“I didn’t know that a human could take so much pain”
by Daniela Rea (EL UNIVERSAL)
The first thing that springs to mind for Gustavo Martínez Rentería about the torture he and his friends suffered at the hands of the Federal Police, whose officers forced them to admit to being criminals, is the moment when the uniformed agents opened the door to the room where they had been hitting them for several days. At that moment, the officers asked if they wanted to say anything, as it was going to get worse.
The door opened. They were in a giant warehouse, bound hand and foot, in front of TV cameras that were pointing at them. To one side was Luis Cárdenas Palomino, then spokesperson for the Federal Police, saying that they were narcos, responsible for planting the car bomb in Ciudad Juárez on 15 July 2010.
“When I saw myself in front of the cameras, the world stopped turning and the only thing I thought was: ‘Holy shit, we are done for’” says Gustavo, now free, after spending three years and seven months in prison accused of a crime he confessed to under torture, along with four childhood friends: Rogelio Amaya Martínez, Noé Fuentes Chavira, and brothers Víctor Manuel and Ricardo Fernández Lomelí.
“I didn’t understand what was going on, they had beaten us so much… you don’t know what’s truth and what’s a lie. They even make you doubt yourself,” he says during a conversation with EL UNIVERSAL.
Gustavo was 24 years old when he was arrested. He was working in a bar in Ciudad Juárez. Like his friends, he looks like he just came from another world. He walks gingerly, like he’s trying to recognize the ground.
“The only thing I can ask for is patience from my people,” he says.
To prove the youths’ innocence, their defense – headed by the Paso del Norte Human Rights Centre (Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte) and the Collective Against Torture and Impunity – implemented the Istanbul Protocol, an international test that comprises assessing bodily and emotional damage done to victims of torture. The test demonstrated that they suffered beatings to both body and face, electric shocks, simulated murder and suffocation with plastic bags and water, threats of being raped, or their families being raped, and that they were made to watch their friends being abused or hearing their torture. Subsequently, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) confirmed these results in recommendation 75/2011.
— Gustavo is asked, “How do you see yourself now that you are out of prison?” He closes his eyes, and tries to imagine.
— I see a skinny guy, hobbled, spent, who walks slowly, nervously… on the ground are the bits that they broke off: dignity, self-esteem, strength, patience, confidence, a whole life.
Rogelio Amaya, one of the arrested youths, looks at himself and is surprised to have discovered personal strength. “I didn’t know that I could bear so much, so much pain. How is it possible that a living being can tolerate so much pain? I see somebody who thinks he’s now stronger than he was [before the torture].
We Come Back Damaged
On 13 August 2010 the Federal Police brought the five youths accused of the Ciudad Juárez car bombing in which four people died before the media. The defense alleged that they were tortured to admit their guilt, and even the Federal Attorney General withdrew its criminal complaint, and freed them on Friday 7 March.
“During Felipe Calderón’s presidency, we witnessed the fabrication of criminals through torture. The government needed to find the guilty and so it fingered these young men. The Federal Police tortured them in Ciudad Juárez, then when they were transferred by plane and in the hangar, and later at their Iztapalapa base. They had them for five days so that they could do unthinkable things to them,” says Javier Enríquez of the Collective Against Torture and Impunity at a press conference on 11 March in Mexico City as he announced these youth’s release. The young men were present at the press conference.
The defense has begun a judicial process against the police officers who arrested the youths. They hope for sanctions against federal agents Manuel Calleja Marín, Víctor Aquileo Lozano Vera, Manuel Granero Rugerio, Federico López Pérez, Adán Serafín Cárdenas Cruz and Luis Alberto González Gutiérrez and for reparations agains the damaged caused to the youths and their families.
The first night that Mayra and Rogelio spent together, after his freedom, they talked without stopping, trying to bring each other up to date. “We didn’t come back from a holiday, Mayra, we returned damaged, bitter,” Rogelio said to her at one point, when the certainties of the “return to life” began bit by bit to fall into place.
Days later, in Mexico City, he would remember and reflect upon that scene: “We went three years and seven months inside and suddenly realized… Starting over again is going to be difficult, and I spoke to her a lot so that she can be patient with me.”
Mayra sits by his side. The wife who has been with him over the past eight years has to get used to the idea that her husband is now different from who he used to be.
“I see that he has changed. He has a different look. A lot of courage and insecurity, of sadness. In his eyes he is always on alert. Before, he used to look normal. I don’t know how to explain it… it’s also in the way he walk, as if he’s being watched, always turning back, surprised that a guard isn’t following him.”
The results from the Istanbul Protocol reflect how the torture has marked them: insomnia, nightmares, frightened of going out, of being alone, of closing their eyes, unexpectedly reliving the torture, of wanting to be dead, lack of appetite, migraines.
Mayra knows what the psychologists have told him: these are normal feelings coming from an abnormal situation. “We need to talk a lot. He was a prisoner there, but out here a lot of things have happened. I want to understand, to know how to get close to him again,” Mayra says.
— “What do you want to know? How they tortured me? What it’s like to be lock…” he replies.
Rogelio worked in a Soriana warehouse before his arrest. He leaves sentences unfinished. That’s how he came out: he doesn’t speak very much, or he interrupts himself. For the press conference the youths agreed that he would speak for his friends. Once again, TV cameras were pointed at him, but now they want to hear the truth. He couldn’t talk.
One aim of torture is to extract words. The youths had words taken from them when they were fored to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. And they had words taken from them again when, in front of the cameras, they couldn’t talk about the torture. Now free, words seem to be beyond them. Words stuck in their stomachs, in their throats, in their mouths. It’s like the words want to come out but they drown in teary eyes that, it seems, don’t belong to them.
Back to Life
It was 1430 on the afternoon of Friday 7 March when Rogelio and Noé left prison in Tepic, Nayarit State. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, Gustavo, Víctor and Ricardo left the prison in Perote, Veracruz. Hours later, for the first time since their arrest, the five would reunite in Mexico City. They were never allowed to communicate.
“We didn’t recognize each other. Noé and Gustavo were really skinny,” Víctor jokes, the youngest. When they put him in prison he was 19 years old and he was about to become a father. His son was born two weeks after he went to prison and he only met him last year when his lawyers managed to obtain permission to visit the maximum-security prison. That time they saw him through glass. They couldn’t touch.
“The first time that he said “daddy”…” he says, and his face lights up.
Rogelio also became a father again when he was a prisoner. Prior to that he had a four year-old son and his wife Mayra was about to give birth to a girl. When he regained his freedom on Friday, the first thing that he did was to run to embrace her. The girl was unsettled and began to cry. She didn’t know who he was. As the days went by, she has been getting used to his arms, to his smiles.
“What’s it like to be free again? It’s like being born. There’s no way to describe it,” and a smile appears on Rogelio’s face.
To be re-born, that’s what freedom is for them. Rogelio, Gustavo, Víctor, Noé and Ricardo know they have been broken, but the torture made them discover something about themselves they did not know.
“I always thought I was a strong person but this has told me that ‘I’m great’.” It’s let me know that I can pick myself up,” Gustavo exclaims.
“I have matured a lot. I realize that I am a person who can behave like a father, like a man,” Víctor adds.
Family is their bulwark, what sustains them. They want to regain lost time, to find a job, to build a business, to show themselves and others that they can keep on going.
“The greatest payback for what they did to me is to take the life they stole from me and show them that I can go on. I want to move on and leave everything behind,” says Rogelio, summing up how he and his friends feel.
They are hungry to get back each of the 1,305 days they spent in prison. Their families know that’s a tall order, to carry all that on their shoulders. To pick up the pieces and to get back to full strength is going to be a slow, painful process.
Mayra, Rogelio’s wife, can feel it already.
“I tell him that the most important thing is that he believes it, and that he is back with us and that we are going to move forward.”
Journalist Daniela Rea reports for newspaper El Universal. Follow her on Twitter @danielarea. This article first appeared in Spanish with the title, “No sabía que un ser humano podía aguantar tanto dolor,” available at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/-8220no-saba-que-un-ser-humano-poda-aguantar-tanto-dolor-8221-213959.html.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.