Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A photographer kidnapped and Tortured in Mexico, part one

Stevectpa for Borderland Beat republished from Medium.Com fotos and post by  John Sevigny

 

Self portrait of the author, taken in Western New York.
Note: this telling of real event includes strong language and descriptions of torture including sexual assault.

The cartilage connecting my ribs to my sternum is badly bruised after one of the men hit me in the chest with the butt of an AK-47.

I’d been forced to stand against a wall and my back took as much of a blow as my rib cage. There is a burning straight through my chest to my spine and Advil doesn’t touch it. Nor does tramadol.

There’s a scab on the top of my head where the same man ground the barrel of a 9mm pistol into my scalp, saying he was going to sodomize me, kill me, cut off my lips, fingers, and dick.

I grew up with guns. I’d never been beaten with guns before. Dozens of beatings with dozens of guns. And fists. And feet. And words. Guns at my head. Guns in my ribs. Guns in my mouth. Guns for endless games of Russian Roulette. Guns as heavy as hammers.

And which testicle did I want shot off, the left or the right?

 My jaw doesn’t move the way it should and it aches all the way to my inner ear when I try to sleep. That came from being kicked in the face by another cartel member in steel toe boots, a kick that rid me of a few more teeth.

The cuts on my wrists after being handcuffed too tight for too long are fading but the injuries to my psyche are just starting to appear.

I have nightmares. I’m being chased. I need a taxi from West Palm Beach to Homestead, Florida to escape drug cartel assassins. I am with either my ex-girlfriend or some other woman. It’s never clear. But the panic flows like cold mercury in my blood and when I wake up I can feel it in my veins as my heart pounds and sweat runs down my face. I wake up feeling like Martin Sheen in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.

Nearly a month after being kidnapped in Cordoba, Veracruz — along with a female friend — I’m at home in the United States. Outside the lawn is covered with snow. The slate gray sky promises that despite our optimism, winter is not nearly over. Indeed, the forecast for tonight calls for freezing rain. The shelves in my room are stuffed with books on contemporary art, as well as a few on the Holocaust and other grim topics left to us when my father died, all of which seem appropriate.

My father would have disapproved of the risks implicit in my photographic work, which takes me to some of the most dangerous places in the world: San Salvador, Guatemala City, and for the moment, Southern Veracruz. But he would have secretly admired the spirit of what I do. A painter, he often said brushes were sabers to slash and kill all the evil in the world. He said a camera could either be a “cheap fucking toy” or a weapon to make the world a better place.

I was not kidnapped because of my photographs as far as I know. But I’m not sure. My work focuses on people and their struggle to survive in an increasingly cruel world. That has put me in the cross hairs of governments, gangs and cartels. First, nobody wants the stories of marginalized people told. Second, a man with a camera who hangs around in three of the most dangerous “peace time” countries on earth — Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador — is often mistaken for an informant. I narrowly escaped an effort by Salvadoran gang members to kill me in 2012. And I’ve had forced “meetings” with cartel bosses across the region, patient, powerful men who gave me a fair chance to explain who I was and why I was wandering around bars, in their territory, with a camera. I have never revealed their identities or discussed those meetings. I would never rat. As Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” My pictures are not illegal but they are harvested in places that exist outside the law.


Under age girl working as a prostitute at a bar in downtown Cordoba, Veracruz. 
Photograph by John Sevigny


A friend in El Salvador’s Barrio 18 gang once gave me some very good advice:

“The tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body. It can send people to prison or to the morgue.”

The kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity, they said later. But first they accused me of killing someone called Carlos. Just when did you meet Carlos? And is that when you decided to kill Carlos? He had a family, you know.

“Who in the fuck is Carlos? In fact, fuck Carlos.”

That question earned me the rifle butt to the ribs.

They accused my friend of killing a woman called Cristina from Ciudad Juarez. They accused me of financing drug sales in Cordoba despite the fact that there were neither drugs nor money at my friend’s house — and apart from kidnapping us the fuckers stole everything. I had eleven dollars in my bank account and had just bought two pounds of tangerines which would be our impoverished staple for a few days.

Here’s how the thing went down.

On January 8, 2019, I was at my friend and sometimes-photo assistant’s house on the sleazy side of Cordoba a few doors down from a slaughterhouse. I’d been living at a hotel in Mexico City when she suggested I come stay with her in Veracruz for free.

“You remember how to get here?” she asked before I boarded a bus for the five hour ride past Puebla to Cordoba. “It’s right next to the slaughterhouse. So be careful. They kill animals like you here, you fucking animal.”

Her sense of humor is marvelous but was tragically prophetic. We both came very close to dying like animals in a slaughterhouse made for people.

That morning I was looking at my phone, reading whatever nonsense was flowing across Twitter. I looked up and saw more than a dozen armed men who looked and acted suspiciously like cops pouring through the front and back doors. They were in fact, as a high-ranking Cordoba police official confirmed to me later, city and state police officers working off the clock for a drug cartel.

“I can’t control what my men do when they’re not at work,” he said.

Fuck you, chief.

He can’t stop forced prostitution of children either, I guess. Or the daily killings at the market downtown, full of women and children. If you’re a cop and you can’t do anything about crime, there may be better ways for you to serve the community. There is no reason a small city like Cordoba should be a near war zone with kidnappings in just the past week of a public school teacher and a government medical chemist. The impunity and corruption that make these crimes possible can only exist with support from politicians and local law enforcement.

Or to quote a friend who lives in the Texas border city of Laredo:

“What Americans don’t understand is that in Mexico, the government is the cartel.”

I decided to fight back.

Hard.

I thought I’d die in the struggle but it would beat having my skin peeled off with pliers at some torture chamber on the outskirts of town. Or boiled alive in acid. Or having to choose which testicle I wanted to keep.

I took some shots to the head with a fist and a pistol. Handguns are as heavy as hammers. I didn’t quite bob or weave but I put one foot in front of me, ducked a big shot from a bigger son of a bitch, bent my front knee and came back up with a leg-driven uppercut to his chin, just as the late Middleweight Champion Billy McNeece taught me when I was a kid learning to box in Brooklyn.

The gods knew what they were doing when they gave me these big fists. They knew I’d need them because I am not a tough guy. I was a bad boxer. I’ve fared better in bar brawls.


Scene from the market in Cordoba, Veracruz, where members of rival cartels kill 
each other almost every day. Photograph by John Sevigny.

But in my mind the punch was as beautiful as the uppercut Tyson threw against James Douglas at the Tokyo Dome in 1990. I’m sure it lacked all grace but I was lucky: that little man was no Buster Douglas. I knocked him out cold and he wasn’t getting up. Which pissed the rest of them off and earned me the worst beating I’ve ever gotten. They were fit to kill me then and there and I was hoping they would. Whatever came next, in some other place, would be worse. And it was.

Somebody grabbed me by the neck. I punched him in the balls. Somebody hit me on the head with a pistol, and someone else fired a bullet into the ceiling. The next think I knew I was being carried by four men to a waiting sedan outside.

It was 11 am. The “fight” had lasted maybe 20 seconds.

“Fucking gringo is strong,” the guy I’d hit in the balls said as the car squealed away from the house and mouth-breathing neighbors looked on. My friend was put in a different sedan and we were taken to the torture chamber, or rather, complex of torture chambers on the outskirts of town.

In the backseat they held my head to the floor and fought to put handcuffs on me.

“Oh hell no,” I said, and somebody kicked me in the jaw. I didn’t have to spit my teeth out. There they were on the floorboard. I glanced up and three men had guns on me.

“She already ratted you out,” one of them said of my friend. “This is going to get a lot worse for you, gringo.”

She hadn’t, of course. But it did get worse.

In the past two years 2,000 people have disappeared in Veracruz, a lush, tropical state on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Officially, 20,000 people have vanished, likely kidnapped and probably killed in recent years. It’s a tragedy that gets little to no coverage in the international media but is reported daily in newspapers south of the border. For 38 hours, I was one of them. In a more general sense, the two of us came very close to sharing the same fate as the 200,000 people who have been killed since ex-president Felipe Calderon, in an act of idiocy typical of his six years in office, turned the military loose on Mexico’s cartels. You might say the military lost. But working mothers, students, journalists, and other everyday people bore the brunt.

Over almost two days, my friend was gang-raped repeatedly, I was beaten to a pulp, and we were both were tortured in numerous, imaginative, well-practiced ways. We did not sleep or eat. We were not allowed to stand up, walk or ask questions. And when we were released there were no apologies from the men who’d held our lives — or was it our deaths? — in their hands.

Where were we, anyway? Was it a house or a warehouse? I never really saw it. We were blindfolded and cuffed from the first minute to the last. I wouldn’t recognize the place if I returned. My memories are based almost solely on what I felt, what I heard, the images my stressed, sleepless mind constructed from behind the blindfold, and every single blow my 49-year-old body received from any of several dozen gunmen who guarded us, taunted us, and worked to break our spirits.

In the end, as an American, I was able to get out of the country with help from the US Embassy in Mexico City, and more directly, my family.

After I spent a week at a hotel in Mexico hoping my physical recovery would be swift, I realized I wasn’t getting any better. I could barely descend the stairs to pick up tacos across the street. Climbing those same stairs was more difficult. Worse, depression was kicking in. I was alone, brain-rattled, and badly injured.

My family brought me home where I have set aside the month of February to recover. It will take at least that long. My friend, now hiding far from Veracruz, has no visa and cannot get to the States, and definitely not in the age of Trump.

I’m writing this because the situation in Veracruz, the details of which scar my body and haunt my mind, must be told. FBI agent Scott Dunn, who debriefed me at the embassy in Mexico City twice after I escaped Cordoba, declines to speak to the media. Which is part of his job — protecting victims. He declined a request by a US newspaper to discuss my case or even confirm that I existed.

There are surely people out there who think I’m making this up. The chief of police in Cordoba is not one of them. Nor is Dunn. Nor is my friend, who is recovering from a sexual assault so vicious and sadistic that it surprised even embassy officials when told about it.

While we were held. Time was compressed. And yet it went on forever. And we never actually knew what time it was. So much happened. And yet there were hours of extreme boredom in which all I wanted to do was sleep. I forced myself to stay alert believing a moment would come when I could crack somebody’s skull and escape.

Mostly there was activity and noise. Mexican music pounded constantly. We were interrogated, separated, then placed together again. At least two men were dragged off and killed, crying and begging for mercy in some nearby room until a single gunshot ended their pleadings. At least 10 women were sexually assaulted.

I remember one of the thugs saying, “Did you fuck the fat one? She’s really wild.”

There was some kind of Satanic ritual, criminals being, as Batman once said, a cowardly and superstitious lot. But that’s Part 2 of this short series. That and being forced to inhale crystal meth at gunpoint, getting soaked in ice water, and a lot of other ugly details straight out of the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib playbook.

And now there is only recovery. There is no choice, no other option. I don’t get to shrug this off and move on. I must confront it for the life-changing tragedy it was and is. I am telling a story few Mexican victims can tell. They have to go on living with these scumbags. They’ll keep their mouths shut and are wise to do so.

Not me.

(The friend with whom I was kidnapped is a victim of repeated sexual assaults and suffered in ways I cannot comprehend. I would have done anything to protect her, but I was powerless — handcuffed behind my back and physically broken. I still we became friends the moment I met her. We stayed up at late at my house sharing stories, jokes and meals. She is safe now but not eager to talk to the one, known witness to the crimes against her. I am no longer a friend, I suspect, but a reminder of a life-changing tragedy. What happened to her is not my fault but her experience is part of mine and vice versa. It is cruel that criminals would destroy our friendship in the name of greed, power or whatever they were looking for. If I have written little about her it is because her story is not mine to tell. She will tell it when, if, and to whom she chooses. I would only note that she was targeted in the way she was precisely because she is a woman. There was no practical reason for it. That alone shows how far our societies have to come before they are worthy of being called civilizations).

30 comments:

  1. To a speedy recovery to you and your body. There are no words to heal your friend, but I send good vibes her way as she recovers in her own way.

    Your words are as vivid as your photography.

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  2. “What Americans don’t understand is that in Mexico, the government is the cartel.” This hit the nail in the head. US gives Mexico millions of dollars to fight the war on drugs but it has only gotten worse. This money has only given them another account to steal from. Cartel pays them along with the US.

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    Replies
    1. Correct.
      How much longer are we (US) going to continue this erroneous arrangement?

      Delete
    2. What arrangement? lmao

      Delete
  3. I salute the author Mr. Sevigny, you made it back alive, and lived to tell, I am left speechless..quote "The impunity and corruption, that made the crimes possible, can only exist, with support from politicians and local law enforcement, the government of Mexico is the cartel".
    Mexico - Observer

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    1. The govt of Mexico truly is the cartel.

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  4. She very insightful. I feel for this man, but it was a very dangerous place to be photographing. The last place on this planet you want to walk around with a camera taking pictures is in Mexico.
    Has he not read the headlines? Does he know not what the Cartels are capable of? But atleast he survived he got very lucky.
    I wonder why his friend didn't stay friends with him..Maybe they weren't true friends to begin with but more, Acquaintences or business partners.

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    1. In his case it's doubly stupid, as he had already been "interviewed" in the past by unsavory people wanting to know why he was doing what he was doing. He really seems to be lacking in common sense. That said, of course it's heartbreaking to read about what happened to him, and his friend.

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    2. I think it would be extremely difficult to stay friends after something like that. You each would be a visible reminder of that horrible experience. Deeply traumatic experiences either rip people apart or bring them closer. I don't think I could've stayed friends either.
      Mn

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  5. John Sevigny survived what many have to live with day to day. We have all heard of the homicides in Mexico but seldom do we hear of the kidnappings, which are at all time high.

    Bless John and his story, but it’s time the world start looking at ALL of the victims.

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  6. Screw you and your anti America bullshit.. this was done by Mexicans, in mexico. Yet you still try to make it about America and Trump 😂... Get used to Trump he'll be here awhile... I don't feel sorry for you.. people like you crave victimhood, it's "in" now..

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    1. No shit.... I noticed that Trump was thrown under the bus as if this is his fault... sad story but Mexico has a lot of sad stories.... this happens to be an American with a camera trying to change the world... sounds like a midlife crisis...he should’ve stayed in Brooklyn I’m sure he could’ve found something to write about there...

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  7. A brilliant read, astutely written. Indeed, he has told his compelling "story few Mexican victims can tell. They have to go on living with these scumbags."

    Canadian girl

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  8. Too bad the Mexican lady is probably dead already. Good story though, American man.

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  9. The fact that this guy is 49, and had only $11 dollars in his pocket, and was planning to eat only tangerines for days speaks volumes. Maybe it's time to do a reality check. I feel for the woman that was with this guy. She paid a terrible price for his stupidity. Advice for this moron. Stay in the states, and stay out of the ghetto with your camera. That is if they didn't take it from you.

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  10. As awful as this is, the journalist shares some responsibility because he put himself and his friend in such a dangerous situation. Common sense dictates to stay out of these warzones. What does he do? He brings attention to himself and his friend instead of getting the cartels permission first. He was looking for a big story and because of it, now he is the story.

    Cuidate, our actions affect our friends and family.

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  11. Another western photographer/jurnalist etc. hungry for a story/pic to the point of not caring what dangers his local contacts are put in. Also, parts of this story seem very fishy to ssy the least but now he has his story of a life and if there is destruction and suffering for others...oh well, thats the price they have to pay for a privelleged western “artist” to get his story.

    To the local people...stay clear of jurnalists hunting for stories and who are willing to risk YOUR well being or even life so they can get their sick egos fullfilled.

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  12. BFD Just another day in VeraCruz . Those people he describes are not really people they are spiritual parasites that have claimed human form they get high off of our pain and suffering . They are beyond good and evil religion has no power over them they are leaches like junkies growing fatter off of our fear our hatered off of our greed and corruption and they are real . They are from the other side of the mirror and gravitate towards the lost the unloved the addicted and those that equate sex with violence and the abuse of the young and old .

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  13. No wonder Mexico gets away with murdering innocent people, they thought, if they kill an American, they would feel the heat, therefore they let him live.

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  14. Sorry this happened to you, but that’s what happens when you f@#k around in cartel territory. There is a war going on, what did you expect to happen? Lesson learned gringo.
    Vampiro Fronterizo

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  15. 12:22 Gringos,millions of them go around taking pictures in Mexico all day long.No different than any other foreigner.I'm glad this story made it on mainboard.When I read it on forum,I thought it mainboard worthy.This story deserves to be heard.I think the only reason he wasn't killed was because he was a foreigner and they didn't want Consulates putting pressure on criminals to find the culprits.Of course some criminals wouldn't give a shit and kill him anyway.They would figure they were safe and could do whatever they want because their protection was all up to date and are 'untouchable.'And some couldn't care less either way.I just wonder why they would 'waste' their crystal meth on a victim?Wouldn't that be like feeding him when the idea is to torture him?Why get him high then?What purpose does it serve?

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    1. Tell that to "John Galton" who was shot and killed in front of his rented home in Acapulco a fee weeks ago. It appears Gringos are fair game now.

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    2. Meth is cheap. They give them meth so that they don't pass out and thus they can continue the torture beyond normal limits.

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  16. I think he's a wannabe/gang groupie and got stepped on. He's only 49 years old. Time to get a real job, groupie.

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  17. I highly doubt this story . It is fiction . The guy seems like he has an agenda with his anti-American government comments about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib . I live in Mexico and I doubt any criminals or even corrupt law enforcement officials would allow a gringo "journalist " to live to tell about being kidnapped and tortured . He claims his female friend refuses to talk about her experience , probably because she doesn't want any part of this fake false hoax . Some how this gringo will probably "write " a book about this and cash in on his "fictionalized experience ".

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    1. Mr. Lara

      Mexico inadvertently confined the case and says FBI formally asked them to investigate since the end of January. This was posted yesterday on the A.G of Ver website.

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  18. What has been said is true, US aid is being wasted a lot. USA should make their internal control better than trying to sort out Mexico’s drug cartels, as the saying goes its better to wear shoes than putting a carpet to the floor. Whoever forms government in Mexico is going to be corrupt. Mexicans only can give a tough fight to Islamic terrorists when it comes to barbaric activities. My company asked me if I can to work in Mexico for sometime, being a regular follower of BB, I refused instantly. The irony is he said Mexico is very safe and rapidly growing economy, I was like I will rather go to Saudi

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  19. Pictures of his No teeth face and wounds or it didnt happen

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