Image: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

When she was 17, Morella wanted to go to college. It was 1988 and she was debating with a friend about which major to choose. Back then, she was an extroverted teenager and a long haired rebel who loved the beach. She lived with her mother and two sisters. One day, after running errands for her college application, a guy offered her a ride home. His name was Mathías Salazar.

Today, we know Mathías Enrique Salazar Moure for the atrocities he’s been accused of: psychological violence, threats, sexual violence and sexual slavery, as stated in the Law for Women’s Rights to a Life Free of Violence; and induction to suicide, as stated in Article 99 of the Criminal Code. Morella was his first known victim and, after her case went public, three other women were rescued: Fanny (23 years as Salazar’s prisoner), her daughter María (born in captivity) and Salazar’s wife, Ana María (who has been isolated 32 to 34 years, and hasn’t accused her husband). All three women were imprisoned, humiliated and sexually assaulted. 

All three women were imprisoned, humiliated and sexually assaulted. 

But, back then, from what the family told Oscar Hernández (Morella’s nephew and their spokesman in this case), Salazar was just another guy flirting with her. However, Morella’s mother started feeling uncomfortable in his presence and with the dynamics of their relationship. 

Salazar was charismatic and clever yet rude, disrespectful towards the family rules and he’d try to engage in conversations that didn’t concern him. One day, Morella’s mother heard them fighting and she saw Salazar cornering her daughter. The girl looked scared, even though there was no yelling or touching. We later learned that, by then, Salazar’s wife Ana María had already been locked up for at least a year in his house in Las Mayas, Aragua state, northern Venezuela. 

When Morella was 18, the first important rift happened: Salazar yelled at her in front of her family and her cousins had to intervene. They consoled Morella while Salazar left and they heard him yell, again and again, “You’ll see how I’m going to take her away.” Morella’s mother begged her to break up with Salazar, forbade her to see him or talk to him, and she was always vigilant in case he called or came by at night. 

But Salazar found a way to talk to Morella and take advantage of her teenage rebelliousness. He called when nobody was home and convinced her of their great love which could overcome all obstacles. “My family describes Mathías as an intelligent, manipulative person. He knew when to make people love him and when to inspire fear,” says Morella’s nephew, who is a law student and has experience in women’s rights. “He probably handled the situation to provoke rejection from the family, which served his goal of having Morella run away with him.” 

This pattern pops up again in Fanny’s story, who was taken by Salazar on September, 23rd, 1997, when Morella had already spent eight years and nine months in isolation.  Fanny’s family also forbade the relationship, that kept going in secret. As soon as Fanny was legal of age, Mathías asked her to flee together and while they were gathering her clothes he threatened the family with a gun. A few days later, Fanny moved in with him and spent 23 years in building D of the same residential complex he kept Morella in. In complete isolation, Fanny gave birth to her daughter and raised her for 20 years. 

On November, 23rd, 1998, Morella told her mother that she was taking out the trash. But she was actually carrying her belongings in two plastic bags. She went to the Valencia bus terminal and took a trip to Maracay, still in Aragua state, to meet Salazar. The next day, she called her mother and told her “don’t try to find me. Everything’s going to be ok.” She never came back. 

I’m Gonna Do Bad Things to You

Morella never had the keys to her new house. Before the apartment she’d escape, in Los Mangos, Aragua, she lived in two hotel rooms, an annex building and an apartment in Los Samanes, also in Maracay. 

The first three years seemed normal despite the isolation, the separation from her family and the explosions of rage and total control that Mathías had over her activities at home. Her mother says that during those first three years, she got calls from a woman doing an impression of her daughter, saying she was ok, that she shouldn’t try to find her and that she was happy. She knew it wasn’t Morella, so she went to the precursor of today’s national detective corps (CICPC), the Policía Técnica Judicial. Then, they found the kidnapper’s address. When Morella’s family came by Salazar’s home, his mother Margarita Moure, lashed out: “Y’all get the hell out of here and leave my son alone! He’s a good boy!” Morella’s family didn’t try confronting them again, but they never forgot. Her mother decided to never change her phone number or address, so Morella could get in touch if she escaped. 

One day, after three years of captivity, Mathías gave Morella an order and she didn’t obey; that was the first time he beat her repeatedly on the chest with his fists. “That was the day Salazar made several points clear: he was the boss and if Morella didn’t follow his rules there would be consequences,” says her nephew with serene indignation.  

The first three years seemed normal despite the isolation, the separation from her family and the explosions of rage and total control that Mathías had over her activities at home.

From then on, Salazar spoke less, only issuing orders and threats: “Remember I’m gonna to do bad things to you,” he’d constantly say, to the point where their life was reduced to that single phrase and action. It was also normal that he’d deprive her of water, light and food. After the first few beatings, violent sexual attacks became common. 

Morella spent the last 18 years in apartment 43C, building C, in Maracay’s Los Mangos Residential Complex. It was forbidden for her to make noise and she had to go unnoticed by the neighbors. She had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom, look out the window, stand up, sit down, eat, drink water, move. She also had to ask for permission to talk, which is why prisoner and jailer barely spoke to each other in the last 18 years. The only thing that brought any relief to Morella was solitude. “When Mathías got what he wanted, he left. During the last two years, sexual violence was particularly cruel and constant. Mathías would come in and Morella had to immediately get out of bed because she didn’t have permission to lay down if he was around, she always had to sit in front of him.  Salazar laid down and in total silence, waiting. Morella knew she had to have intercourse with him to make him leave. She felt relief when she heard him closing the door behind him.” 

When she was alone, she cleaned. That made her feel useful, human. So she developed an obsessive compulsive disorder with cleanliness. She also cared for a plant and listened to the radio in the dark because Salazar removed all the electrical sockets. Morella wrote down everything she found interesting in a notebook that she kept during her last years of captivity. News, recipes, movies she wanted to see and trips she’d make in liberty. There were things she didn’t dare to write down, for fear of Salazar reading them, but what she couldn’t write, she memorized, like the address of Casa de la Mujer, an autonomous institution defending women’s rights in Maracay. 

Some Rumors & Two Cops 

On social media, several neighbors confirmed they heard rumors about a woman locked up for years on the fourth floor. Even though Salazar said the apartment was empty and he only visited from time to time to make sure everything was ok, many were worried, forbade their girls from talking to Salazar and didn’t approach the apartment to ask if anyone needed help. Some people talked about what went down in the building with journalist Yohanna Marra, and even mentioned it could be paranormal activity. One December, for example, a neighbor saw Salazar arriving with the holiday ham bread (pan de jamón), and he thought it was weird that someone would bring Christmas food to an empty apartment. Others said that problems between a couple should be solved in private. Several neighbors confronted Salazar: they talked about the noise they sometimes heard in the apartment, and each time that happened, Salazar viciously hit Morella, making her extremely cautious about not making further noise, listening to the radio as low as possible. 

One day, and Morella can’t tell precisely which day it was, a neighbor dared to call the police and they went by the apartment. When she heard them outside, she kept quiet, but the police wouldn’t go, so it took Morella a while to find a voice she hadn’t used in years: “Please, go. Everything’s ok here, and if he finds out you came he won’t let me go outside.” The police left and never came back. Salazar also hit her that night, for answering. 

There was a time when Salazar stopped sexually abusing Morella. She thought that at least that kind of violence was over and felt a little better. Salazar only visited her to give her food and water. But in the last two years, he went back to raping her so violently that Morella started dreaming with a life outside the apartment again. 

Mathías visited and assaulted Morella for the last time on January 23rd, 2020. 

On the 24th, she escaped. 

Call My Mom

That day, Morella was cleaning and found a set of keys in the kitchen. It didn’t take her a minute to study something she hadn’t held in her hands in three decades: she walked to the door and turned the key. 

The moment she set foot outside the apartment, she remembered the few times she had been able to do so, always with Salazar. In 31 years, Morella only went out four times, to treat urinary tract infections. The first time, she couldn’t process the sounds or the sunlight on her skin. She had to sit down on the asphalt, crying out of fear. “Are you going to cry because of  something so stupid?” Salazar asked. A doctor did a checkup while she kept her eyes wide open, on the verge of tears, under Salazar’s eye. The doctor never called the police. In Fanny’s case, when she gave birth in 2000, Mathías bribed the medical personnel so they wouldn’t let her family in. Fanny’s brother was dragged out of the Red Cross screaming. 

After she opened the door, on the day she escaped, Morella started going downstairs. Two floors down, she looked out the window and felt vertigo and an overwhelming impatience when she realized she was nowhere near the lobby. When she made it to the entrance, the security guard eyed her suspiciously and opened the door. Morella went outside. 

“Call my mother, please,” she told people walking around her. “Where’s the Casa de la Mujer?” she kept asking, again and again, in a city that she didn’t know, while she tried to control the fear of Salazar finding her. She walked for two hours, lost, and had to go all the way back until she found the Casa de la Mujer, which is actually two blocks away from the Los Mangos apartment. She told her story, but nobody believed her, and due to lack of personnel, they referred her to another autonomous institution: the Instituto de la Mujer. 

There, lawyer Ricardo Díaz listened carefully and called the coordinator for Aragua State, Rosa Perdomo and other members of the institution. They consoled her and pressured their superiors so the case would be taken seriously, but the Institute’s president and the sector’s secretary for gender equality approached the case with caution. It was Díaz and Perdomo who contacted the Prosecutor’s Office, which should have been the first step. 

The regional government still hasn’t made a statement about any of the victims or the negligence that allowed Morella to be kidnapped during seven Constitutional presidential periods. 

Morella Is Alive 

On January 26th, CICPC knocked on the door of Morella’s old address. “Morella is alive,” they told Oscar, the guy who was raised hearing about the aunt he didn’t know. 

In 31 years, Morella only went out four times, to treat urinary tract infections.

When she made it to what once was her home, after a few days under strict surveillance under the Prosecutor’s Office, Morella asked to see three Disney movies that she had waited almost two decades to watch: Mulan, Pocahontas and Hercules.  That day, the entire family sat with her. When it was over, Morella said that she liked these stories: strong people who want to fight. 

Sometimes, her nephew is overwhelmed but thankful. “Morella is now readapting and understanding her relationship with the environment and family. She sometimes asks for permission to do certain things. She’s learning a lot, there’s something new every day.” 

Some family friends offered her a baking class when they heard about her recipes in her notebook. She starts this week. “We’re amazed at my aunt finding the strength to escape after so many years of abuse. She got lost but she made it to where she wanted to go. She found us. Now, we’re also amazed by the will she has to enjoy what she achieved, to testify and cooperate in the case. She’s decided.” 

Oscar sighs and adds with hope,: “We feel heard by state institutions, specifically the prosecutor’s office. They’ve been efficient”. He says goodbye, he needs to rest. 

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