Alejandro had been in jail for more than a week before he told his mom, Marta, about the torture: the electric shocks, the beatings, the hours being forced to listen to Chávez promising “gas del bueno” on a loop.
For a divorced mother of two, that was hard to hear. But it wasn’t the worst moment of this saga. No. The worst was right at the beginning, when she didn’t know where he was: “that was the worst, it was horrible.”
Marta and Alejandro —not their real names— have been through an awful lot this month. Alejandro was detained in Caracas on April 6th. He’d been at the rally to ask for the dismissal of the seven judges of the Supreme Tribunal’s Constitutional Chamber. He’s now been in detention for 17 days in a cell at the anti-terrorism division in the Cicpc.
The worst was right at the beginning, when she didn’t know where he was: “that was the worst, it was horrible.”
“He told me that he wasn’t going to the rally. At about 8:30 p.m. that day I took a shower and I was pretty calm. I thought he was out with his friends”, she recalled.
But within a few seconds, Marta’s world fell apart. A niece called to ask about Alejandro. Before she could answer, she had to hang up because a neighbor was at her door —also asking about him. Surely a coincidence?
“A friend of my neighbor works with Alejandro and she was worried because he hadn’t been heard from since 3 p.m., during the rally. It was close to 9 p.m. That’s when I started to get worried”, she told me.
Fear seized her body. Her hands trembled; she couldn’t feel her legs and her mind betrayed her. Her mind raced through the worst scenarios, each more horrible than the one before, she even remembered the news of the body of a young man that had been found earlier that day.
“It’s horrible, horrible”, Marta told me with a strong voice that cracked from time to time.
She called his phone and it went straight to voicemail. Marta suddenly remembered that he always leaves his Facebook account open, so she sat down on his computer. As soon as she logged on, she saw a ton of friends had written to him: “I’m so glad you are here, we were worried”, someone wrote on the chat. She opened his profile to explain that it was her, using Alejandro’s account to look for him. Right away, the messages flooded in.
Her mind raced through the worst scenarios, she remembered the news of the body of a young man that had been found earlier that day.
“Fuerza,” they said “we are with you”.
Alone in the middle of the apartment the two of them share, Marta tried to calm herself. “I was still thinking that maybe he was partying with some friends or with his dad”.
Her mind was flooded with questions: What to do? Who to call? How to know who was with him at the rally? “I didn’t know where he was or with whom…I didn’t know anything,” she remembered desperately.
While she was still trying to think what to do next, her phone rang. It was a lawyer for Foro Penal. He said his organization helps guide the families of youth detained in demonstrations.
Marta told him the particulars about Alejandro and waited ten minutes, which felt like a lifetime. A new call.
“Your son is in El Helicoide”, the lawyer said. The secret police headquarters. One of her fears was confirmed. Alejandro was among the many young men who were detained by the National Guard. Her world fell apart. She knew where the Helicoide was, but she had no idea how to get there. And what should she say when she got there? Marta realized she was definitely in no state to drive.
“I was feeling something horrible but, thank God, angels always appear.”
“I went home around midnight, somewhat calmer. At least I knew where he was.”
She remembered vividly when one of her son’s friend called to ask how she was doing and if she was alone. She couldn’t take it anymore, and broke down in tears. He came for her and took her to the Helicoide, in the middle of the night.
There, she met one of Foro Penal’s lawyers. He said her kid was still there. She asked if he had food; she worried he was still running on that morning’s breakfast and maybe some snacks.
“Don’t worry, there’s always someone inside who helps,” the lawyer told her. More angels.
“The lawyer asked me to stay calm, the next day they were going to court,” she said. “I went home around midnight, somewhat calmer. At least I knew where he was.”
“He told me ‘do not cry, mom, I forbid you to cry. We are under dictatorship’.
The following day, as she was setting off to the Helicoide, Alejandro called. He didn’t know how much Marta knew. It was the first time that she heard his voice again. He tried to stay strong and explained that in a few minutes they were going to go before a judge. He asked that she stay calm during the call, and she did.
What followed was confusion: Marta drove to the court, but Alejandro had been transferred to CICPC instead. So she set off to meet him there. By then it was lunchtime, so she bought some food in a nearby place. Finally, she got to see him.
“He was rigid, his arms”, she recalls.
“He told me ‘do not cry, mom, I forbid you to cry. We are under dictatorship’. I imagine it was his way of protecting me and protecting himself”, she said.
Marta’s days soon filled up with paperwork and bureaucracy. A blessing, because freeing her son also kept her mind busy. Before she spent her days doing housework, after being fired from the Ministry of Environment for refusing to attend to a chavista demonstration.
She felt lucky to have found Foro Penal to guide her through the process. She’s confident that her son is being “well defended”.
The logistics of having a son in detention are daunting. For one thing, Marta needs to bring Alejandro food three times a day. Her son’s friends help.
“Seeing your son handcuffed even though he’s no criminal is terrible,” she says.
Alejandro is the strong, silent type. Still, he broke down in court when he found out he had to stay behind bars at the CICPC detention center another week while paperwork was processed.
“In the middle of all this, there is no tragedy,” she said.
The worst is over now. The torture at Sebin, the punches from the National Guard, who also robbed his cash and bank cards and demanded his PIN numbers. That’s all in the past.
Still, she’s shaken. “This changes your life completely”, she said.
She can’t forget the minutes when she didn’t know where her son was. “Being alone in my house, without knowing what to do…”
She knows he can’t go to a demonstration ever again, but that hasn’t stopped her determination to fight for change: “Maybe he can’t go, but I’m going. For my son and for all the young people.”
There is no legal reason to detain anyone just for protesting; and even if they are involved in criminal acts, they have the right to communicate with a relative or a lawyer, and they should know where and why they are being held. And, of course, they’re entitled to be presumed innocent.
She knows he can’t go to a demonstration ever again “Maybe he can’t go, but I’m going. For my son and for all the young people.”
But meanwhile, for this mom and her son, days are getting longer. Now she is home alone and he is detained in a small room. Her family and friends always keeps an eye on her. Her other son lives abroad, now he’s on Whatsapp 24/7, desperate for news about his brother.
Between looking for food, taking their dog out for walks and going to court with the lawyers, Marta dreams of the day Alejandro comes home. She was hopeful that Alejandro would be free by this weekend. The paperwork was ready but the judge in charge suddenly stopped working on the case. She wants to remain positive, but it’s hard. As her other son, now in Mexico, puts it: “it’s hard to trust these malandros.”