Even Drug Cartels Can’t Stop AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Jess Dector

Jess Dector, upper left corner, working in Mexico City

Jess Dector, upper left corner, working in Mexico City - photo by AHF/Flickr

Jess Dector, a determined, fearless, soft-spoken manager at AIDS Healthcare Foundation, let’s nothing stop her from bringing free HIV testing to the masses in Mexico — even if that means dealing with notorious drug cartels.

During the research for Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World, I met with Dector in Mexico City, where we talked about her crucial work as AHF Mexico’s national HIV rapid-test program manager — people don’t start HIV treatment if they don’t know their status. Dector and her team tested tens of thousands of Mexicans each year, and then helped people who tested positive get into drug therapy.

One morning, Dector drove me to a mobile testing site in Nezahualcoyotl, a poor, crime-ridden area about an hour east of AHF’s headquarters in Mexico City. AHF testers, most of whom were in their twenties, had set up tents in a dusty parking lot just off a congested thoroughfare. The sun was strong and hot, but some 150 people — men, women, teenagers — quickly formed a line. They paid nothing for the services.

Dector, who was 29, walked around, inspected the site, talked with the testers, and happily answered questions from people on the line. She was rarely without a smile, and a tan, bald, wrinkled old man shuffled over to her. They chatted, he left, and I asked what he wanted.

“He wanted to learn more,” Dector said, “so he can tell his family and invite them to come.”

It was a subtle, real-life example of the success of AHF Mexico’s testing program.

Only a few years ago, government officials believed people would never be willing to be tested in public, fearing their neighbors and friends would judge them and cause problems. It didn’t happen. In fact, Dector found that the more AHF tested in public, the less HIV and AIDS became a social sin. What really mattered to people, especially those with little money, was cost.

“People come because they see that the test is free,” Dector explained. “We made access real. In small towns, they don’t have access to services.”

I asked Dector about her favorite part of the job. With little hesitation, she said, “I like to train a new [testing] team. I really enjoy seeing their faces when they learn something new that can change their lives and their community’s. They go to a community and can break stigma by testing in the open.”

She added, “Last weekend, we had a woman who said she was happy that we were there because she didn’t the money for that testing service.”

Around the time of my visit, Mexican drug cartels were making international news for their shockingly violent methods and deep reach into Mexican business, politics, and society. I asked Dector if they ever stopped AHF from doing its work. She shook her head and said they operated near a cartel stronghold.

“We’re going to work slowly to get to work there,” she said, “because they don’t know that we’re there. We’ve been told to be careful because if they notice that we have a presence, they’ll ask for money. That’s a problem we haven’t had yet, but we need to be careful it doesn’t start.”

Like AIDS Healthcare Foundation staffers in Russia, Uganda, and South Florida, Dector always wanted to make a difference in the world and help people — then she landed a job at AHF. In the parking lot, as men, women, and teenagers got ready to take their HIV tests, Dector told me, “It’s the perfect work for a dreamer. You can see that you’re doing something that works.”

Read more about Jess Dector and AHF in “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World.”  Now available as an e-book and paperback.

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