A Tangled Tale Of Mexican Terror
By Andrew Coe
EVERY AFTERNOON IN THE MAIN READING ROOM of the New York Public Library’s 42nd St. branch you can find El Barba ("The Beard"). All that you can see of his gaunt face are his nose and two black and shining eyes. The rest is hidden underneath his graying hair, grown long and parted in the middle, and a wide beard and mustache that covers his mouth. In a long dark robe, he would be a ringer for Rasputin. During hot weather he wears shorts and sandals; in the winter he encases himself in an army jacket. He is never without a green surplus knapsack, from which he pulls stacks of paper kept in Express Mail envelopes. Sometimes he collates the papers and staples them into a mysterious publication; the noise draws dirty looks from the surrounding seats.
When I first notice El Barba, I pigeon-holed him as as your average reading room eccentric. All I knew about him was that he was Mexican, because he spent his afternoons poring over the Mexican encyclopedias that I used as well. Then a Mexican library acquaintance offered to introduce me to a friend who knew more about Mexico than anybody else: El Barba. El Barba told me that he had a story for me, of human rights violations, crimes and torture involving the highest levels of Mexican society. The story was that of his own life. He said that he had been a successful businessman with 500 employees, that the Mexican affiliate of a major multinational corporation robbed him of his businesses with the collusion of the Mexican criminal justice system, that when he protested he was thrown in prison, tortured and marked for death by the police and that he finally had to escape without a centavo to the United States.
"My life has been unbelievable," he said. I told him that I knew of other cases of Mexican corruption and venality, he replied: "Yes, but the difference with mine is that I have documentary proofs of the crimes committed against me!"
Over the last year, I spent many hours talking to El Barba about his experiences in Mexico and New York and about the political party he and fellow Mexican exiles have formed. The library’s main reading room is his office, and I could tell if he was there by asking the guards, who all know him by name, or by the position of the Biographical Dictionary of Mexico that he uses to signal "in" or "out". He was always began punctual, and we would repair to a marble bench in the corridor for our interview. These meetings always began with El Barba rummaging among the Express Mail envelopes in his knapsack for another record of his fight. Our conversations were in Spanish, because El Barba does not speak English after 12 years in New York (we resorted to translators when the misunderstandings became too great). The more I heard, the more I realized that this story was that of a typically Mexican type, the secular martyr. Despite great dangers, the martyr fights against one of the many injustices in Mexican society until his targets find him alone and manage to have him killed. (The most recent Mexican martyrs are the five AIDS activists who have been murdered in Mexico City.) Somehow El Barba managed to escape the inevitable and was continuing his fight from abroad. What made him unique was that he had adapted himself to a life of poverty and near-starvation on the streets of New York and used his new situation to give his struggle for justice even more moral weight. Ghandi is obviously one of the role models for his fight, but there is also a venerable tradition of hunger-strikers and pacifist registers in Mexico
Twelve years ago, El Barba arrived in New York alone, penniless and unable to speak the lenguage. His first act was to visit the Statue of Liberty.
"It was like a dream," he said. "I just leaned against the pedestal and rested with a big smile on my face."
How does a homeless illegal alien survive? He had friends in the city but was determinated to be self-supporting, no matter the cost. This was not just out of personal pride; he wanted to avoid any possible conflict of interest and the merest hint of corruption. El Barba’s answer was to scavenge empty cans and bottles and return them for the nickel refund. On this unlikely income source, he not only survived but waged an international campaign for justice. "This city is a marvel," he said. "Where else can you find money on the streets?"
El Barba’s collecting territory was centered around Rockefeller Center, where tourists, workers and even the police would give him their cans. When not scavenging, he passed the time watching the passersby and thinking. His clothes were only a pair of shorts, a short-sleeve shirt and sandals, and he slept on subways or in the parks. During cold or rain weather, he would go to the Met, the Natural History Museum or the libraries. There he read or looked at the exhibits and became a well-known figure to the guards. He says that nobody ever harassed or sneered at him; the streets restored his appreciation for the basics in life.
"Once I saw a poor woman with eight children go to the store to refund a huge bag of cans," he said. "Then they bought a big pizza, sat down on the sidewalk and ate it without a murmur of discontent. They looked like the happiest family in the world." a while, he realized that he did not miss his old lifestyle -the fancy apartment, fine suits or Rolex watch. He could be just as happy living on the bare minimum to survive. Today El Barba still sticks to this penurious lifestyle, although he does not collect cans anymore. When he needs money or office supplies, he does consulting work for a friend who owns a factory that does business in Latin America. He lives in a rented room in one of boroughs- he will not say which. He rises every morning and prepares his only meal of the day, a vegetarian shake that will be his lunch. He does not eat meat, sugar salt, oil or anything that is cooked; he says his food budget is 50 cents a day and his total living cost are $ 100 per month. He writes until noon, drinks his lunch and takes the subway to his library "office." First, he makes the rounds of the consulates, dropping off copies of the party newspaper. In the library, he does research and meets with friends and fellow party members. Then he returns home and is in bed at 10.
"I sleep eight hours a night without getting up." he said. "How many people do you know who have this tranquillity?"
You can not describe El Barba today without telling of why he came to the United States. He is the personification of that story: he walks with a stoop due to two hernias resulting from torture sessions at the hands of Mexican police. Unfortunately, it is difficult to verify many parts of his Byzantine tale, because the main events took place 12 or more years ago in Mexico. He possesses many, but not all, documents relating to the case, but they are in Spanish and refer to a legal system completely different from our own. Some important parts of the case are based only on El Barba’s own testimony. At one point I was about to give up, so I called a number of academic experts on Mexican politics to get their gut reaction to El Barba’s tale. They said that it was all -too- possible.
"Nothing he has told you is unlikely." said Roderic Camp, a Tulane professor who specializes in Mexico’s political elite. "All of these things have happened to people in similar circumstances. In the Mexican judicial system, officials can be paid to favor one side over another. If you are on the wrong side, there are no protections even if you are rich."
What made him their target? "I was an enemy of the government," he said. El Barba’s real name is Felipe Gutierrez de la Torre. All my information about his early life comes solely from his testimony. Based in the city of Torreon, El Barba built up a string of four companies with 500 employees that distributed auto parts and machinery across northern Mexico. By 1970, he had moved his office to Mexico City, where he lived in the exclusive Zona Rosa neighborhood. Despite his success, he was a bit of an iconoclast and a loner, with long hair and a beard even then. He avoided the rounds of drinking and parties that amused Mexico’s incestuous business elite. Worse, he did not play the game of backroom deals and favors; he wanted what he earned and nothing more. Like many northern Mexicans, he was (and is) a devoted capitalist who abhorred the political system based in Mexico City -what he calls the "tyranny."
El Barba was always politically active, although never as part of a party -he denounces all of Mexico’s political parties as corrupt, with some justification. In the 70s, he tried to reorganize a large ejido (government-run communal farm) near Torreon as a private enterprise but was quickly stopped by local bosses backed by bodyguards and guns. He and a friend eventually decided that the only way to help Mexico was to topple the government, which has been run by the same party since 1928. One of the first steps toward this goal was to be a book which would collect official documents and other evidence exposing the monstrously corrupt administration of Presidents Echeverria (1970-1976) and Lopez Portillo (1976-1982). By this time, El Barba was moving in high circles in Mexico City, and he developed a network of functionaries’ secretaries who would pass him evidence of official venality. El Barba stored these documents in the safe of his office, which was immediately across the street from the Secretaria de Gobernacion, Mexico’s ministry of the interior, which is responsible for monitoring political dissidents among other tasks. Perhaps naively, El Barba thought they would be safe there.
Whether or not these documents actually existed is impossible to ascertain. However, what this story does show is how far out on a limb El Barba was willing to go to fight the government. It is hard for most Americans to believe that corruption, human rights violations and political repression are endemic to that happy, slightly messy vacation paradise south of the border. For numerous economic, strategic and geographical reasons, the U.S. State Department chooses to downplay any report of such incidents. Mexico is also generally ignored by the U.S. media, except in their travel sections. Nevertheless, Americas Watch and Amnesty International have investigated and corroborated a wide variety of crimes by Mexican local, state and federal authorities, including torture, jailing political opponents on false charges, disappearances, intimidating opposition parties through violence, beating and murdering dissident peasants and unionists and using a variety of methods, from money to assassination, to silence the press. Technically, Mexico has a full complement of strict laws against torture and human rights crimes. Notwithstanding, the government is slow to investigate allegations of this sort, and very, very few of the guilty, usually state or federal police officers, have ever been convicted. The only time that these crimes seem to be punished is in those rare cases that they provoke an international outcry. Then the president himself will step in and order an investigation. However, the system that allows these crimes to happen never changes.
The current Mexican way of government sprang from debris of the 1910-1920 revolution, which was fought over the ideals of land reform, free education and a strong labor movement. Since 1928 the real principle of the Mexican system has been the consolidation and prolongation of power in the hands of the political elite. In that year President Plutarco Elias Calles founded the PNR, the precursor to today’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Ever since, Mexico has been ruled by a vast machine that resembles Tammany Hall on a national scale and puts the Mafia to shame. The method of this polity, which Mario Vargas Llosa called: "the perfect dictatorship," is to have all the most powerful sectors of Mexican society -labor, the military, the bureaucracy, the media, the private sector, the church and intellectuals- share in an elaborate spoils system in return for their loyalty. Near absolute power rests with the presidency; the legislatures and courts are more or less rubber stamps. Mexico’s system is essentially non-ideological; there is room in it for both radical Marxists and arch-conservatives as long as they play the game. However, if they refuse to be bought out and keep attacking the government, the system can be ruthless. The greatest fear of Mexico’s rulers is of drastic change. They see their system as a great pyramid of cards: one alternation and the whole would come crashing down, as in Eastern Europe. There is no room for people like El Barba.
At this point in his story, the document trail begins. When El Barba escaped across the border, his only luggage was a briefcase containing copies of all the essential legal documents pertaining to his case. In 1988, he had them published, with annotations, in four fat booklets totaling 450 pages. The largest of these, titled "Yo Acuso" ("I Accuse"), contains the core of the legal actions against him and of his defense. The other three focus on three pieces of evidence that El Barba claims show how his companies were stolen from him. I have no absolute proof that they are legitimate documents. They look real: most bear the letterheads of the organizations involved, like the General Prosecutor for Mexico City, and they are covered with the official stamps that are favored by Mexican bureaucracies. I accept them, because if El Barba was a brilliant forger, he surely could find more profitable outlets for his work.
El Barba’s odyssey into the depths of Mexican corruption and violence began in July of 1978. That month he signed contracts to be the exclusive distributor in northern Mexico for the products of Siemens S.A., the Mexican affiliate of the German electronics giant. Siemens S.A. is one of the largest foreign affiliates operating in Mexico; it has the exclusive contract for the country’s Telex services, and it is a major supplier to Pemex, the government oil monopoly. From these links, it is easy to infer that it has a close relationship with the highest levels of the Mexican Government. El Barba believes that the reason they wanted to go into business with him was that his political activity had made him an easy mark and his companies were ripe for the plucking.
El Barba’s trouble began with a simple error. Siemens S.A. sent him machinery that used the wrong current for Mexico’s electrical system -on purpose, he now says. He sent the products back with their bills of sale and received machinery with the correct specifications. Unbeknownst to him. Siemens S.A. went to a judge and claimed El Barba had never paid them for this new machinery, worth over a half million dollars, not mentioning the fact that he had already paid them the first time around. When El Barba arrived at his Mexico City office on February 8, 1979, he discovered a padlock on the door and an armed guard hired by Siemens S.A. blocking his way. All of his property throughout Mexico had been seized. He could not prove that he had paid them or even that he had ever owned a business, because all of his records were locked in his office safe. The case snowballed from here. For the first few months El Barba only thought that some terrible mistake had been made. After repeatedly being rebuffed, he finally was allowed to meet with Siemens S.A. management. Klaus Dieter Draga, their managing director, stated that the whole affair was a misunderstanding and told El Barba to put himself in the hands of their lawyer -the same one who had prepared the case against him. El Barba trusted them to such an extent that on May 4 he signed a contract to sell Siemens products on consignment. These contracts, which came back to haunt him, are the first documents in "Yo Acuso" (all earlier records were seized along with his safe). Despite Draga’s promises, five days later a judge ordered that El Barba’s assets be sold to pay the outstanding debts. El Barba realized that Siemens had never made an inventory of what they had seized -and now was quickly disappearing- so there was no way to reckon what was stolen from him. On August 1, he fired the Siemens lawyer and hired his own attorney.
When Siemens saw that El Barba was not going to disappear, they raised the stakes. In October, Siemens filed criminal charges against him for abuse of confidence. Their papers stated that between May and July of 1979 El Barba had received Siemens’ merchandise on consignment, sold it and refused to remit the approximately $ 7,400 owed them. "Yo Acuso" devotes 110 pages to this charge, including copies of the depositions given by Siemens’ employees and El Barba and of 19 shipping bills for the merchandise. To contest this, El Barba and his lawyer filed counter-charges against Siemens management. Mexico operates on the Napoleonic code of justice (guilty until proven innocent); district attorneys hold the combined powers of prosecutor and defense lawyer, and judges make the ultimate decision; there are no juries. Both the defendant and the accusers present evidence and testimony, which the prosecutor must investigate equally, until the judge decides that there is enough proof to either drop the charges or punish the defendant. In addition to stating the obvious -how could he commit the crimes when his businesses had been seized?- El Barba pointed out numerous inconsistencies in Siemens’ case, including obviously held for most of the day in another building and did not arrive at Reclusorio Norte until evening. El Barba believes that they postponed his arrival so he would get to the prison too late to have a hearing before one of the judges who reviews the cases of arriving prisoners. Later that night there would be a prison "riot" and El Barba would be killed. The first person El Barba saw in the prison was the provocateur of the night before, who said: "Last night you saved yourself, hijo de la chingada (the worst Mexican epithet), but tonight you won’t get away."·
El Barba thought that this luck had run out. Another prisoner, a teenager, began to tell El Barba his story. His only crime was speaking out against the government, he said; he had been arrested and tortured to force him to sign blank papers; when he refused he was raped numerous times. The youth looked at El Barba and said, "I have the feeling that you are going to go free. When you do, don’t forget those of us who remain here."
The youth was right: one judge was still sitting. The judge asked him about his crime, and El Barba told her about the phony abuse of confidence charge. Halfway through the questioning, the lights in the entire prison went out. El Barba is convinced that they were shut off specifically to end his hearing. Nevertheless, the judge held that he was free due to the charges’ lack of merits. However, when he went to the exit, he discovered that someone had written "Foreigner" on the form (reproduced in "Yo Acuso") that said he was free to go -he had to wait until the administrators arrived the next morning. Frightened once again that they would try to kill him, he protested that he was a citizen. His jailers responded: "You won’t leave here alive, hijo de la chingada."
By chance, he found a friend’s husband falsified shipping bill numbers and conflicting statements by witnesses. Unfortunately, not one of these charges was investigated by the district attorney; they were put in the bottom of the pile and ignored. El Barba was later told by a well-placed official that the entire office had been paid off. Meanwhile, the DA assiduously plowed ahead on Siemens’ side of the case and a judge issued an arrest order. El Barba went into hiding. When his lawyer asked the judge why he had rejected all of their arguments, the judge respondent: "I just don’t like Mr. Gutierrez de la Torre."
What followed was the modern Mexican version of the descent into hell. This account is based only on El Barba’s own testimony; the only documentary evidence he possesses is the slip of paper that allowed him to escape what he believes was certain death. On April 8, 1980, El Barba emerged from hiding to swear to another deposition at the offices of Mexico City’s General Prosecutor. As he exited, he was arrested by plainclothes policemen who took him to a cell in the basement of the same building. Another prisoner entered his cell and began to swear at him, trying to provoke a fight. El Barba thought that this man had been sent to kill him and refused to respond. He managed to call a friend, who sent a lawyer, and for the first time his jailers entered in a log book that he was in their custody. The police tried to make him sign blank pieces of paper. When he refused, they tortured him, an everyday practice of police throughout Mexico. He was beaten in the stomach, causing two hernias that continue to pain him 12 years later, and his head was dunked in a bucket of faces until he almost drowned. When he asked for a doctor they swore at him and continued the torture. In 1985, a devastating earthquake destroyed the General Prosecutor’s building where El Barba had been held; rescuers found bodies bearing the marks of beatings and electric shocks in the ruins of that same basement. The public outcry that followed led to the passage of strict laws against torture that have yet to be adequately enforced.
The next morning El Barba was thrown in a van with other prisoners to be taken to the notorious Reclusorio Norte, the country’s maximum security prison. At one point they stopped and a woman prisoner was ordered to climb out. She refused and was beaten and violated with a billy club in punishment. The prisoners were working in the prison who managed to slip him out the prison gates. El Barba is eternally grateful for the judge’s honesty and kindness; he calls her the "flower on the manure pile" and in her honor has not cut his hair or beard since that day. He was luckier than a youth in a 1990 case documented by Amnesty International. Arrested for kidnapping, he was tortured for three months in Reclusorio Norte until he died in custody, whereupon his jailers attempted to make his death look like a suicide.
The following morning, April 10, El Barba was shocked to discover that three of Mexico’s largest newspapers, Excelsior, Novedades and La Prensa, had printed stories about his arrest. However, none of them correctly stated the charges against him or how he was taken into custody; the only fact they got right was the spelling of his name. They said that he had been arrested in the airport on April 9 "at the moment he was about to escape the country."
According to La Prensa, Mexico’s largest tabloid, the immediate charge against him was stealing $ 7,400 from a safe in the office of Siemens S.A. The two others said that he was charged with simply defrauding Siemens of that amount. An officer of the Judicial Police stated that he had also cheated 50 companies in the north of Mexico out of over $ 600,000. I am familiar with the three newspapers, and the reproductions in "Yo Acuso" duplicate their type style and format. It is no surprise that a Mexican newspapers would print a false report; journalists are paid starvation wages, and publishers can make more money printing what people in power do or do not want to see than by reporting the honest facts. To El Barba the message of these stories was clear: when people read on April 11 that this repugnant criminal had been killed in a prison riot, they would say good riddance.
After his release from prison, El Barba returned to his quest for justice. He continued to file criminal charges against Siemens S.A. management, not one of which was investigated by the authorities. At the same time he received an amparo, a Mexican legal instrument meant to bar governmental abuse of the justice system. An amparo prohibits a law from being applied against an individual due to violations of his constitutional rights. In other words, El Barba could not be arrested or imprisoned while he tried to clear his name. It did not stop his enemies from continuing their campaign against him. Siemens S.A. managed to get a reversal of the judge’s decision to free him and a sentence of eight years if the amparo ever were lifted. On June 7, his taxi was surrounded by three cars and armed men ordered him to come with them. Once again he was tortured to force him to sign blank sheets of paper. When he still refused, they identified themselves as state police from Naucalpan, a suburb of Mexico City. They had totally ignored his amparo. He was finally released, but minus jewelry and documents. El Barba was kidnapped and tortured again by Naucalpan police on August 25. By this time he realized that if he remained in Mexico he would certainly be killed. On August 28 he arrived at the United States border possessing only the clothes on his back and a briefcase full of documents. He crossed into Texas and headed north to New York City. El Barba possesses no evidence of these kidnappings, but on arriving here he swore to a statement in the Mexican Consulate that Naucalpan police "pistoleros" paid by Siemens S.A. had forced to him to flee Mexico. Why would El Barba’s enemies go so far to have him killed and publicly defamed -an extreme reaction to a business dispute?
"It sounds political," said Stephen D. Morris, a professor at the University of South Alabama and author of Corruption and Politics in Contemporary Mexico.
"If he was collecting documents incriminating the government, then he was a threat, and a "Lone Ranger" crusade puts you in a very weak position. In purely business disputes, there is usually some way out for the victimized party. It is unlikely that Siemens acting alone could have masterminded this scheme so well that he would have no escape hatches."
Since his exile, El Barba has never stopped his struggle to clear his name and get reparations for his losses. When he first arrived, a friend who is a super in Queens lent the use of his telephone to call Mexican authorities. El Barba reached the office of President Lopez Protillo and spoke to the president’s sister Alicia, who was his secretary. After hearing his story, she appointed two of her assistants, both lawyers and military officers, to take on the case. El Barba and his friend recorded all his conversations with the president’s office and played them back for me. The lawyers tell him to rest assured, they will take care of the matter; they also call the prosecutors and judges who handled his case "corruptos" who were all bribed. They warn him not to return to Mexico, because he will be killed if he does. The tapes sound convincing -the receptionist answers "President’s Office"- but I can not prove their authenticity. At the lawyer’s request, El Barba gave them power of attorney, sworn to in the Mexican consulate, in early 1981, a few months before the presidential elections. As the months passed, they stopped answering his calls, and in October of that year he learned that they had been transferred to new posts under the new administration. Today one of them is a general and the head prosecutor for all of Mexico’s armed forces; he still refuses El Barba’s calls. El Barba also wrote to Siemens headquarters in Germany; the reply stated that all complaints regarding Siemens S.A. should be sent to Klaus Dieter Draga in Mexico.
In 1988, El Barba saw that the private route was not working and decided to bring public pressure on Siemens and the Mexican Government. Using money he saved up from collecting cans, he bought an inexpensive word processor and self-published the four booklets containing the main documents of his case. That same year he helped found a political party, Mexicans for Democracy (not to be confused with the right-wing Catholic Mexican Democratic Party) with some other Mexican exiles in New York. The party’s goal is to destroy the PRI system and rebuild Mexico on democratic principles and on the ideals of the Mexican revolution. Their main campaign today is against the North American Free Trade Agreement, not in principle but because they do not recognize "Mister" Salinas de Gortari’s right to sign it. El Barba began an intensive mailing campaign that continues to this day. He has sent literally thousands of letters and copies of his booklets and El Amanecer de Mexico (The Dawn), the party newspaper, to politicians, newspapers and human rights organizations in Mexico and the United States. The response has been a resounding silence. I can only speculate why. His story is complex and enters areas many would rather not explore. Also, he has not been anointed by the attention of the major media or a human rights organization; until that happens, he is just another library nut.
The passage of 12 years and two presidential administrations in Mexico have not reduced El Barba’s legal problems. In 1989, the Mexican consul wrote him a letter stating that the penal action against him had expired on February 12, 1988. However, five days later a prosecutor had filed five new, unspecified charges against him. El Barba still may be arrested and imprisoned if he returns today. According to Professor Morris, it will be difficult for El Barba to get justice on his own terms: "If he got some institutional backing, like from Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, and the government decided that it would be better for him to cause trouble in Mexico than in the United States, then it might be possible. But if the upper echelons of the government still want to screw him, there is very little likelihood of justice."
Twelve long years have passed since El Barba fled into the United Sates. Many figures in his case may believe that he has disappeared into obscurity. Unfortunately for his targets, El Barba’s intensity and passion for the fight seem undimmed. If anybody can beat these odds, it will be him. However, if he is not ever able to return to Mexico, his spirit will not collapse.
"I have been at the point of death many times," he said. "To somehow survive these moments is like being born again. A person who has not gone through this experience can not really understand it. I want to learn more and comprehend more, because life is marvelous."