The darkness. That’s the thing Pancho Márquez kept going back to as we talked about his time at the 26 de Julio penitentiary in San Juan de los Morros. Sure it was dank and dusty and crawling with cockroaches and mosquitos and it smelled the way you’d imagine a Venezuelan prison would smell like. But the darkness. The thing that really got to him was the darkness.
I’m talking to Pancho on Skype from his new home abroad, fresh off the plane that carried him to exile. The Clinton-Trump debate is on in the background. During our call, he sometimes looks around at his surroundings as if he can’t quite seem to believe where he is. 24 hours earlier, he was still in cell at the Helicoide.
The infamous SEBIN HQ on Roca Tarpeya was the fourth jail he’d spent time in on his four-month tour of what he now calls Venezuela’s Injustice System, a periplo that took him to seven different cells under three separate authorities. 26 de Julio is where he spent the most time. And, he says, it was easily the worst of them.
“There were just a few dim lightbulbs hung far over the top of our cell, and they were pretty dim. They kept them on all day and all night. We didn’t get to see sunlight at all, really.”
He stops and catches himself. It’s not quite true.
“Back in February,” he says, “there had been a riot. A grenade had detonated and it pierced part of the roof. So there was this one tiny beam of sunlight that would come through. That’s how we would tell time, by the way, just by how the light from that hole moved across the cell.”
The first impression you get is ‘it’s a dungeon.’ I really do think this place is what people have in their mind if they close their eyes and think of a dungeon.
At the time of his arrest, Pancho was chief of staff to El Hatillo Mayor David Smolansky and working actively on the recall referendum on behalf of MUD. Pancho also has the distinction of being the first — and, we hope, last — Caracas Chronicles contributor to find himself in prison for his political activism.
Along with Gabriel San Miguel — Gabo — who was jailed together with him, he would reflect on why their case gathered as much attention as it did.
“In part,” he says, “I think it’s because it was linked to the referendum. We were the first presos del revocatorio, you know?”
Pancho shudders a little as he recalls his first impression of the cells at 26 de Julio.
“They were these long, dark corridors with cement bunk beds on either side. Maybe 15 meters long. The first impression you get is ‘it’s a dungeon.’ I really do think this place is what people have in their mind if they close their eyes and think of a dungeon.”
“We wouldn’t get to go out every day. The days we got taken out were the good days. Each time, as we made our way back, it felt like we were going back to a cave. That’s how I would think about it, ‘now we have to go back to the cave.’ After you’d been out in the bright sun it would take your eyes four or five minutes to adjust to the darkness again. It was like living in a cave.”
Guards would wake them every morning at 4:30 a.m. Prisoners would be made to stand to attention, military style, and shout out “Independencia y Patria Socialista!” Loud. That’s how the day started.
“I saw a few of these places from the inside, and 26 de Julio was by far the most oppressive. It is…” he is speaking slowly, deliberately, and knows it “I want to say this carefully. It’s like a concentration camp. It’s the kind of place that makes it very difficult to forget you’re in jail, even for a second.”
At least the cell where he spent most of his time wasn’t overcrowded. Just seven people. Evangelicals from Cumana, all related, who had made powerful enemies within PSUV. If they spoke loud enough, they could talk to people from the neighboring cells on either side: people from Cumaná and Tucupita who had been carted off to jail following looting sprees in those cities. Some of them hadn’t done anything — wrong place, wrong time situation — others, he said, had maybe walked off with a few packs of Harina PAN.
There’s a thing about five orientales hanging around telling jokes, you know?
Pancho says he wasn’t physically tortured, but he witnessed shocking mistreatment of these other inmates.
“They got the ‘common criminal treatment’— and in every single Venezuelan jail that means torture, basically. When they first arrived they were stripped naked, not fed for 48 hours, made to run around in the sun, sometimes in handcuffs, then made to crawl through mud and hose washed like animals. That’s bad enough if you’re a hardened criminal, but they weren’t that. For many of them it was the first time they’d ever been in a jail. They were regular people.”
And yet he says there was a pretty good vibe between the prisoners around him.
“There’s a thing about five orientales hanging around telling jokes, you know?” Cumaneses are famously simpáticos, and even in those extreme conditions with the cockroaches and the mosquitos and the constant smell of feces, “there was a good energy, ¿sabes?”
“We shared our faith,” he says, “and that matters more than you can imagine in a situation like that.” There were a few evangélicos in the group, and Pancho got close to them too. The thing you find out, he says, “is that these are people who really just like to sing.”
“We all had our low points, though,” he says.
Visits from family, he says, were the absolute hardest. Pancho is adamant that the worst part of being a political prisoner wasn’t actually being in prison, it was thinking about what his family was going through on the outside worrying about him.
I want to bear witness.
“You see it again and again, and not just among the political prisoners. You can be facing the toughest, most hardened criminal and that’s the guy who’s going to break down and fall apart when his little kid comes to visit.”
“What I really want to do now,” he tells me, “is bear witness. I want to help people to understand as well as they can what it’s like and how difficult it is to be a political prisoner, both for the prisoner and his family.”
He pauses, to consider.
“I want to bear witness.”