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Interview: A drug lord's lawyer

A lawyer who represented a drug lord seeks asylum in the US, after being tortured in Mexico.

Pistols seized from suspected Gulf Cartel hitmen are displayed to the media at a military base on the outskirts of Monterrey, northern Mexico May 8, 2009. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

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.