The struggle against torture: “Don’t let down your guard”
By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English branch)
It had been a two and a half hour drive from Guadalajara. As we approached, the ominously named prison, CEFERESO Number 4, the Federal Centre for Social Rehabilitation, loomed large and intimidating at the bottom of one last hill.
We spent the next hour going through the most extensive series of endless security checks I’ve been through in any prison visit, anywhere. It included a stamp on our forearms which only showed up under a special light, which we had to show again on our way out to demonstrate that none of us had stayed behind and allowed a prisoner to slip out in our place. There was, in fact, far more visible security than I have experienced on any of the visits I’ve made to the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
All of this, you would think, must mean that our Amnesty team was heading in to see a notorious terrorism suspect, drug cartel kingpin, or feared organized crime boss.
Not at all. We were there to interview Ángel Amilcar Colón Quevedo, a human rights activist who has endured torture, racial discrimination and a profoundly unfair legal process for more than five years. That such a man, having been through such a range of serious human rights violations, is locked up in such a foreboding and harsh place adds one more particularly cruel dimension to the injustices he has suffered.
Ángel, an eloquent man who exuded nothing but grace, dignity and an inspiring commitment to justice, told us about his work and travels, defending the rights of his Afro-descended Garífuna community and speaking out about environmental issues. In early 2009 he was faced with an immense personal tragedy. One of his two young sons was sick with cancer and he needed much more money than he could earn in Honduras if we was to afford the treatments that might save his life. Like so many hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans, therefore, he set off on the migrant’s journey, through Mexico to the US border, intending to cross over and find work to earn the money his family so desperately needed.
But it went terribly wrong. The house where he was waiting in Tijuana was raided by local state police. He fled but was arrested nearby.
And the torture began.
He was hit repeatedly in the ribs, made to walk on his knees, kicked and punched in the stomach. He was blindfolded and transferred to a military base where he heard the screams of others being tortured.
A plastic bag was forced over his head to make him feel like he was being smothered. He was stripped and made to lick the shoes of other prisoners. Racial insults were hurled at him repeatedly. After 16 hours of this he was coerced into making a statement, which led to him being charged with membership in a criminal gang. Even though he repudiated that statement when he later appeared before a judge and described how he had been tortured, the statement is still part of his file and no investigation has been carried out.
Only this year, five years after going through this ordeal, was he finally examined by independent medical experts, who confirmed he had almost certainly been tortured. Yet still he is behind bars.
The coming weeks are critical, as prosecutors will make a decision by mid-October as to whether they intend to proceed with his case.
Our visit began by sharing with him the immense outpouring of activism there has been and will be on his behalf, in Mexico and around the world. We were able to show him pages filled with messages of solidarity from over 2,000 individuals, gathered by Amnesty’s Mexican section. Tears immediately filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. He was obviously deeply moved to hear that so many people, in so many parts of the world, were aware, concerned and taking action to secure his freedom.
He shared the profound sadness he felt when he learned that his son had died from cancer only a few months after he left Honduras, and the pain of being separated for so long from his wife and his other son, who was only two years old when he left.
But he still hopes there will be justice. “What I would like now is for the people who committed these acts to be brought to justice. That they face justice and that justice does what it needs to do. So that these things do not happen again. That what happened to me does not happen to other people.”
He was grateful to those who have taken action on his case and other cases. And he spoke from his heart urging that all people who have been in solidarity with him and who stand against torture “not let down their guard.” As he noted, “torture has no color, no race, no distinctions of any kind. It can be anyone. It destroys. It destroys life. It destroys the individual.”
There were warm, strong embraces all round as our visit came to an end. It felt like close friends were parting ways; but parting ways knowing that we would meet again. Every one of us left CEFERESO Number 4 with a strong determination to do everything we can over the coming weeks to draw even more attention and generate more pressure on Mexican authorities. The decision expected in mid-October about this case offers a critical window of time in which to make a difference.
Ángel is confident his freedom draws near. “Now is the time that I want to be given my freedom,” he told us. His confidence must become our confidence. His determination must become ours.
#StopTorture in Mexico. #Free Ángel Colón. Sign the petition. Write a letter. And get as many friends, family and co-workers as you can to do the same.
We cannot let down our guard.
For more information:
Mexico: Shocking rise in reports of torture and ill-treatment as authorities turn a blind eye (News Story/Report, 4 September 2014)