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Mexico nun is crusader for rights amid drug violence

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."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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