Trapped in a Mexican Jail

When I was a boy in Czechoslovakia, there was a globe in my classroom. One day I spun it, and when it stopped, my finger was pointing to Baja. I knew right then that I would learn English and go to North America and travel to Baja. It became my dream. I didn’t realize Baja was part of Mexico. I thought it was in California.

Years later, in 1988, my wife Jirina and I escaped from Czechoslovakia and settled in Vancouver, as a good friend of ours, Josef, had done. I’m good at making things, and I worked installing cable and then in construction. In 2006 and 2007, as the market was rising, my business partner and I built a luxury home in West Vancouver that we sold for a nice profit. I said to Jirina, “Here’s our chance. We have money in the bank. Let’s take the RV down to Baja and live there for a year before Isabella and Annie start school.” So we packed up the girls’ old toys and outgrown clothes and gave them away to poor families each time we stopped in Mexico.

At first we lived in an RV park. Then we found a house in Los Barriles on the east coast of the Baja peninsula that needed a little TLC. It was listed for $450,000, but the market was soft and we got it for $350,000. I figured I could renovate it and the resale would pay for our trip.

I love dirt biking, and Baja is great for that. One day Ron, who rented quads and dirt bikes, introduced me to a dirt biker named Carlos. In December 2007 there was a race from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas. Carlos said they needed one more rider on their team. I said no thanks, it was only 330 kilometres-I’d do it solo. Jirina and the girls were waiting at the finish line. I came sixth out of a hundred riders. Carlos finished way back, but he saw I was a good rider and said he wanted to learn from me.

Carlos was in his 40s, spoke perfect English, and had four children. He was a good father-he didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, didn’t keep women on the side. He invited us to his place for dinner. I knew he was building a home, and I wanted to see how the trades worked in Mexico, how the tiling and stucco work were done. It would be good to know when I fixed up our house.

It was a palace he was building! A huge place up the coast-12 bedrooms, a swimming pool, even parking for a small airplane. His nephew, Antonio, was one of half a dozen men working on the place. I joked about how rich he must be. Carlos overheard and laughed. It was his wife who had money, he said. Her father had owned a big property, thousands of hectares, and sold it for a fortune.

Jirina and I had brought a trampoline down from Costco. Every morning the girls would go out and play on it. I’d pick oranges for them, make espresso for Jirina, and we’d all have breakfast outside. Sometimes Carlos would bring his kids over and they’d all bounce together. The weather was beautiful. You could see the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez from our deck. It was a great time in our lives. When you have a dream that finally comes true, you’re the happiest guy in the world.

A misunderstanding

One evening in March 2008, I was reading a bedtime story to the girls when the phone rang. It was Carlos. He was with friends at a hotdog stand nearby-“Come and have beer with us.” I owed Eduardo, one of Carlos’s workmen, for some salt he’d got me for my patio. I don’t like owing people money, so I told Jirina I’d be right back and went off to meet them.

I had a Corona with them, paid Eduardo, said goodbye, and was heading to my quad when suddenly there were police everywhere. All the guns and frantic yelling and commotion made me think they were filming a movie.

“Hands up!” someone shouted, and I was slammed face first into the dirt.

“What’s going on? What did I do?”

One cop had a gun to my head, a boot in my back. Another was searching me.

“I’m a tourist!” I said. “Canadian.”

The cop was going through my wallet. He tucked the cash in his pocket. “A Canadian tourist? With a Mexican driver’s licence?”

The cop began spelling my name on his radio. I’d got the licence when Jirina and I bought a used car. I think now that if I hadn’t got that licence, they’d have let me go right there. I was handcuffed and hustled into a car. Carlos’s nephew, who’d been working on the house, was already in the car, also handcuffed.

“Antonio, what are you doing here?”

He just looked away.

“What’s going on?”

A woman in the car said in English, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll shoot you.”

They drove toward Cabo San Lucas. It was stifling in the car, and we bounced around like clothes in the dryer. I was sweating, confused, afraid I was being held for ransom. When we got to the police station, Carlos was there, sitting on a bench, also in handcuffs.

“Carlos,” I said, “what’s happening? What’s going on?”

“Who are these people?” a cop asked him.

“They’re innocent,” said Carlos. “They have nothing to do with me.”

“Why am I here? Can somebody tell me? What have I done?”

Carlos was hustled out by several DEA agents. Around 1 a.m. Eduardo, Antonio, and I were put on a plane with half a dozen cops. At dawn, when the plane landed in Mexico City, there must have been a hundred soldiers waiting, plus reporters and TV cameras. Stepping off the plane I tried to pull my hood over my face, but a cop pulled it back. They lined us up against a wall and shot video while we stated our names and where we were from.

Oddly enough, at the sight of all the media, I started to relax. I hadn’t been kidnapped after all. It was dawning on me: Carlos must be a big catch, and I’d been picked up because I was with him. I took a deep breath and told myself, “You’ve done nothing. It’s a misunderstanding. It will be cleared up in no time.”

For two days I had no sleep, only drug tests and translators and questions, a million questions. Why had I come to Baja, how did I know Carlos, why did I spend time with him? If I was in construction, how could I afford a year’s holiday? How did I pay for our house at Los Barriles? Finally, dead tired, I was locked in a basement with a filthy blanket and no light. The humidity was awful and my clothing reeked. After a few hours, more questions. You don’t know “Carlos” is actually Gustavo Rivera Martinez, a major narco-trafficker on the FBI’s Most Wanted list? You expect us to believe that? Do you know how much trouble you’re in? I kept repeating I was from Canada, I didn’t know anything.

This was SIEDO, I learned, the organized-crime division of Mexico’s attorney-general’s department. And I was supposedly part of organized crime?

“Maybe we could do something with a nice little envelope.”

“No,” I said, “I’m not doing that. I’m not guilty of anything.”

On my second day I finally spoke to Jirina. She had found my quad at the hotdog stand, the key still in the ignition. From there she tracked me down. I told her not to worry, it was just a stupid mistake.

After 72 hours at SIEDO, in a state of exhaustion and disbelief, I was transferred to what looked like an old hotel-turned-detention centre. This was Arraigo, where suspects are held while investigators collect evidence.

In the following days I was returned to SIEDO five times for questioning. Again and again I explained my presence in Baja, my relationship to Carlos. Everything I bought, I said, I put on a debit card. If I were a drug dealer I’d be trying to get rid of cash. Check my bank records-you can trace every dollar I’ve spent. We gave possessions to people in need, raised money to pay for air conditioning at the girls’ school. Jirina helped paint the school.

Jirina returned with our phone and banking records to show we had nothing to hide. And she hired a lawyer, Jesús Ramírez Lorenzana. He said he would get me out soon. For $30,000 up front.

After a few weeks we realized Lorenzana was doing almost nothing, so Jirina fired him and hired a lawyer in Toronto, Guillermo Cruz, who had helped a Canadian woman, Brenda Martin, in legal trouble in Mexico. Meanwhile, I was flown to Puente Grande, a big federal prison near Guadalajara. I had been in custody now, without charges, for 90 days.

Presumed Guilty

Sure enough, as soon as I was processed into maximum security, the guards beat me. They cuff your hands behind your back and bring your arms up high so that you have to bend forward, then they pummel the back of your head. It leaves no bruises. While I was on the floor they brought out a German shepherd. The dog came at me, snarling and straining at the leash. They held him inches from my face while his saliva soaked my clothes. I’d been in the Czech army when I was young and I knew the game: We’re in charge, you’re nothing but a piece of shit, don’t ever forget it. It’s still terrifying.

After the beating I was thrown into a cell. It was tiny, filthy; the toilet was so disgusting I couldn’t use it. In shock, my brain spinning, I took the thin mattress off the floor and curled up on the bench. My head was throbbing. Four tiny windows let in orange light, and I could see birds fly past. I watched the birds and I cried.

After a time I spoke to the prisoner in the cell next to mine, Saul Montes De Oca. He told me he was there on drug charges. I replied that I’d been arrested by mistake, but my Mexican lawyer had assured us I’d be out in seven days, maximum.

“The lawyer’s full of shit,” he said. “Nobody goes home in a week. You’re going to be here minimum a year.”

“But I’m innocent.”

“I’m innocent, too, you idiot.”

Consular officials from the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City visited me. They said there was nothing they could do except bring me what I needed and ensure my health was good. Eduardo-the workman-had signed papers saying I was buying and selling real estate for the drug cartel; that’s what made me part of an organized-criminal enterprise. It was all lies, the whole “case” against me was lies, but I knew why he signed. Already at Puente Grande I’d heard the beatings, the screams when electricity was delivered to testicles, the frantic gurglings men made when they were tied down and doused with water until they choked.

The lawyer from Toronto, Cruz, was supposed to represent me within 72 hours of my admission, but he failed to show for my appearance before the judge. He didn’t come until days later. That’s when he confirmed that I’d been charged with two crimes: drug trafficking; and, along with two others-Antonio and my neighbour Saul, whom I’d never met or heard of before he turned up in the next cell-being part of a criminal organization. Cruz, too, said it might be a year before I was free.

How could this be? I’d done nothing wrong. I told myself surely it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back with Jirina and the girls. In the meantime I read John Grisham novels, I taught myself to paint, I exercised regularly, did yoga, stayed in shape. But the food was bad, I often suffered from diarrhea, and I was losing weight. I felt helpless and frustrated, and guilty for putting Jirina in a difficult position as well.

Weeks went by. In the fall, five months after I was sent to Puente Grande, Miguel Colorado González, the SIEDO sub-director who’d signed the papers charging me, turned up in the cell beside mine. He’d been charged with corruption. Like most others in the prison, he assumed I actually was a narco-trafficker-Carlos’s man in Europe. He liked to talk, and he explained that when you’re brought before SIEDO they get someone to testify against you; if you don’t pay up, you go to prison. He himself was charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Imagine! It’s unbelievable how drugs have infected Mexico, the staggering sums involved. I’ve heard it said that of 110 million people in the country, 30 million benefit from the drug trade. Almost everyone in Puente Grande was there on drug charges. Many inmates were former policemen or soldiers or customs agents. Eventually the director of Puente Grande himself was arrested and imprisoned for corruption. So was the head of Arraigo.

At the end of 2009, I finally had my court date. Cruz was supposed to come from Toronto to represent me. “Okay,” said the judge’s secretary when my case came up, “where’s your lawyer?” The translator told me Cruz had been there earlier, but when he saw he’d have to wait a few minutes, he left. We’d have to schedule another appearance, which would take months! 

I don’t like to remember the horrors and frustrations of that time-it’s too painful. The four-a-day head counts. The guards who treat you like dirt. The cellmates who hate you because you’re a gringo. The rats and cockroaches, and the mosquitoes that eat you alive. The doctors who don’t care if you’re sick-I passed blood, nothing but blood, for four days straight, and when the doctor finally saw me he said not to worry, it was nothing. The ups and downs of lawyers promising things that didn’t happen. The hundreds of letters I wrote by hand and sent to everyone I could think of. The pain of talking to Jirina for only 10 minutes every 10 days, just enough time to hear what the lawyer said, what they planned, how long it might take. My daughters thought I wouldn’t come home because I didn’t love them anymore-Annie wouldn’t even talk to me, she was so hurt.

Jirina was running out of money-she’d sold the house in Los Barriles at a $100,000 loss almost immediately-and had moved with the girls into our old garage in North Vancouver so she could rent out the house. Working two jobs, raising the kids, she spent every extra hour at the Mexican embassy on West Hastings, working on a website to get out my story, organizing demonstrations, trying to interest the media and get action from the government. In Ottawa she got a meeting with Deepak Obhrai, who worked in External Affairs. He told her what all the Canadian officials did: there’s not much we can do.

One day, I told myself, all this will make sense. Meanwhile, keep fit, stay positive, be patient. And mostly, as the seasons went by, I did. But when I learned from the Canadian consulate of yet another legal setback-the prosecutor was once again appealing an aspect of my case, and it would take at least nine months for a decision, and then another year before my response could even be heard-I started to crumble. I was shaky and crying all the time. I had bad stomach pains, and I’d lost at least 35 pounds. I had to do something.

Desperate measures

Late one night, as a test, I tied the leg of some prison pants to the top bar of my cell and put my full weight on the other leg. I counted to 100 before the pants started to tear apart at the seam. If I’d knotted it around my neck, that’s how long I would have choked before the seam ripped and I slumped to the ground: one minute, 40 seconds. It would be a desperate gamble, but I was losing faith. If I screwed up, dying would be no worse than this miserable, unjust life.
I chose March 12, 2011, the third anniversary of my arrest. My latest cellmate, Raul, was a member of a drug cartel and charged with killing 24 members of a rival cartel. I lay awake until 4 a.m. Raul was snoring, as usual. I cut the first few stitches with a razor blade, to make sure the seam came apart. I rubbed the fabric roughly against my neck to create welts, then waited until I heard the guard’s footsteps on the stairs. They checked us every hour and I knew he would soon come by. I took a deep breath and did what I had to do. Suddenly I was suspended, gagging, my feet six inches off the ground.

The ripping sound woke Raul, who grabbed me while he undid the knot around my neck. The guard came, and soon a doctor was there. I wasn’t fully conscious but I remember thinking, Okay, I’m still alive, so whatever happens now will happen. I don’t care anymore.

They gave me an injection. I can’t recall much about the next couple of days. I do remember the prison director saying to me, “Pavel, why?” Someone from the consulate asked me the same thing. Their questions made me furious. “Because nobody’s helping me! This is my life! I’m supposed to smile and be happy?” I was screaming at the top of my lungs: “Go to hell! All of you!”

I was transferred to the federal psychiatric prison in the state of Morelos. It was full of inmates who were really sick-HIV, hepatitis, rheumatism-or had serious mental problems. Little English was spoken. I was on a ward with eight others. Several were close to death from AIDS. One guy told me he’d killed 19 people and cut the bodies into pieces, as if he was talking about the soccer scores. Another guy took a shit in a cup and threw it in a guard’s face. He paid dearly for that. Morelos was even worse than Puente Grande-it felt like a place where anything could happen.

Desperate, I told my story to anyone who’d listen, furiously writing letters to Canadian and Mexican officials. I knew the letters were read before they went out, and one day an inmate warned me, “They’re going to get rid of you. It’s been arranged.” I wrote to my lawyer and the ambassador, Guillermo Rishchynski, saying I feared for my life, I’d had threats, I’d seen knives. A couple of days later the army was brought in. We were all locked out of our cells, naked, while soldiers went through them. They confiscated many knives but never found the ones in laundry bags dropped out the windows.

Finally, it seemed, my situation was being taken seriously. The ambassador told me he’d met with my lawyer and they agreed we should file for ultimate innocence. No more appealing this or challenging that, but rather an application for complete exoneration. I don’t know what pressure was applied or who was responsible for getting my case dealt with or whether all Jirina’s work was finally paying off, but I’m sure the Mexican authorities didn’t like the idea of an innocent Canadian committing suicide or being murdered while caught up in the Mexican version of justice.

One morning, five months after the transfer to Morelos, I had visitors: Ambassador Rishchynski, a secretary, and a bodyguard. Rishchynski, normally serious, was in good spirits. He said, “I have news, Pavel. You’ll be a free man in a few hours.”

I laughed bitterly. “Nothing happens in a few hours.”

Before long they were back with six guards. “It’s over,” Rishchynski said. “You’ve been cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence.” The guards hustled me out because they didn’t want me talking to anybody. I was given black sweatpants, discharged, and driven to the Canadian Embassy. I couldn’t believe it. After 1,254 days, four lawyers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars; after Jirina’s countless hours at the Mexican embassy and rallies and meetings with politicians and trips to Ottawa; after all the legal wrangling and red tape, the motions and appeals and paperwork and delays-I was free.

To return to Vancouver I needed papers, which would take a few days. The ambassador guaranteed my residency and let me stay in the consular apartment. I was loaned some money to buy clothes, and I went shopping in Mexico City with two bodyguards from the embassy. The colours, the sounds, the life on the streets! I was giddy, I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: “Give me that, and that, and I’ll take that, too.”

On August 18, 2011, at long last, I flew home. A small crowd was waiting at YVR, friends and supporters who’d been helping at this end. I felt so much love and gratitude. When I took Jirina and our girls in my arms, it was beautiful.