasses that had fallen onto the floor. He seemed upset. Later, I told a coworker what I’d done, and he replied, “Those were Gucci.” I helped fill out more grant applications.
- “Just tell the grant foundation we have 16 employees,” my boss said.
“But we only have five.”
“They won’t give us money for our projects if we tell them that.”
So I filled out grant applications, and pushed my doubts aside. I was invited to accompany my boss and one of our funders from the British Embassy to Reclusorio Sur, a prison in the south of Mexico City. Another lawyer came with us, one I did not know. I asked him, “Where do you work?”
He gave me a sharp look, and hissed under his breath, “I work with you.” And in that moment I understood that he was there to inflate our numbers, to make it seem like we had more lawyers than we did.
It wasn’t until I started translating the budgets submitted to organizations that gave us money that I saw glaring discrepancies I couldn’t ignore. My boss listed employees that didn’t exist and salaries that were apparently going to ghosts. He asked for funding for translations I’d completed for free as a volunteer. I wrote my mom a quick email about my suspicions, and went to lunch. When I returned to the office, my boss called me into his office and shut the door. He said, “Are you unhappy here? Do we not treat you well enough? We would like to offer you some money. What about $100?”
It felt like too much of a coincidence. I felt crazy, but I wondered if my boss had gone through my email, which I always left open. Later that day, I told a coworker, “I think our boss read my email.”
“You leave your email open? He went through mine too when I first started working here. He doesn’t trust anyone and is super paranoid.”
The next morning I woke up, and the weight of my suspicions kept me from walking out the door of my apartment. Why did my boss have two new cars? Why did he have Gucci glasses? Where did all the salaries go for 10 employees that didn’t exist? I wrote a short email to my boss that said, “I have volunteered for you every day for four months. However, I have discovered that you employ unethical practices in human rights work, and I can no longer donate my time to support those kinds of activities.” I cried. I called a coworker to talk it over, and I said, “You will never believe this, but I am pretty sure our boss is stealing money.”
He replied, “Of course he is. Everybody skims off the top.”
I had discovered the meaning of change, but the lessons I learned were not the ones I expected. The darker side of human nature, the greed, the lying, the need to appease the human ego, it was still part of human rights work.
So I did the only thing that seemed to make sense, and took my sorrows to the juice seller.