Mother, Los Zetas have me, in a concentration camp to train Sicario's.
The telephone rings
"Mother hey you hear me ok?"
"Yes Mother, listen well please"
"Brandon, what's happened?"
"Mother the Zetas have kidnapped me, I love you very much, take care and pray for me, because I might not leave here alive."
"Goodbye Mother, I love you."
The phone rang off, fourteen seconds that can change a life completely.
On the morning of 6th of February of 2008, Brandon Hernandez Salgado, 35 years of age took his last three pants, three shirts, a jacket, the hundred dollars he had saved in 8 months and left the house.
Without wife or children, to abandon the poor, dry village where he was born, was easier for the young electrician as had many of his friends. Who for years endured in silence the poverty of Huehuetango, Guatemala, until they were sick and walked towards the United States.
He closed the front door, walked along a dirt patch, and used a public telephone to call his Mother, Amelia Salgado to advise her, not to ask permission like he usually did, that day would begin their journey towards Phoenix, Arizona, where he could get work as a gardener in the mansions of Maricopa County.
With a calm voice Brandon explained the route to his Mother, Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and finally the United States. He spoke, Amelia recounted, as if this was not a trip where thousands die each year, he was carefree, relaxed and joking.
"When I arrive Ill call you, every three days ill update you, and when I arrive in the United States, ill start to send some dollars. Equally if the see me as handsome, maybe they will make me an actor eh?"
"Well Mom I'm sorry to tell you about it this way, but its easier this way", said Brandon that morning from the pubic payphone.
He had no idea how dangerous it is to cross Mexico.
Brandon crossed his countries frontier and arrived in Arriaga, Chiapas, on the 7th of February 2008, he ate and slept near the train tracks for six hours, until the "Bestia" train arrived and woke him up. Ne decided to watch first and see how the experienced people knew the secrets of how to tackle the train that cripples people.
Brandon felt ready, he trotted alongside the moving train, took hold of a hand ladder attached tot he wagon, he was picked up by the force of the train, and he started to climb, he got to the back of the train called "the beast", and tied his belt to the train roof to stop him falling onto the tracks if he fell asleep.
|La Bestia, the train that Brandon rode on|
Brandon smiled, the first part was done.
He arrived at Tenosique, Tabasco and from there called Amelia to say that all was going well, that he hadn't been assaulted or extorted and that, sometimes its that Mexico has turned into an insecure country, that's a Government strategy to keep people from leaving Mexico to go to the United States.
He told me, "Mom, this is very easy, just hop on the train and it takes you right to the North", I just asked him to be careful, do not be crazy, recalled his Mother.
The next stop was Amatlan de los Reyes, Veracruz, where it is assumed that Brandon would stop along the way, and ask for bread and water from women activists called "The Bosses", and sleep a bit to regain strength and get out of the 41 degree heat in the zone, then continue on his way.
But he vanished, Brandon never called his Mother back that day, on February the 9th, 2008, the young electrician found out the terrible truth on the news was real.
The report F-36211/2008 of the National Civil Police of Huehuetango, Guatemala gives an account of what happened on those day when Brandon fell out of touch with Amelia.
According to testimony consulted by the Agency, within 10 kilometres of Amatlan de los Reyes, an armed group identified as part of the criminal group Los Zetas, boarded the train and forced 20 migrants to disembark. Three protested and were immediately shot and killed. The rest were resigned to their fate. They were tied left hand to left food and hooded, then forced into a van, and moved towards an area known by locals as "El Martillo" "The Hammer", a drugs field that operates as a concentration camp.(Otis: see Chivis article on one such camp close to where Brandon went missing)
|Zetas training camp outside of Veracruz|
Here all the stories have in common the seal of the Zetas violence. The hostage were made to work 20 hours a day planting and harvesting drugs under a blazing sun, with little water and almost no food. If they got tired , protested or were sleeping more than allowed, they would get beaten with wooden boards until their ankles were broken, and one time shot and buried nearby in clandestine fosa.
The Authorities call them hostages, because technically they could be rescued, but this assumes they were kidnapped for ransom, and the family would get a call for money in exchange for release, but these men were kidnapped to become slaves, working for some potential economic gain for their captors to buy their freedom.
That's what the Guatemalan Police presumed happened to Brandon on February the 9th 2008, that he was forcibly recruited by the Zetas, who held him for three months, and sometime in May of that year, he got out of sight of his captors found a phone and dialled home.
The telephone rings
"I was cooking, it was horrible, just horrible, I had not slept for weeks with the worry of knowing nothing, why haven't you called me Brandon?" The phone rang and I knew it was Brandon, expecting the news that he had been kidnapped, recalled Amelia.
Brandon told his Mother about his predicament in 14 seconds, she fainted. When she regained consciousness, she went to the Police, and they raised a missing persons report, but warned her to start saving for his funeral, because if the Zetas realized Brandon had called anyone, they would kill him.
"I thought that if he could pick up a phone, maybe he had escaped, and instead of saving for his funeral, I thought I would save up and make him a nice meal when he returned.
2008,9,10,11, and 12 passed then in 2013 with no news of Brandon, Amelia travelled three times to Mexico to plead for a breakthrough in the investigation.
Since then she has not been sleeping or eating, or living, she has lost 20 kilos in weight, sadness swirls in her eyes, and she talks only of investigations, crime records, the Police, the missing, Brandon is always the topic of the conversation and the "unfortunate".
The unfortunate, are kidnapped, they hold them and tell no one, all by themselves they must pay his ransom, however much his ransom is I'll find it, Amelia said to me in March during her first telephone conversation with me.
The second time was in April, she said that all was usual, that she felt in her heart, as had happened to her rarely, that Brandon would soon arrive at her home again.
"My Brandon, already he's coming this guy, I can feel it, I feel it here, in my heart, that this guy is coming. I imagine he is tired, that he is not the same, but he is my son, and I'm going to receive him with a lot of love, said Amelia now 68 years of age.
The third occasion was two weeks later, on the other end of the phone, Amelia's voice sounded metallic, hard and distant.
"How nice that you called me, they already found Brandon....."
"Are you serious! how is he, is he well?"
"No they found him in a clandestine grave",
" Yes, I don't want to talk."
"I understand Senora."
"Goodbye and thank you."
Now there were 12 seconds.
The National Civil Police of Guatelmala, said that there was testimony from someone that had stayed with Brandon during his kidnapping and the hands of Los Zetas, he confirmed that he had been put to work for the past three months at "The Hammer", until a problem arose, probably the phone call, caused him a beating and to be sold to another cell of criminals.
To save his life, Brandon had been working as a Sicario in Nuevo Leon, until a gun battle in Cadereyta when he was killed by a rival group from "El Chapo" Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel.
Only Brandon knows how much time he spent working as a Sicario to pay for his release, if he had more work with the mafia, if you were close to being released or if it was true that someday they would release him, we only know that the was found in April of 2013, he had been shot three times, two of them in his head which killed him instantly.
The only certainty is that Brandon did return home to Huehuetango, as predicted by his Mother Amelia, but he came back branded a Zeta, with closed coffin and his face unrecognizable. The day after his funeral his Mother Amelia ran away from the family home where she had waited for five years for the return of her son alive.
The telephone rings
Amelia doesn't answer the phone
Original article in Spanish at Valor Por Tamaulipas
Otis: I found this human interest story quite moving, you can become numb to the violence as its never ending where one more death means very little to most, until you read the human tragedies behind these deaths.