SAN ANTONIO — Lawyer Ernesto Gutierrez fled Matamoros, Mexico, to the U.S. last year after the much-feared Los Zetas enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel kidnapped and tortured him in one of their many hidden death houses along the border. He's since applied for political asylum in the U.S., joining a growing number of drug war refugees from Mexico — police officers, journalists and public officials — seeking protection from cartels.
Gutierrez is the only known lawyer to have filed an asylum claim. But he was not just any lawyer. Gutierrez did legal work for the family of feared Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas, who has been extradited to the U.S. and faces a high-profile September trial on organized crime charges in Houston. Gutierrez believes that the Zetas kidnapped him from his law office Aug. 17, 2007 for whatever role he played in losing that extradition battle.
But unlike most victims who end up in Zetas' houses of torture, Gutierrez survived. He was released under orders from those in the cartel's top echelons and told to continue to do legal work for the organization. Instead, he fled. Texas-based journalist Todd Bensman got exclusive access to Gutierrez, who remains in hiding in the U.S. with his wife and children. (Click here for more on Gutierrez, and for related photographs.)
Bensman traveled to Matamoros, Mexico, interviewed witnesses and examined legal documents confirming most of Gutierrez's story. The following is an excerpt from an interview that offers a rare look inside a Zetas death house, this one on the outskirts of Matamoros. Although this account could not be independently verified, Gutierrez bears deep scars around both wrists and one across his neck.
GlobalPost: Tell me about the day you were working on Aug. 17, 2007. What were you doing before they came?
Gutierrez: I was with a client. And, well, I arrived to my office like every other day. It was a Friday. I was about to finish my work hour with my last client. It was then that they arrived. My secretary called my phone, the intercom, and said that there were some people that wanted to talk to me. It was about a new job. Once the client left ... they immediately started to go up the stairs, because my office has two stories, and my office is on the second floor.
And then what happened?
He exits my office, and three minutes later other people go in, around six, seven of them into my office, but they were armed. I see them armed with handguns and machine guns, or large weapons, as they are called over there, and they tell me that their boss wants to talk to me. They came in rushing. And, well, they asked me to leave the office to talk to their boss. I tell them that’s not possible, that I don’t usually do that, that if they want to talk to me to come into my office. And I asked them who is their boss. They then tell me that his name is Jorge Eduardo Costilla. I keep refusing to go down, and they cock some of the machine guns and point them at me. So at that moment I get scared, and say “yes, I will go down.” I leave my desk and I try to put on my suit jacket, the suit jacket I always wear. And when I’m putting it on they begin to hit me. I tried to cover my head because they are hitting my head with the weapons, and they immediately throw me to the floor and put my hands on my back and my legs and they carried me out of my office, practically. All beaten up. They carried me out of my office all bloody, tied up. They put me in a … white Suburban. They laid me on the back of the truck, two people got on top of my legs and my back. One on each, on the legs and the back.
Did everybody see this?
There are cops that stand guard outside of the court, but they didn’t do anything.
At what time of day was this?
So busy day outside, broad daylight, police everywhere, nobody helped you?
Across the street there’s a business. A small business like a 7-Eleven, that type right in front of my office. Obviously, nobody wants to talk.
What were you thinking? What was going on your mind?
That they were going to kill me, right? I didn’t know what was going on. Why were those things happening? But that they were gonna kill me. They had already gone to threaten me two months ago about this person’s extradition, right?
What else went through your mind? A man that’s going to die must think other things too.
My family, my kids, that I wasn’t going to see them again.
What happened next? You’re in the vehicle, you’re bleeding.
They have me in the vehicle; they are driving at a tremendous speed. I feel the speed because you could hear the vehicle’s motor. And, they were talking on the radio. I hear on the radio that they also had my car ... And during this part they began to cover my eyes. And, they take me out of the truck. They put me into, well, I think it’s a house, I don’t know what it is. And they left me in a room. It was like a restroom but there was no toilet. It was just a very little room.
And you were tied with what?
I was handcuffed with my hands behind my back.
So they take you to this room, then what happened?
Later on a person went in; took my handcuffs off. He told me that when he left I could take off the bandages they put on my eyes. I’m guessing I was without the handcuffs and the bandages for about two days, I believe.
So, during those two days you didn’t have contact with anyone?
No; they would give me some pastries at the beginning. And after those two days, I don’t know. I tried to … well, I was very desperate. I tried to get out of there, to get out of that room. The door was only … secured by a piece of furniture, and I pushed it open. I tried to leave. When I opened the door there were about 10 people there, and once again they began to beat me really bad. I lost conciousness and when I regained consciousness I was again handcuffed, my eyes were covered, bandaged …
Did you hear anything, any other people there?
Yes, screams could be heard. You could hear people being beat up.
Describe the beating and screaming.
There were just screams. That’s what you would hear. Some others would say “oh my god” and you could hear a shot being fired and then nothing else.
How often did that happen?
When you heard these things, especially the shots, what was going through your mind?
Well, that they were going to kill me ... They would pass by and knock on my door and they would say “you’re next.”
And what would you feel?
Terrible. I would begin to pray, to remember my family. I would ask, I don’t know, forgiveness from everyone I ever failed, my family, because I thought they were going to execute me any moment. I did cry, and some other times they would take me out to supposedly … I thought they were going to kill me. And, what they did was that they brought out another person they had there, that you could hear they were held there. I think their mouths was covered. You could only hear moans and screams. They would hold my head from my hair and they would take my bandages off (from my eyes) so I could see when they would execute a person.
When did that happen?
They killed several people there. One was shot in the head. When they lifted my head so I could see, the only thing I heard and saw was that a person said “oh my god” and at that moment they shot him.
Did they say anything before they shot him?
They told me, once they shot him, that I was next and that they were going to kill me. They put the bandages back on and took me to the room again.
How many people did you see killed in front of you all together?
Describe the second time. How many days by now had you been held?
... You lose the notion of time, really. You don’t know if it’s day or night. When this happened it was regularly at night. It was dark. I think it was about 24 hours because they were bothering me very often by knocking on the door. And some time would pass, and they would tell me “Don’t fall asleep because you’re next.” And they would terrorize me like that endless times.
Could you describe the second time you saw somebody die?
The second time they also took me out. Again grabbed me by the hair, lifted my head so I could see and with a knife they cut a person’s neck. He was bleeding a lot. I could not scream because my mouth was covered. They put a rag or a sock or something inside my mouth and tape around it. Industrial tape in my mouth. I only saw that they cut his neck. Then they covered my eyes and took me in.
Describe this man.
He was about 35 years old, more or less. It was very quick, very quick. And they did that and took me back in. And they kept terrorizing me, knocking at my door and telling me “You’re the next one, and we already thought about it. It will be that way.” They took me out later, and I thought “this is it.” And it was then that they put the knife (to my throat) and did this (pointing to the scar across his neck), but they stopped. I don’t know what happened. They put the bandages back on my eyes. They were laughing and saying they were going to find another way to do it. To wait a little longer. That they had something better for me.
Now the third time, tell me about that. They burned a man, right?
Just like before they took me out there. I thought they were going to kill me, right? They were laughing. “You’re next.” … they put a person in a barrel that they opened. And the person had his eyes covered … they lit him on fire there. He completely caught fire. They had sprayed him all over and he immediately caught fire. Those people were laughing. I was terrified from what I was seeing. But they told me that’s the way they were going to kill me. That they were going to prepare everything. They said they were going to prepare “a soup,” and that I was next.
When you went in to see that man being burned, did you smell gas in the room? Or what did it smell like?
Terrible. Something, I don’t know, I can’t. I had never smelled what it smelled like at that moment. It wasn’t in a room where they had him. It was like a patio. The back part of the house that was open. I couldn’t obviously turn and look around because they had me by the hair so I could see everything ... I didn’t want to see anything, so they were forcing me. They would lift my head so I could see everything.
Was he screaming words or just screaming?
No, just screaming in pain. Later on they would go by and would open the door and started (makes spraying motion). I couldn’t see what it was. They would lift me up. They were spraying me with something. I think it was gasoline. It was burning me. “We are preparing you,” and they would start spraying me.
Why do you think they were doing this to you?
I don’t know. To this day I do not know why it happened, why they did this to me. In some moments, so many things go through your head. Your family, you won’t see your kids again. My kids are very young, they are very young. My wife ... But it would cross my mind that if at some point I could leave, that I was not going to let these things happen ever again. I was going to find a way for people not to suffer the way people suffer in Mexico. But you can’t because the authorities themselves are involved with them.
During this entire ordeal did you talk to your captors?
Toward the end when they were, according to them, they were preparing me because they were going to let me go. Some of them said that they were not in favor of what had happened. That I had not done anything. That I was not the type of people they normally … I don’t know what type of people they do that to. But only some. Others would beat me up regularly. They would take turns to guard me. Every six or eight hours there would be three or four (new guards). And they obviously would behave differently.
What would you answer when they would ask you about the extradition?
No, they didn’t know anything about that. They didn’t know why. They were asking me why was I there. What had I done. That I must have done something very bad in order to be there.
How would you do it with the bathroom?
In my clothes. They wouldn’t feed me regularly nor did I drink a lot of water, but sometimes I did it on my clothes. They would take my clothes off when I was like that and give me other clothes. That was at the end when they were preparing to release me, but I was very stinky. I smelled very bad.
Were you in a cell that was near another cell or other rooms? Did you talk to other prisoners?
You could hear noises on the wall.
Could you communicate with some of them?
So, three weeks go by and during these three weeks are they on a daily basis doing anything physical to you?
Some would walk by and hit me on the the head, on the nose. I don’t know if they did it on purpose because they knew I had a very big wound there. Some other times they would hit me with a stick, like a bat, on my legs and feet, and all over my body. And I did lose consciousness sometimes due to the beatings. I felt it was an eternity, but there were moments I don’t remember.
During all this time did you feel hatred towards your captors?
I obviously would feel hate, hatred, because I had not done anything, right? And I would imagine my family’s suffering, and that they were helpless ... And I did not see a way, a light for me to escape from these people, to leave this behind. I thought all the time that they were going to kill me. I never thought they were going to let me go.
Did they ever take your handcuffs off?
According to them the doctor they brought to see me cleaned my wounds. They tried to put the handcuffs back on, but they would not go in because my hands were already very swollen ... They had to cut them off. I don’t know what they did. Took them out in pieces. I heard that they were saying my hands were very infected. I could tell they smelled; it stunk like pus. So what they did was, they didn’t put those back, they put the gray tape ... They would tell me to put my hands together and they would put that tape on my hands and feet. On both legs like this. When I had to go to the restroom they would take the whole thing off and they would take me there again. It was then that I thought they were getting me ready to leave. They had taken a doctor there, they injected me, they took those things away and they had me laying down on a sofa. And some would tell me “You’re leaving, lawyer.”
On the last day two people stopped by to tell me I was going home, that the boss had given the order. You could hear a lot of movement. They helped me stand up, they took off the (makes gesture) so I could walk. I obviously still had the tape on my hands so I could not move them. And blindfolded (they) took me to a vehicle. You could hear that the vehicle started, and they were going very fast. You could hear, I started to hear from the Nextel radio that somebody gave an order. To stop, that they want to talk to me. Then they take me down from the truck, an SUV. I think it was an SUV because they could lay me down there in the truck, in the back. And they took me down from the truck and somebody tells me that his boss is going to talk to me by radio or phone, a Nextel. To answer and to answer in a good way because if not, he tells me “You’re not getting out. You better answer in a good way, lawyer.”
Who was this?
Another person holding the radio. They press it and at that moment another person who says (he) is Jorge Eduardo Costilla begins to talk ... So they press on the radio and tell me that I can talk, so I say no, that they only thing I want is to go home to my family. That I don’t want to tell him anything else. And he tells me “You’re leaving lawyer, you’re going home. Look, in a couple of days more we’re going to visit you in your office and we’re going to give you a list of people that are in jail and we want you to defend them.” Well, I obviously didn’t … The only thing I wanted was to go home, if that was the way it was going be, but I said “Yes, yes. Just let me recuperate and I’ll be there at the office. I’ll wait for you there.” And that was it. Oh, he told me “There’s no problem lawyer, you just tell us how much, how much is it, and we’ll pay you.”
“There’s no problem. As soon as I get better we’ll see each other at the office.” That’s what I said. And they cut the radio, back to the truck and they took off very fast. I think it took about 20 minutes to get to Matamoros.
Once we got to Matamoros a person inside the vehicle begins to tell me “You’re leaving, lawyer.” He’s pointing a gun at me. I think it was a machine gun. He’s pointing it at me because I feel something behind my head and he says “Look, we’re going to leave you in your car, lawyer. Inside your vehicle open the glove compartment and there will be your wallet with all your belongings.” They let me off the vehicle. I don’t believe it, I can’t belive they are letting me go, obviously. I hear a car leaving, and I think they are going to shoot at me. I thought that right now they are going to spray my vehicle with bullets, or this thing is going to explode, I don’t know. I start the vehicle. It starts, and I leave.
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