The Cinco de Mayo Charade
A little more than 20 years ago, Juan Cáceres immigrated to the United States. Like so many of his countrymen, he wanted a better life, and he certainly seemed to get it.
Cáceres started off small, selling tomatoes and limes on the streets of New York, driving a cab, and eventually branching into business ventures. He also became an activist for immigrant rights, founding the Spanish Harlem nonprofit Centro de la Comunidad Mexicana (CECOMEX), helping immigrants find affordable housing, and lobbying the Mexican consulate for better service.
Talk to people on the streets of El Barrio, and they'll tell you that Cáceres, who just turned 44, is an outstanding family man and a beloved community leader. The go-to guy for an immigrant's every need, he could hook you up with a job, and if you got into legal trouble, he'd get you a lawyer. He did so much work on behalf of the community that the governor of Puebla once named him the state's representative in New York. The city's Mexican population has doubled in the past decade, according to some estimates, and fully half of the 500,000 Mexican immigrants in the city are from the east-central state of Puebla. (Cáceres himself is from the southeastern state of Tabasco.)
Not all of CECOMEX's work is serious and somber. It also organizes El Barrio's annual Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day parades, which have drawn such big crowds in recent years that police have had to shut down nearby subway stations. It's a very important task for a very important man in the Mexican immigrant community.
But Cáceres won't be attending this week's lively street party and parade. That's because he's locked up on Rikers Island. In March, a jury convicted him of second-degree rape—of his own daughter, from the time she was 11 until she was 14. He was also convicted of endangering the child's welfare and of criminal contempt. He was found not guilty of predatory sexual assault against a child. He was sentenced to nine years in prison—the maximum.
News of Cáceres's conviction quickly circulated among local Spanish speakers, with reports surfacing in Spanish-language newspapers and wire services. New York's mainstream, English-language papers did not appear to take any notice of his downfall—despite the made-for-tabloid tale of a father convicted of raping his own daughter—though he has long been a major player in the city's rapidly growing Mexican community.
Cáceres's conviction, however, isn't just an example of a community leader fallen from grace. His absence has created a power vacuum in El Barrio's expat enclave and has shown just how ugly sexual politics can be in the neighborhood, centered on 116th Street in East Harlem.
Cáceres's supporters—he still has many, despite the conviction—have decided to run CECOMEX without him, and they now dedicate much of its time, energy, and other resources to insisting that he is innocent.
But the group's top brass and allies aren't just campaigning on behalf of Cáceres. They have also gone out of their way to vilify his daughter, the underage victim. The courts withhold underage rape victims' names and whereabouts, but many people in El Barrio have made the girl's identity public, and they brandish her name as a weapon against her.
There's even a photo of her on the main page of CECOMEX's website, where visitors have left comments calling her a liar. At rallies in support of Cáceres, attendees have even been said to carry posters displaying photos of her face. Some at the press conferences have yelled her name while chanting, "You have to tell the truth!"
Meanwhile, top Mexican organizations in the city have either come out even now in open support of Cáceres or act as if the conviction never happened in the first place. Spanish-language media outlets have continued to give him and his supporters ample opportunity to state his case against his daughter. Nobody has rallied behind her.
The victim's identity "isn't a secret," Sandra Pérez, entrusted by Cáceres to help run CECOMEX, tells the Voice, just as she has told the Spanish-language press. "There are images of the child in videos and photos. A lot of people know her because she was always involved in public events. Being the daughter of a public figure, your identity is always well known. And not just her identity, but the family's identity."
Pérez says that CECOMEX doesn't advocate making the girl's name and face public, but that it has not acted to stop it.
"They're people's opinions, and we can't control how they express themselves," she says.
Cáceres insists he has nothing to do with the propaganda campaign against his daughter. "Of course I want to protect my children's privacy," he tells the Voice during an interview at Rikers. "But everyone knows me and my family. I'm a public figure, and we were always together. I don't think that it's right that they're doing that, but I can't control other people."
Or himself, as a jury has ruled. Cáceres started to show his daughter porn and molest her in 2007, when she was 11, according to court records. When she turned 12, records say, he started to have oral sex and vaginal and anal intercourse with her.
CECOMEX's headquarters on East 110th Street are on the damp basement level of an apartment building, and many days its doors don't open at all.
Since his incarceration, Cáceres ceded control of the organization to his 19-year-old son, Ivan (the rape victim's half-brother), and Pérez, a longtime volunteer. CECOMEX leadership admits that the organization struggles without the presence of its founder.
That said, Cinco de Mayo is rapidly approaching, and all indications are, and its leaders confirm, that CECOMEX is still responsible for organizing the parade and parties for tens of thousands of people. That's the day when 116th Street will be redolent with corn and cilantro, and vendors will sell fried poblano peppers, squash-flower quesadillas, and beef-tongue tacos.
These fiestas have become highly anticipated celebrations of Mexican heritage. But at least as recently as the last part of April, callers might have noticed that CECOMEX's phones seemed to ring indefinitely, if they weren't off the hook altogether. Internet-goers would have noticed that the site was down every now and then. Members of a maintenance crew working next door say they thought that the group had moved out months ago. Some residents of El Barrio say that CECOMEX had been shuttered for weeks at a time.
Despite its closed-down appearance, the group continues to operate out of the same offices where police arrested its founder and then-president.
At about 9 p.m. on January 19, 2010, police handcuffed and arrested Cáceres and also seized a digital camera, computer, hard drives, memory sticks, a cell phone, and condoms. There were Internet searches for "incest" and "swingers" on his computers, according to court documents.
The evidence against him also included a receipt for a hotel in Queens, where he's said to have had sex with his daughter. He also attacked his daughter at the CECOMEX headquarters and in their home, according to court records.
"A jury of 12 citizens found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes of rape in the second degree, endangering the welfare of a child, and criminal contempt in the second degree," Joan Vollero, spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, tells the Voice. "The proof, which included significant corroboration in the form of computer records, hotel records, and additional testimony, demonstrated that the defendant repeatedly raped and molested his biological daughter from the time she was about 11 years old to when she was 14 years old."
Cáceres denies all wrongdoing. "I never had sex with her," he told police in 2010, according to court documents. "I would not do such a thing. I think my wife has gotten into her mind. We have been having marital problems. My work at CECOMEX takes up most of my time. I have bought her things such as clothing, a Wii video game, Xbox, with the help of her mother. I do not know why this is happening. I take care of my daughter while her mother is at work. I take her to school in the mornings, and on the weekends, I am alone with her in the apartment."
Shortly after his arrest, the court issued a restraining order against Cáceres, barring him from contacting his daughter or wife. Four days later, though, he called their home. "I was in shock," he tells the Voice. "I was trying to figure out what was going on. I didn't understand what was happening, why I couldn't talk to my wife and daughter."
Cáceres insists that he hasn't given up and has started to appeal the sentence.
"If I did it, why didn't I plead guilty?" he says. "They said that I could get two years if I said I was guilty, but I didn't. If I were guilty, why wouldn't I just sign the paper? Thing is, I'm not. And when I get out, I know I can talk to my daughter again one day, and my name won't be attached to a guilty [verdict]."
Immediately after his arrest, Cáceres's supporters tried to keep the case under wraps. But not, Pérez said, to cover anything up.
"Juan asked us not to say anything about the case, and we wanted to respect his decision, because we were afraid about the private lives of his minor-aged children," she told the Voice.
But since Cáceres's conviction in March, CECOMEX has done far more than just quietly coordinate legal aid: The new defense has been an offensive against the victim and her mother.
"His wife put his daughter up to this," Pérez tells the Voice. "She has drinking problems. She was having an affair with someone else. A few days before Juan was arrested, she came to the office and said, 'If I had a pistol, I'd kill you right now.' "
Cáceres's wife couldn't be reached for comment. Judging from numerous interviews conducted by the Voice, no one is speaking up for them.
In conversation after conversation in El Barrio, people contend that Cáceres—and not his daughter—is the victim. On the street, in offices, and even in organizations that stand up for immigrant rights, people say that Cáceres's wife is egging the daughter on. Some point out that his wife is Dominican. It's impossible to tell whether there are ethnic tensions at play here, but until recent years, most Latinos in East Harlem were of Dominican descent. Now, the Mexican community is quite large and expanding rapidly, and the majority of Mexican immigrants are Poblanos, as people from Puebla are called colloquially. Some observers say there is animosity between the various Latino nationalities in the area.
In any case, the case really flared up into public view—only in El Barrio—after Cáceres was convicted February 3. He was sentenced on March 1, and CECOMEX's aggressive plan of action began almost immediately, when Pérez and Ivan Cáceres organized a March 4 press conference at which they "demanded justice."
"We're calling together all media to listen to the truth and demonstrate our support of our leader, Juan Cáceres," they wrote in a press release announcing the conference with the headline "JUAN CACERES ES INOCENTE!" Cáceres's supporters in the community, along with Spanish-language media outlets, came to the event. The Anglo press did not cover it.
They minced no words, saying, "On various occasions, we've seen injustices that have been committed against our community. Unfortunately, this time, an innocent person has been accused of a crime that he didn't commit . . . [a person] who always showed an impeccable reputation which, at the moment, has been tarnished by unfounded libel."
"We firmly believe in the innocence of our leader," they added. Cáceres's wife, Pérez said at another time, "manipulated his daughter to implicate her own dad. She has alcohol problems and has not been a good mother."
CECOMEX and its supporters claim that they have extensive proof that this is all a giant plot against Cáceres on the part of an unhappy wife.
"The only thing I'm guilty of is being a bad husband," Cáceres tells the Voice. Ivan Cáceres echoed his father's claim almost word for word at that press conference in March.
An extensive rant on CECOMEX's website, signed only by "Evelyn," mirrors the opinions of many El Barrio residents interviewed by the Voice: Despite the evidence, Cáceres's conviction amounts to a miscarriage of justice. Evelyn concludes by saying that "any time there's a false accusation of child abuse, you have to defend yourself in an aggressive, direct manner right from the beginning."
Other community organizations are neither aggressive nor direct about the case, but they appear to either be standing behind Cáceres or simply refusing to say anything about it.
Guadalupe Cabrera, president of the Fraternidad de Inmigrantes Mexicanos, told El Diario shortly after the conviction that Cáceres always "had the capacity to rally Mexicans together, especially Poblanos. He's a good leader, and I believe in his innocence. He's always had respect for women, and I doubt that he's guilty."
A leader of the Asociación Tepeyac who repeatedly declined to give his name told the Voice that "community organizations had decided not to comment on the case." Asked whether the organizations had made this decision jointly, he paused, then said, "No, it's not that. Just the groups have decided not to comment."
Asked just what groups he was talking about, the man wouldn't elaborate, saying, "You can look them up on the consulate's website," before hanging up on this Voice reporter.
The issue is extremely touchy. Calls to Casa Puebla Nueva York and Mixteca Organization, along with calls to the Mexican consulate, were not returned. (One of the organizations' workers pleaded that they were too busy because of the upcoming parade to comment.)
In a Rikers visitors center, Juan Cáceres crouches over a plastic coffee table, kneading his hands together. Maybe it's the bad fluorescent lighting, but his unusually long fingernails, imbued with an ethereal milky-white color, seem to be his most striking characteristic. He plucks a menthol cough drop out of his gray prison jumpsuit, and sucks on it. He offers a lozenge and starts trying to piece together the last year of his life. A guard comes over and confiscates the pack.
It doesn't matter. Cáceres is on the attack.
"She's had problems with lying—in school, and about abuse," he says of his daughter. "I tried to get help for her. I tried to get her a psychologist, but the Administration for Children's Services didn't help. It's all there, in the files, how ACS was told that the mom came at her with a hatchet. She once told me, 'Daddy, Mommy tried to kill me with scissors.' And ACS never looked into it. The reason the District Attorney's Office wanted to convict me without evidence is because I had proof that ACS didn't do its job."
As for his own role, Cáceres goes beyond just saying that he never molested his daughter. In fact, he says, it was his absence during the first few years of her life that hurt her.
The way he tells it, he and his current wife began having an affair while they were both still married to other people—his wife at the time was Ivan's mother. Both eventually divorced their spouses and married each other. But he says he didn't live with his current wife—he is still married to the girl's mother—until the child was about five. He says that any problems in the relationship with his daughter stem from the "trauma" caused by his absence. "Something happened during that time," he says, "and I couldn't fix it."
His son Ivan is even more blunt: "My dad is innocent. All the accusations started when my dad found [his current wife] with another guy."
Ivan tells the Voice that he is "surprised" by his half-sister's behavior in the case. He says he and his siblings always had a happy relationship and seemed like a tight-knit family, walking to the CECOMEX offices together after school, then doing homework there and volunteering at night. Ivan insists that he was very close to his half-sister. His dad, he says, would often take him and his siblings to lunch and movies on Sundays, which were family days. They acted like full-blooded brothers and sisters, and not like they had different moms, he says.
Nothing could be further from how Cáceres's wife reacted during one of the rare times she said anything at all.
After her husband's arrest, Cáceres's wife lay low, refusing to give interviews about the case. But at his March 1 sentencing, she is said to have called her husband an "animal." El Diario quoted her as saying in court, "I asked you to protect my daughter, and look what you did. You robbed her childhood and hurt her for life. She's never going to be the same."
After post-conviction rallies in support of him, she openly pleaded with the community and the media to leave her alone. Now, she and her daughter are out of reach.
Advocates of domestic- and sexual-violence victims who were told about the case by the Voice call the treatment of the victim reprehensible.
"This girl is being crucified in public," says Cecilia Gastón, executive director of VIP Mujeres, a Manhattan-based organization that helps victims of familial violence. "A young girl should not be treated this way in public. The adults should be behaving a different way. Something very private is being handled on the Internet and that's not right—especially because of the sexual nature of the crime."
She says that when the Voice alerted her to the case, she asked around in East Harlem and was told that even Cáceres's arrest in January 2010 wasn't widely known at the time. His absence from the community was explained as his being in Mexico.
Grace Pérez, who has worked as a victim advocate in the New York metropolitan area for some 30 years, notes that it is not uncommon for people to ignore the missteps of a leader and overtly blame the victim.
"When things like this happen, you often have a community that is supportive of the abuser," she tells the Voice. Pérez also used to be the head of VIP Mujeres. "They have an ability to manipulate, to deceive people, to portray themselves in a way that is very different from what they truly are."
Two examples come to mind for Pérez. The first is the 1999 murder of Gladys Ricart. Her ex-boyfriend, Agustín García, was known to have abused and stalked her. García, once a respected leader of the Washington Heights Dominican community, went to Ricart's home on her wedding day and shot her. The grisly slaying was caught on video, and circulated on area news channels. Pérez recalls that many people refused to find fault with García and banded together behind him. They, too, cited his record of volunteerism as proof of his good character.
Pérez also mentioned the case of Hiram Monserrate. The Queens politician was ousted from the State Senate after he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Many people continued to stand behind him, and even now claim that the allegations of abuse, though proven in court, were unfounded.
Juan Cáceres, by most accounts an energetic back-scratcher, is now getting his own back scratched. Interviews indicate that there's a lot of quid-pro-quo support of him in El Barrio. Many cannot believe in his guilt, they say, because he has helped them in some capacity.
There are, however, some dissenters and some rumors of allegedly shady dealings by CECOMEX. The organization's openly aggressive defense against the rumors is evidence that such allegations have been made.
"I've heard different things about Juan Cáceres," a man who works in an El Barrio cell phone store tells the Voice. "Some say that he's done good work in the community, but others say that the donations he collected didn't get to Mexico. Instead, they started to show up in bodegas around here."
Cáceres and Sandra Pérez deny these allegations. They say that it's the fault of the Mexican consulate. Cáceres was too vocal an advocate for his countrymen, and his take-no-prisoners approach to activism, they say, didn't jibe well with the politicking that characterizes the Mexican government's bureaucracy and corruption. At one point, they say, consulate officials tried to "sabotage" Cáceres and CECOMEX. There's even a section on the CECOMEX website titled "Testimonies about the plot against CECOMEX" dedicated to exploring this thread.
Here, people who have been helped by CECOMEX are featured in videos in which they testify on the organization's behalf.
And many other people reason that because they think he's a Good Samaritan, Cáceres must be a good person.
One young woman who works for a car service on 116th Street says that she and her family had dined with the Cáceres clan on several occasions. The daughter did not look afraid, and if she were being abused, the woman says, wouldn't she have seemed scared?
The young woman says the real proof of Cáceres's innocence is his good deeds. She cites an instance in which one of her distant relatives died, which stuck another family member with the cost of sending the body back to Mexico. Cáceres helped the relative cut through the Mexican consulate's red tape, she says, so he didn't have to pay a dime for shipping the body. "That proves he's not a bad person," she says.
Another young woman, who's employed at a pharmacy in the neighborhood, says she worked as a volunteer for Cáceres, coordinating a youth outreach program. "We spent a lot of time alone together in the basement, and he never tried to rape me," she says.
Despite the controversy and challenges, CECOMEX's leaders maintain that the organization is still legitimate and viable and will carry on its work.
And they insist that the Cinco de Mayo parade will go on as planned.
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