08/04/2017 14:01 EDT | Updated 10/31/2017 13:12 EDT

When The Police Are Criminals, Mexicans Have No One To Turn To

"The government doesn't listen. ... You can vanish, and no one cares." ​

MEXICO CITY ― The phone rang at 4:00 p.m. on July 7, 2017, exactly as scheduled. The sound heightened the tension in the small living room of the 1950s Mexico City house. 

“Will you accept a call from the West Federal Prison?” said the voice at the end of the line.

“Yes, of course. Yes, I will,” Blanca responded, visibly nervous, as if she hadn’t done this before. 

But Blanca Aviña Guerrero has done this many times before. She has been doing it every Friday since her youngest son, Enrique, was arbitrarily detained by federal police in May 2013 and eventually thrown into a maximum security prison in the state of Jalisco, around 335 miles west of Mexico City.

Authorities claim Enrique Guerrero, 28, was involved in kidnapping the nephews of a well-known local businessman.

But a closer look at his case reveals a more sinister story.

Amnesty International
Blanca Aviña Guerrero holds a photo of her son, who she says was arbitrarily detained by the police in Mexico City.

False suspicions

A recent investigation by Amnesty International found police forces across Mexico are routinely detaining people without reason. It appears to be an attempt by authorities to show they are tackling the country’s brutal drug cartels and high crime rates.

But the reality is different.

In some cases, we found that the detained were forced to pay bribes in order to avoid arrest. In others, police tortured individuals to force a “confession” for a crime they did not commit. Most victims are poor. They lack the resources to challenge the legality of their detention.

And many arrests end up simply being cases of “wrong place, wrong time.”

But Blanca never thought this could happen to her family.

Many arrests end up being cases of 'wrong place, wrong time.'

Enrique was a bright student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America. Renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz, novelist Carlos Fuentes and the business magnate and philanthropist Carlos Slim Helú, Mexico’s richest person, studied there.

Enrique was a chess champion, popular among his friends and a born leader. He took pride in his social work outside class. 

“We used to take part in big meetings to discuss education reform and opposition to war,” said Lénica Morales, 28, a human rights activist and Enrique’s romantic partner. “We used to organize study groups at university and across the city.”

Enrique and Lénica met while at university, in 2006. Since then, they shared common interest and bonded over working for justice in Mexico. 

Itzel Plascencia Lopez/Amnesty International
Lénica Morales bonded with Enrique over seeking greater justice in Mexico.

They joined the social movement Yo Soy 132,” or “I Am 132,” which at the time was one of the largest student movements in Mexico’s history.

The movement began in 2012 as a show of solidarity towards 131 students who demonstrated against a political speech by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the Ibero-American University that year.

The students wanted to highlight Peña Nieto’s actions in 2006, when he had been the governor of Mexico state, overseeing the brutal repression of protesters in San Salvador Atenco.

Enrique was a chess champion, popular among his friends and a born leader.

In reporting the event, some claimed on media that the students were paid opposition hoping to topple Peña Nieto’s candidacy.

But the students recorded a video in response, filming their university ID cards to prove their identities. It went viral.

The movement grew. Months later, when Peña Nieto was elected, protests against him were occurring nationwide.

The repression of the leaders of Yo Soy 132 did not take long.

Itzel Plascencia Lopez/Amnesty International
Blanca's only line of communication with her detained son is the phone calls from his jail cell.

A dream cut short   

Enrique’s activism was cut short on May 17, 2013.

What began as a regular Friday night deteriorated when he was driving near the Azteca Stadium ― one of the largest soccer stadiums in the country, and the scene of acclaimed Argentine player Diego Maradona’s 1986 “Hand of God” goal ― at the southern edge of Mexico City. Enrique called his mother in desperation, saying someone was following him.

Men in a white van began shooting at his car and forced him to stop. Panicked and fearing the men were criminals, Enrique got out of the car and started running. He bumped into a police car and asked them for help.

He texted his mother Blanca from that car to say he was fine but unsure what was going on.

“He told me he was in Churubusco,” around a 20-minute drive north of where the chase started, Blanca recalled. “And then I just didn’t hear any more from him.”  

Enrique went missing for the next 30 hours. His family desperately looked for him in various places. At the prosecutor’s office. In hospitals. In police stations. No one had any information. The detention had not been recorded.  

'He told me he was in Churubusco. And then I just didn’t hear any more from him.' Blanca Aviña Guerrero

Enrique was eventually found in the attorney general’s office.

Lawyers advised Blanca to let her older son ― who had traveled back to Mexico from London where he was living ― to see him first.

“It might be traumatizing,” they were told.

Enrique had been tortured in a bid to make him “confess” to the kidnapping he was accused of, which he had refused to do. He was then paraded with a group of 12 other people in front of the media. They were branded as the “gang” responsible for the crime.

A day later, Enrique was moved to a maximum security prison in Jalisco. 

“It was there that the worst began,” Blanca said. “At the time, we didn’t think everything was going to take so long.”

Itzel Plascencia Lopez/Amnesty International
Photos of Enrique are spread out throughout his mother's home as she awaits his release.

From student to criminal

In a space of four days, Enrique had gone from being a star student to being branded a highly dangerous criminal.

He had been charged with kidnapping, which in Mexico carries a sentence of up to 45 years in jail.

Four years after his arrest, he has still not been sentenced. 

His lawyers and Amnesty International say the case against him is marred with flaws

As he awaits the conclusion of his trial, Enrique spends more than 20 hours a day in a small cell of less than 4 square meters. It’s barely furnished ― just a small sink and a shower. Getting hold of books or even a pen is a challenge. 

'We never thought this could happen to us, but now we know that this can happen to anybody.' Blanca Aviña Guerrero

“This whole process has been very difficult,” Enrique said in a phone call with Amnesty from prison. “Many people ended up here after an arbitrary detention, after being tortured, accused of crimes they did not commit.”

Enrique sounded upbeat, perhaps because he knew he needed to sound strong for his family. When he called, Blanca stood next to the phone, eager to hear every word coming from her son’s mouth. 

“We never thought this could happen to us, but now we know that this can happen to anybody,” she said.

When Amnesty asked Blanca why Mexican authorities are doing this, she said a lot of it was about how much they could get away with. 

Henry Romero / Reuters
Police forces across Mexico are routinely detaining people without reason.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “The government doesn’t listen. They say that this is the way things are and no one can convince them otherwise. It is very hard to know that there are so many injustices here and no one does anything. That you can vanish, and no one cares.”

Over the phone, Amnesty asked Enrique what he would tell the government if he had a chance to confront officials about his case.

“I would ask them for justice,” he said. “But that is something they do not want to listen to. They will never understand.”

And with that, his 10 minutes were up.

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute.

Arbitrary Detentions In Mexico